Ultimate’s Cultural Appropriation Problem

As it stands, ultimate is a white sport. And as a black player, it doesn’t always feel easy to fit in with teams. But one thing that has been especially alienating is the way the ultimate community consumes music made by black artists. Teams listen to it during warmups and feature it in their highlight reels. Before expanding on that, I want to talk about my ultimate background a bit: I’m a senior at Northwestern, and most of my experience with the sport has come in the college men’s division, so my impressions are largely informed by that context.

Being a white person and listening to rap or other music by black artists isn’t inherently bad; the issue in the ultimate community is that the consumption is not paired with enough thinking about the implications of that consumption. White people can loudly listen to (gangster) rap music in public without people labeling them as thugs or not worthy of existing in public spaces. At worst, people would only apply those labels to that specific group of white people. When a group of black people does the same, those labels are applied more often, and more likely to be applied to the entire racial group. Because whiteness is often assumed to be the default, white people are not asked to be representatives of their racial groups in the way that people of color are. And even if stereotypes are applied to white people, they don’t carry nearly as much weight as they do when applied to people of color.

Even though loudly listening to music may not seem like a privilege, that level of access to public space is one that black people often don’t get. And in at least one case, listening to loud music has been a death sentence for a black teenager. In 2012, a white man named Michael Dunn fired 10 shots into a car of black teenagers after asking them to turn their music down. Two of Dunn’s shots killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis. This is a severe contrast to how ultimate teams can reasonably expect to be treated when they do the same exact thing. This was especially salient during the end of the college season when teams were releasing highlight/Callahan videos. White editors at white schools created a lot of reels of white players and chose gangster rap as the soundtrack — often using the n word. Those videos are often the only public-facing content teams have. The songs can be exciting and fun, but they’re used in the context of a sport where black people are largely absent and excluded when we do participate.

But cultural appropriation is just a symptom of a larger problem: the ultimate community does not have a sophisticated enough understanding of race, and its white members haven’t done the work to understand how their actions contribute to racism. With all the teams I’ve been a part of so far, race has not been a discussion unless I brought it up. Carrying that burden of being a teacher on top of the burden of not feeling accepted in the first place gets tiring. And not feeling accepted has come in the forms of

· “not a thrower” calls from the sideline before the team ever saw me throw

· Teammates repeatedly touching my hair without permission

· Jokes about whether or not I needed sunscreen at tournaments

· being told that my athleticism is my biggest strength (it’s arguably a weakness of mine)

I won’t say that the ultimate community is particularly racist as far as predominantly white communities go. But that’s a really low bar.

Whenever I’ve had conversations about race in ultimate, the topic of how to make the sport more diverse always comes up. But how can people of color be asked to join a community that has yet to come to terms with the racist behavior it engages in? Before the ultimate community tries to change how white the sport is, we need to think about the environment we’d be introducing people of color into.

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