Race and Physical Education

Leslie was born in Canning Town, London, in 1901 and was the son of a Jamaican father
Jack Leslie-forward for Plymouth Argyle between 1922-1934-Born in Canning Town, refused an England call-up

I am a PE teacher, Head of PE, a father to a mixed race little boy and a son to parents who both suffer from mental health and have lived in East London from the 60’s through to the present day. They have been part of a society that explicitly stated that black people were not welcome and unfortunately part of a mental health system for most of their adult life that did not cater for people with bipolar disorder in a caring way, especially if you were black1.

My mum was the only black girl in her school in Poplar and would tell me stories of the racist abuse she would receive. She would have ‘friends’ ask her why she never retaliated and I struggle to comprehend why these same people pushed her to stand up for herself but did not see it as their responsibility to do the right thing and intervene. I now understand that they had felt they had no obligation to as it was accepted by all as part of the norm of society in the 70’s-80’s. 

When I fast forward to the present day in education, we may not see the same explicit forms of racism as much as we did back then but racism is still very much alive, is part of the ‘norm’ and deeply embedded in our educational system2.

Are teachers prepared to delve into systemic racism and reflect on how their pedagogy may facilitate this?

As part of my attempt to educate myself and promote an anti-racism curriculum into my school I did a staff survey and found that both white and black staff were anxious about raising issues of racism in school with Senior Leadership. I’ve had honest open discussions with colleagues who when the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum found it difficult to view it as an anti-racist movement and at first glance would gravitate towards the negative political narratives pushed by various media outlets. For example, the BLM movement wants to defund the police or BLM is aligned to a political ideology were common sentiments in conversations I had at the time. Digging a bit deeper I researched the political ideologies of left and right wing politics and in a YouGov survey3 it was found that people often agree with right and left wing policies simultaneously or some people are unaware what right and left wing actually mean. Hence, if you are predominantly ‘right wing’ and BLM movement is reported as ‘left wing’ you may feel like you can’t support this movement as it is not on your ‘side’ of the political sphere. 

This nuance is extremely important as the lethal cocktail of misunderstandings and negative media narrative can often lead people down a path they do not intend to take and in this case totally detract from the sentiment that most people would agree with: ‘Let’s stop racism and the consequent racial behaviours that pollute our society’.

I myself have been part of a system in a role as Head of Year in a previous school that suppressed blackness. For example, boys with a line cut into their hair were made to colour it in with black permanent marker. The blackness of the body made this, in the eyes of the headteacher and school policy, acceptable but I had never known this to be done to any white young person. I’m not even sure what colour marker pen would have been recommended for a white pupil and when I look back I feel ashamed that I didn’t intervene or refuse to be a part of this practice.

The quote above is from a paper written by a scholar named Langston Clark. He is an Associate Professor within The College of Education and Human Development at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and he goes on to state that progress on behalf of Black people or people of direct African descent does not occur unless it aligns with White motives.

Clark’s paper4 is based on applying a critical race theory pedagogy towards Physical Education and I discussed this back in April on the PEPRN podcast run by Dr Ash Casey5. I didn’t want to discuss this paper at first as I didn’t know what critical race theory was and to be honest I just felt uncomfortable being the black man talking about racism again. However, I knew it was important to take the opportunity to talk and I’m glad I did as being the only black person on the episode I think I managed to add some meat to the bones through my contributions. 

One thing I have realised in life and this runs true in educational policies is that it’s very difficult to ‘solve’ issues of racism through white lenses. The recent Sewell Report is a prime example of this as it contradicted previous government reports on institutional racism and has been criticised by authors from a number of organisations. 

This includes the British Medical Journal, the Royal Sociological Association as well as Sir Michael Marmot whose work on health equity in England was cited by the report but failed to mention the parts highlighting structural racism 6.

Having a black man chair the report unfortunately would have appeased many who may have still been on the ignorant and ill-advised fence with regards to racism. Ironically, the fact there is still a fence to sit on with racism is a sad indictment of how deeply rooted the problem is. 

An anti-racist approach to Physical Education

British Marathon Swimmer Alice Dearing | The #AskASwimPro Show - MySwimPro
Alice Dearing -British marathon swimmer & co-founder of The Black Swimming Association (Image: MySwimPro Blog)

A lack of black people in middle leader positions in Physical Education can have a profound effect on the experience young black people have in PE as it can be difficult to recognise how your practice can have a detrimental effect on black people if you are unaware of the issues black people face. 

There are the classic stereotypes with regards to athleticism and power that are associated with black people in sport but what if you do not fit this model? If you are a black girl in PE and not athletic what does PE offer you? Conversely, if you are expected to be athletic because you are black how does this narrow your opportunities or change the way you are treated in PE? 

This is not to say that young black people do not thrive in PE and for many it builds confidence and self esteem among other valuable dispositions. But this positive experience is not exclusive for all.

Below I have highlighted some examples of how we might adopt an anti-racist approach to PE. 

#1 The Changing Room

If you understand the black body you will know that moisturising is a religious art. How does this relate to PE I hear you say? 

The changing room is rife for ridicule and if someone has forgotten to moisturise their legs then they are now a target for verbal abuse from peers. Like most ‘banter’ some will laugh this off (either genuinely or hide behind this fake smile due to embarrassment) or others will react and fight fire with fire. 

From a safeguarding point of view, if I noticed this happening over a number of weeks I would raise this with my designated safeguard lead as to me it’s not as simple as they have just forgotten. It would be like forgetting to put socks on, as black people moisturise everyday (that’s what we do!) and it might be the start of a thread that unravels later down the line.

As a black person this type of issue is in my immediate attention but I’m not sure that it would be in a teacher training course or safeguarding CPD (I hope I’m wrong!) because the people in charge of designing and delivering these policies are predominantly white and may not have this knowledge or insight. Of course being white does not automatically exclude you from understanding or being aware of black skin but without being black you will never know what it’s actually like to feel uncomfortable in your own skin because you forgot to moisturise. My sister told me the other day she turned back to head home halfway through her journey to work because she forgot to moisturise her hands and I’ve definitely been late to social meetings for the same reason! My sister is an Learning Support Assistant (LSA) and also told me once a boy took out some moisturiser for his hands in class and was shouted at:“ Why have you got that?” and “Put that away immediately”. He wanted to moisturise his hands after washing them…not hand out Haribo’s to the whole class! Even as I type this I wonder how many school toilets have moisturiser alongside the hand soap and now ever present hand sanitiser?

Implementing the role of race in safeguarding training would not solve all the problems of racism but it may well be a start. 

#2 Swimming and golf: limited opportunities 

In the UK if you do not have a pool on your school site it is often difficult to get this onto the curriculum due to issues with costs and logistics. The “black people don’t or can’t swim” stereotype is one that has been around for a long time. However it’s not without some grain of truth as according to Swim England, the sport’s governing body, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England do not swim, and only 2% of regular swimmers are black7

Having an acute awareness of the impact race has on a life skill like swimming could encourage subject leads to be creative and ensure swimming for black pupils was an accessible necessity and not a luxury as these statistics show there is a huge gap that PE can and should attempt to fill. 

At this point I would point readers attention to watch the trailer for a short film by Ed Accura called “Blacks Can’t Swim”. Ed learned to swim at 53 out of fear he wouldn’t be able to help his daughter if she was ever in danger around water and made a film and a sequel based on racial stereotypes in swimming. This resonated with me as I only learned to swim at the age of 22 out of fear I wouldn’t get a PE job. I can’t pinpoint why my parents didn’t take me swimming but from speaking to my sister she hated swimming at school as 10 mins would not be enough time to dry, moisturise and more importantly sort her hair before returning to school. Afro hair is different!

Another example came from a recent parents evening as one parent made me promise to offer opportunities for black boys in sports like golf. With golf it’s not just the economic barriers that young people can face but the whiteness and class factor is clear to see and was discussed on a Radio 5 live show in August last year8. I love golf and have recently started to have lessons but I was only given the opportunity through taking young people to the local range as part of an extracurricular club. Not all places feel accessible for black people or are experienced the same way as their white counterparts and for a long time I wouldn’t have felt it was my place to explore golf as a black man let alone a young black boy from East London. I felt more comfortable entering it as a PE teacher and even then I would often feel the need to be apologetic in my demeanour and not disturb anyone while I was there. 

Storytelling…As a tool for change

These examples are not exhaustive and my own personal stories and experiences may be different to other black people in the field of Physical Education but being aware and attuned to the feelings and barriers placed in front of young people is a duty of care for any educator. 

As PE teachers, the challenge now is to ensure that young black people (and all young people really) have the opportunity to experience a multitude of environments that historically and for a variety of reasons may never cross their radar.

It’s about knowing the people in front of you. Trying to understand all of their complexities as individuals, whilst appreciating the socio-cultural constraints that are at work everyday dragging and pulling them through the world they are trying to make sense of.

One of the key elements of critical race theory which I found really helpful over the last few months is the idea of counter storytelling. Not a rant, not an angry Twitter exchange but the other side of the story, the story of the people in question. It’s not enough to carry on with the way we have always done things as for a number of people the normal way of doing things can and does cause harm. Listening to the stories of others without judgement and acknowledging that you may not fully appreciate the world they experience could go a long way to promoting equality not just in PE but in everyday life.

This blog post is one of my many counter stories and I hope it will encourage people to write or tell their own counter story in the near future. I hope this blog post will also encourage people to actively listen and more importantly act on a story they have had the courage to seek out and find in their own educational establishment. 




[4]Langston Clark (2020) Toward a critical race pedagogy of physical education, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 25:4, 439-450, DOI: 10.1080/17408989.2020.1720633





2 thoughts on “Race and Physical Education

  1. Very insightful, personal and brutally honest. I’ve never viewd or thought about how PE could be another realm for racism to thrive and have never thought of some of the points expressed in the blog, e.g not factoring time to allow black pupils to moisturise their skin could be deemed as racial insensitivity. Very thought provoking blog.


  2. Brilliant blog Mo! Being a black man from South East London a lot of what you shared was echoed through my own P.E experience. Very insightful and I do hope that people won’t shy away from this topic no matter how challenging it may be otherwise we won’t progress as a society. Good stuff!


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