At USA Ultimate D-I College Nationals this past weekend in Milwaukee, WI, a group of college students hosted a discussion on Race & Intersectionality in college ultimate with over 160 people in attendance.

Samiya Ismail and Tian Qing Yen of Western Washington Chaos, were the primary organizers behind the event, having ran a similar event at Northwest Regionals earlier in April. Yen expressed the need for a conversation like this due to some significant microaggressions to her teammates of color this past ultimate season, particularly around rules and spirit of the game. The format featured a panel of players from different races and regions. Yen started off the event by challenging the current gender equity movement in ultimate, because in many ways, it replicates white-washed feminist movements that frequently ignore the compounding factors of class and race on a person’s experience.

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Alissa and Linneo Soo, Callahan nominees from the Whitman Sweets, presented first. They explained how Whitman, both one of the more expensive schools in the country andone of the least economically diverse schools, has a club sports policy that requires every person to receive the same gift from donors. This means that players who need more financial support than others cannot get it, unless privately fundraised by players. They also raised the significant point that their experience as half-Japanese, half-Chinese women, is unique and does not represent all experiences in the umbrella term of "Asian-American." 

Ismail continued, chatting about what it's like to play ultimate as one of the few Muslim, Black women in the sport, and quickly shouted out AGE UP, a prominent Seattle based organization that supported her growth and recognition of self. She shared personal experiences with microaggressions from this past season, particularly when other teams and white players question her knowledge of the rules simply due to her race. She ended her presentation by sharing the quote, “If you don’t fight for all women, you fight for no women," and actively calling in white people to talk to other people and recognize their privilege as the top dogs in this sport.

Ellen Au-Yeung, Callahan nominee from the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, went next and discussed her experience as a Chinese woman growing up in Vancouver, Canada. Chinese culture, she explained, does not see athletic success as an accomplishment, especially for women. She provided the example of a family meal, in which her parents can brag about her sister being a successful pharmacist, although they cannot similarly brag about Au-Yeung’s success on the field, which is a tough pill to swallow considering playing ultimate gave her the confidence to be herself. Au-Yeung then pointed to the other aspect of class inequity, the very real burden of having three different jobs at one point to play ultimate, and unfortunately, due to a lack of finances having to step back from this past year’s Canadian U24 Worlds team in Perth and playing Vancouver Traffic, where she’s been a significant play maker for the last few years.

Katiana Hutchinson, of Colorado Kali, went next, talking about the issues with the social side of ultimate. She called out the frequency of songs on pump-up playlists that frequently use the N-word, and how we can get motivated by other people than Freddie Gibbs, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, Drake, YG, T.I., Juicy J, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg. Secondly, Hutchinson is the type of player that will contest fouls, and doesn’t always want to talk them out, which we all have that teammate. The difference is that due to race, too frequently Hutchinson is considered the angry Black woman stereotype  when she does this because of society’s limited capacity for multidimensional people of color. Lastly, Hutchinson brought attention to party tournaments by referencing a recent example of an incident that happened in Oakland, California. A white woman called the cops on a group of Black people having a BBQ in a public park. Party tournaments are essentially a massive group of white people using their white privilege to do illegal activities in public, protected by the police. Consider the Drug War’s presence in the US – we target communities of color whereas many white ultimate players smoke weed on the sidelines.

Caitlyn Lee of champions' Dartmouth Princess Layout talked next on the conflicting feelings of wanting to recruit a diverse set of rookies, while recognizing that the best young players in ultimate right now are primarily white and affluent. She posed her question to the crowd on the progress of their team – how could they change their team culture to encourage a new representation of folks and backgrounds while remaining a competitive team? Further, Lee brought up the struggle that Dartmouth is located in Hanover, New Hampshire, a city with a population of over 80 percent white folks, so there is not a high density of other ethnicity groups to work with, even if they wanted to.

Gabe Hernandez, Callahan winner from Stanford Bloodthirsty, closed out the panel by talking about his experience as a Mexican-American and an ultimate player. His parents moved to the country a few months before he was born, and he talked about the importance of having older players on the team who looked like him to try this weird new sport and keep coming back. He talked about the recruitment process from Stanford, and how Bloodthirsty actively builds relationships with different folks from different backgrounds to build healthy team dynamics. Hernandez mentioned although there was a hump to get past, afterwards, the relationships build themselves because folks who look like one another gravitate to the team. He also ended his piece on class, mentioning how difficult it is for his parents to understand his reasoning to pay for party tournaments, and the reality that he might not be able to afford ACL surgery to repair his knee from college regionals, which is both an uncomfortable and stressful situation to be in.

After the panel finished, Yen led people into small group discussions to explore the unique intersection of academic and athlete, acknowledging that there is already a high barrier for folks to get into college. The questions were:

  • How does college ultimate impact ultimate as a whole, and how does it impact society?
  • What is the responsibility of college ultimate players to build inclusive communities and culture? And what can we do to do so?
  • What are 2 big takeaways from the conversation? And what do you want to do next?

Ironically, an older white man ended this section of the event early in order to close the gates to the park.

Some key takeaways for the small groups included:

  • How can we genuinely engage more with the youth community in our local area?
  • Folks within different marginalized groups have different experiences within those groups.
  • It’s easy to change our playlists and the songs we choose for our highlight videos that we know will get plenty of views, particularly from youth.
  • We can be more open to be feedback, whether that’s exploring why we might be uncomfortable or defensive to a certain comment, or how can we be more receptive to when someone says it’s a race issue, then it’s a race issue.

As people quickly filed out, some folks wrote on a piece of paper what people could do for next steps. These posters were placed on the walls of the tents near the stadium, although even though there was extra space, no one had written anything additional to the first day. And so, it begs the question, will we continue to challenge ourselves to have difficult conversations and make significant action? Or will we become silent, perpetuating a system of white supremacy in our sport? Feel free to tweet your answer with the tag #DecolonizeUltimate.

Written by Laurel Oldershaw (she/her/hers) on May 31, 2018.