Dear Roller Derby: We Can Do Better

Originally published Dec 2018

It’s time we take a good look at ourselves. We need to stop talking about how we are revolutionary and actually BE revolutionary. Stop talking about how inclusive roller derby is and actually make it inclusive. Because guess what? It’s not revolutionary and it’s not inclusive. It’s extremely oppressive and elitist like the rest of our society.

We exist in a society that upholds white supremacy while claiming to value diversity. We exist in a society that enforces and polices a gender binary while claiming to accept a gender spectrum. We exist in a society that encourages and perpetuates sexual violence while claiming to prioritize the protection of women and children. We exist in a society that criminalizes poverty while claiming to care about those who are “less fortunate.”

THIS ENRAGES ME EVERY SINGLE DAY. Training and playing roller derby helps me deal, but it’s also enraging to see all these same issues exist within our sport. And hearing people claim to care about these things, but follow with no action is both heartbreaking and infuriating. Saying that your league cares about diversity doesn’t make it diverse. If your league’s bylaws and policies do not address sexual violence, racism, transphobia, gender bias, and other biases that impact marginalized folks then your league is part of the problem. If the demographics of your league’s leadership do not match up with the demographics of your city, there is a problem (ie. your city is 10% African-American and your leadership is 100% white = problem). If you never considered the whiteness of your leadership, there is a problem. If you never thought about how to handle sexual violence, there is a problem. But it’s not too late, and you can make it better. We CAN do better.

Typically, when you bring up issues like racism or sexual violence, many white people get defensive. Before you get in your feelings, I AM NOT BLAMING YOU PERSONALLY. Please consider your white fragility and make a serious effort to deal with that on your own time. Bringing white fragility to the conversation distracts from the issue and makes it about you. It’s not about you. This conversation is about making roller derby a safe space for everyone (not just white, cis, hetero, wealthy folks).   

That’s so much to deal with. Why can’t I just have fun and skate?

Well, that is a privilege you have - to show up and skate - but not everyone has that privilege. If you truly care about making roller derby an inclusive space for everyone, then you won’t ignore our long history of problematic behavior. You will prioritize this work, so that all of your current and future league members and volunteers have a safe, inclusive home. If you just care about yourself and people like you, just be who you are: stop claiming to care about inclusivity and you can call yourselves the wealthy white girls derby club.

It’s important to recognize that being a member of one marginalized/oppressed population does not mean you are incapable of dehumanizing or doing harm to another group of people. For example, white feminists are and have been incredibly harmful in seeking justice for themselves. They have a long history of denying basic human rights for women of color, trans folks, sex workers, women with disabilities, and pretty much anyone who is not cis, white, and privileged. It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own experiences, especially when they are traumatic and consuming, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to dehumanize others while you seek justice for yourself and those who look like you.

What are the issues I should care about?

Care about the issues that impact those who are members of marginalized populations, because they deal with the most challenges, emotional trauma, and violence. Be committed to listening and learning about how marginalized people are impacted by issues when and if they are willing to share. Don’t ask them to take on the emotional labor of educating you. Do your best to educate yourself by locating resources on your own. Learn about the groups of people in your local community. For example, if there are Muslim people in your local community, learn about their religion, so that you are not offensive and you don’t impose an unnecessary rule about uniforms that would exclude a Muslim skater from your team.

In regard to issues specific to skaters from marginalized populations, below are some resources to get you started. If you want more information, I am happy to share that with you. Also, if you know of more articles, please share them in the comments, and I’ll add them.

Overall Inclusivity
  • Update your bylaws and policies to directly address the issues.
  • Update your Code of Conduct so that you do not tolerate racism, transphobia, sexual violence, or discrimination.
  • Create a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee with diverse members (not all cis, white, people of privilege) and give them ability to hold the league, board, and committees accountable.
  • Continually look at the demographics of those who hold positions of power. Is everyone on your board and/or all-star team white? What about your reffing crew? Do you have any trans folks in positions of leadership or on the reffing crew? Any low-income folks in positions of leadership? What about nonbinary folks? If the answer is no, no, and no - why is that? Compare the demographics of your city with your league - how do they match up?
  • Listen and amplify the voices of those who are members of marginalized populations. Be committed to learning how people feel and have felt dehumanized in your community and throughout society in general.
  • Use your voice within your local community to draw attention to issues. Let your local community know your league is a safe space (once your league is a safe space).
  • Seek out Black and brown people and businesses to hire.
  • Do research on the businesses you work with. Boycott businesses and potential sponsors who are not committed to anti-racism.
  • Before inviting teams, coaches, and volunteers - do your research. Make sure you aren’t inviting someone who has a history of sexual violence, transphobia, or racism. If your team is traveling, talk to the host and make sure that the venue and afterparty are places that are safe for all of your skaters and volunteers.
  • Develop a thorough welcome packet for new and transfer skaters that includes information about the issues your league is working to change and why. Create an informational video (or document) that is easy to access.
  • Create clear procedures for how cases of discrimination, bigotry, hate crimes, and/or sexual violence will be handled. Make these procedures transparent and easily accessible.
  • Provide easily accessible information about who to contact if you feel you have been discriminated against or are a victim of sexual violence. Make sure that trained individuals are available to provide trauma-informed care and to follow league procedures.
  • Educate your league about racial bias and develop an environment that prioritizes racial equity and anti-racism.
  • Update all bylaws and policies so that they specifically address racial bias and discrimination.
  • Update all written training materials so that they do not include any language that uses words associated with ethnic groups as names (e.g., mohawks, tomahawks). Make sure coaches do not use that language.
  • Provide information about BIPOC derby support groups in your new skater packets and on your website.
  • Do not tolerate the use of racially-charged or racially-coded language as normative or pejorative language (e.g., using ghetto/thug/ratchet as a negative adjective or referring to someone as ethnic or exotic)
  • Understand that colorblind attitudes devalue a person of color’s experiences with race/racism and refuses to acknowledge the historic and present discrimination and oppression that Black and brown people face. Colorblind comments include “I do not see color/race” or “there is only one race: the human race.” 
  • Do not refer to a skater of color by the color of their skin rather than the color of their jersey. Be aware that this commonly happens with Black skaters who aren’t wearing black jerseys, but are referred to as “Black 7” instead of “White 7” or “Blue 7.” Correct an official if you hear them doing this and ask them to be more aware.
  • Learn the names of people of color and make sure that you don’t call a person of color by the name of another person of color. For example, referring to an Asian skater by the name of a different Asian skater or a Black skater by the name of a different Black skater.
Transphobia/Gender Bias
  • Update your league website, bylaws, policies, and anything written to have gender-neutral language.
  • Make sure that introductions always include names and pronouns. When a new skater joins a practice, start with introductions so everyone can share their pronouns.
  • Ask your announcers, photographers, and coaches to use correct pronouns.
  • Provide all-gender bathrooms.
  • Use gender neutral language: all-gender instead of co-ed, skaters instead of ladies/guys, helmet covers instead of panties.
  • Do not engage in bioessentialist language, which equates physical anatomy to gender, personality traits, and skills, like “women have vaginas” and “that takes balls.”
  • Avoid asking personal questions about physical anatomy, hormones, or surgeries.
  • Avoid accusing trans skaters of stereotypes: being too aggressive, out of control, reckless, not safe, not a teammate.
  • Avoid comments that involve descriptions like “real woman” or “real man.”
  • Avoid language and behavior that reinforces gender norms.
Mental Health / Ableism
  • Provide closed captioning and ASL interpretation at games and events.
  • Make sure your games and events are accessible for people with disabilities. When traveling, ask if venues are accessible for your skaters, volunteers, and fans. Do they have parking for people with disabilities? Are there ramps and/or elevators in the building? Are the facilities wheelchair accessible?
  • Provide sober spaces at games and organize events that are not focused around alcohol.
  • Encourage a body positive environment.
  • Make sure your website and promotional materials pass accessibility standards.
  • Consider jersey colors of each team - don’t play red against green because folks who are colorblind will not be able to see the different team colors.
  • Share the Deaf and HoH Tips for Skaters in your new skater packets and on your website.
  • Provide practice plans in advance (through email or by some digital means). This will help skaters know what to expect and prepare emotionally and mentally. This will also provide a resource for skaters who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Make sure your coaches and visiting coaches use inclusive and compassionate language.
  • Use People First Language and Identify First Language. Ask a person how they want to be identified so you can refer to an individual how they identify. When you need to refer to a group of people, research that group to learn what language they prefer.
  • Do not tolerate insensitive language. Use “wild” or a more specific adjective instead of “crazy” or “insane.” Use “disappointing” or a more specific adjective instead of “lame.” Never refer to general sadness as depression or use “depressing” as an adjective for something that is sad. Instead of “I am so depressed that practices are cancelled,” say “I am so upset that practices are cancelled.” Never refer to a general preference for organization as “OCD.” Instead of “I am so OCD,” say “I am intensely organized.”
Poverty / Classism
  • Develop a hardship policy for skaters who cannot afford dues or travel fees.
  • Develop a scholarship fund for skaters who cannot afford gear, derby costs, or loss of wages due to injury.
  • Create carpools to help facilitate transportation.
  • Provide loaner gear and skates for those who are unable to afford new gear or replace gear. Make this information available on your website for potential new skaters.
  • Provide childcare at practices and games.
  • Give advance notice (weeks, if not months) for games, events, and meetings, so people can plan their schedules.
  • Consider your systems for rostering - do they make it difficult or impossible for skaters who have demanding work and/or home schedules due to their financial situations?
  • Provide alternate options for those who cannot make it to mandatory meetings/events.
  • Provide practice plans in advance (online). This will allow skaters who are unable to attend practice to view what they’ve missed and stay connected.
Sexual Violence
  • Educate your league about consent and enforce consent.
  • Make clear distinctions between derby touching and nonderby touching. Just because you touch in the sport does not give you access to everyone’s bodies at all times.
  • Respect people’s personal spaces.
  • Listen to and prioritize people who have experienced sexual violence.
  • Make sure that visiting skaters, opponents, and volunteers understand your policy about consent and sexual violence.
  • Research teams, coaches, and volunteers before inviting them to your league or traveling to their spaces. If there is a person in the derby community who is a known sex offender, refuse to allow them in your venue. You can invite a team, but not their coach. You can communicate to your head official the name of an official who is not welcome due to a history of sexual violence.

What Can My League Do About These Issues?

There is so much you can do! Below is a list of general things you can do, and then several lists of what you can do in regard to individual issues. I’ve also created a Code of Conduct template you can adapt for your league—it’s an evolving document that I’ll be updating as I learn and gather more research.

Education First

  • Read about and listen to the skaters who share their experiences and believe them.
  • Educate yourself about racism, transphobia, sexual violence, capitalism, and mental health. Instead of learning what you are or aren’t “supposed to do,” learn WHY these issues exist and how they impact people.
  • When trying to education yourself, do not ask BIPOC or trans folks to educate you. There are loads of resources at your fingertips: articles, videos, documentaries, books. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask a trustworthy ally who is white and/or cis for help.
  • Provide mandatory, effective education about racial privilege and power, sexual violence and consent, gender bias, ableism, and classism for your league, volunteers, coaches, captains, and board of directors.
  • Make sure that all new members and volunteers receive education.
  • Make sure that discussions/education are ongoing, rather than a one-time thing.

This is SO MUCH! What If I Mess Up?

Just assume you are going to mess up sometimes because you aren’t perfect. There’s a lot to learn and it will take time to learn. And there will always be more to learn. Just be open to learning and willing to accept that you will make mistakes. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, and apologize without getting defensive. Then do your best to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Here’s a really helpful video about how to respond when you get called out.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Whew, this was a LOT, I know, but this is necessary in order to create the inclusive, safe space that we claim our sport is. Form a committee and get started. Connect with like-minded folks in our massive international community. Let’s work together, because we can do better.

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Penalty Blaming
Originally published Feb 2017