'It is a system that perpetuates unequal access'

Shameema Yousuf on structural racism in sport and sport psychology.

17 March 2020

Two years ago, I wrote on the 'Evolving Field of Sport Psychology' for Leaders in Sport: 'One of the biggest personal challenges developing a career in the field was barriers to progression due in part to a lack of inclusivity in sport'. 

Recently senior leaders in sport psychology and headhunters have said to me that I should be taking up leadership roles after being turned down for psychology delivery and a managerial role. You think I don’t know this?! It’s easy to say with white male privilege on their side. An identity that enables access more easily to employment and academic opportunities. The phrases “you’re overqualified, too experienced, this role won’t be challenging enough for you, we need to make sure you’re a cultural fit” have all been used to explain why I am not a good fit for roles, but when more senior roles come up, I am not interviewed. 

I decided to pursue my own private practice, because it became clear that I was facing barriers as someone of intersectional marginalised identity – British African Indian Muslim Woman. Here, I would like to draw awareness and attention to how competent experienced practitioners of minority are overlooked in leadership and marginalised by historical colonial structures.

Structural racism is more harmful than overt racism because it is often undetectable. It includes microagressions in the form of microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidation. To give some context of my experiences:

Not being acknowledged in group conversation where I am the minority

A manager referring to a white colleague for clarification on a matter that was my remit

A white male manager not turning up to a meeting between us, but calls to declare after a 30 minute wait “I’m sorry I took leave from work for a couple of weeks, I live 10 minutes away but do you still want me to come in?”

'Send us your presentation and we will decide whether you can speak at the conference' when others have only been asked to submit a topic title or abstract

Being reprimanded for taking initiative as it undermines a white colleague

Being “direct” but described as unprofessional

Trying to provide context around experiences of discrimination, but being informed that it’s not the experience of the white psychologist I’m telling

Conceptualising practice models in mental health and wellbeing, but being told it isn’t the performance narrative in sport psychology - a couple years later academics and senior white leaders begin to talk of the importance and suddenly it is topical in the field

Being told you don’t have the gold standard HCPC credential (now attained, given AASP certification) when others in the environment didn’t either. 

Being stereotyped “outspoken, scary, unprofessional, intimidating and challenging”. 


The list continues.

The question is whether those leaders of dominant race are motivated to change a system that favours them? If decision makers and hiring managers don’t see or hear me with equal legitimacy as my white male and female peers, and don’t truly take action to dismantle barriers, the opportunities will always be limited for underrepresented groups. British sport off the pitch, court or track is largely homogenous in race – white middle class, and leadership across sports whether tennis, golf, football, rugby, cricket, Olympic sport is much the same in representation. It is a culture that hasn’t changed extensively over the years; a burgeoning issue for minorities. Social activities such as the “line exercise” (Rozas, Winter, 2007), “privilege walk” (California Newsreel, 2006), “The Five Phases” (Shlasko, 2015) illustrate how marginalised individuals can lag behind. Employees of marginalised groups work several times harder to catch up, are often overlooked for promotion but are expected to be grateful for what they have. This results in greater difficulty climbing the employment hierarchy. It is a system that perpetuates unequal access.

The toll on mental health for those who have been discriminated against is severe. In her work, Dr Shubulade Smith CBE, Kings College points out that racialised minorities are at higher risk of mental ill-health, with excess rates related to social disadvantage and discrimination including racism. She purports that the impact of structural and institutional racism is easily understated or missed, yet most harmful. Indeed, research undertaken by Hatch et al. (2016) highlights a two-fourfold increased risk for common mental health disorder amongst ethnic minorities who experience discrimination. Personally, I am reminded of poet James Baldwin who referred to American society in the ‘60s by highlighting that as a minority who is relatively conscious, one is in rage all the time. 

Sport needs brave individuals to advocate for change. If this piece is an uncomfortable read, then it’s a good start to explore your own identity, privileges and biases. Sport must encourage diverse leadership and workforces with multicultural practice to enrich an otherwise largely homogenous workforce. This requires transformative work in advocacy in respect of challenging structures that disadvantage. A reflective question is not “what is our end goal” in making a room full of coaches or practitioners more diverse as if to achieve a quota, but rather, how are we going to be more inclusive and dismantle barriers? Praxis requires action and reflection (Mia, 2020). In addition, Ku (2020) highlights the need to “develop an understanding of the historical context of racism in Britain” and it is down to academics to “teach white awareness” (p.2).  

Thanks to admirable colleagues in the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP) and my involvement on the Diversity Committee, a newly formed AASP Advocacy Committee will work to (1) publish position statements on issues relevant to the profession; (2) craft multiculturally ethical and practical guidelines, procedures, and policies that address the roles and responsibilities of SEP practitioners as advocates; and (3) implement the association's advocacy agenda.

Will the British Psychological Society's Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology and British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, leaders and practitioners in sport, consider advocacy in their environments? It takes courage to advocate and action change, it takes courage to self-reflect on our practices. 

Shameema Yousuf MBACP, CMPC

HCPC Regd Practitioner Psychologist