This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2016

It’s time for people of privilege to give up their space

Representation matters—and it's time to make room for diverse voices

Stacey May Fowles

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!

Last fall, I decided not to participate in panels, judging, and other events that failed to feature people of colour. When a conference or event organizer or radio producer got in touch, I would ask about inclusion and decline if the request couldn’t be fulfilled. I readily admit that the choice to decline all-white panels was an overdue recognition of my own hypocrisy. As a female sportswriter, I spend a lot of my energy lamenting the lack of women represented in sports conversations, and often discuss how that exclusion contributes to the mainstream’s toxic, sexist tone. Representation matters greatly to the public perception of who belongs and who doesn’t, and yet so often I see media line-ups, reporting desks, public events, and mastheads packed with mostly—if not entirely—white men.

I’ve never felt reluctance in publicly sharing the ongoing need for institutional change. Yet I realized that whenever I did get an invite, I never asked if people of colour also had a seat at the table. Quite simply, as a white woman, I wasn’t doing the work. And so, when I was asked to judge an annual literary award in late 2015, I said I wouldn’t be able to participate if there weren’t any non-white jurors. I was optimistic, and likely naïve, thinking I would be met with a positive response.

After a brief email exchange, I was promptly cut, losing not only the “honour,” but the paycheque that came with it.

Despite that discouraging start, I kept asking. And here’s the thing: every subsequent event either already had it covered, or gladly obliged. I certainly don’t think I have high power sway when it comes to threatening to pull out of public appearances, nor do I even remotely deserve any special recognition for doing something so small. The fascinating part of my new policy was how easily the request opened up a productive dialogue about diversity and why it matters.

Organizers I interacted with wanted more robust conversations, and were very happy to work to achieve that. No one was offended, uncomfortable, or put out. Events and radio appearances were also a great deal more interesting and relevant, with more perspectives spotlighted, more topics covered, and a mix of voices contributing. In short, things got better—not only for the individuals involved, but for the audiences.

I raise this personal anecdote not because I think I deserve credit. There shouldn’t be a reward for doing the bare minimum. But I want to highlight how easy it can be for people with privilege to confront an exclusionary industry. Often when sports media is critiqued for how white and male it is, excuses come out in droves. Yet, breaking down the status quo benefits the entirety of sports culture in a vital way—widening its audience, broadening the conversation, and making it more accessible to those who have long felt it doesn’t represent them. Deliberately opting out certainly hasn’t hurt my connections, my visibility, my career or my bank account. Imagine the change possible if every high-profile, well-paid, established white male sports personality did the same.

But so much more than benefiting institutions and individuals in tangible ways, diversity is something to strive for because, quite simply, it’s the right thing to do. We shouldn’t do it because it’s easy, or profitable, or capable of bringing us better audience numbers. We should do it because everyone’s experience of sports deserves to be valued and heard. We should do it because inclusion directly contributes to everyone’s safety, comfort, and enjoyment. Because as it stands now, many people love sports with the understanding they are not welcome in a “white man’s domain.”

I regularly correspond with a group of fantastic sportswriters who share how they often feel shut out, beat down, abused, and hopeless. They lean on each other hard when they feel the pull of “why bother,” and offer support to pursue it another day. When you’re a person who discusses the game and doesn’t fit the status quo, you operate with the understanding that a lot of sports culture would rather not have you around. Yet still you work away—banging on doors, swatting at trolls, dodging vile hatred and consistent sexism and racism, all because you love it so damn much.

Institutional support helps make those rampant feelings of exclusion easier to bear, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to work towards the goal of diversity. My humble proposal to those who make up the status quo is this: Consider risking the loss of the space you firmly occupy, because, as my tiny experiment revealed, it can take so little for an enormous potential gain. Despite the oft-discussed anxieties inherent to creating space for others, the ultimate long game reward is a better community for everyone. It is amazing what is possible when we step aside and make some room.

Stacey May Fowles is an award-winning novelist and journalist. She is co-editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing, and author of the forthcoming essay collection Perfect Game.

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