The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sports

The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sports

by Munene Franjo Mwaniki
The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sports

The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sports

by Munene Franjo Mwaniki


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The popularity and globalization of sport have led to an ever-increasing migration of Black athletes from the global South to the United States and Western Europe. While the hegemonic ideology surrounding sport is that it brings diverse people together and ameliorates social divisions, sociologists of sport have shown this to be a gross simplification. Instead, sport and its narratives often reinforce and re-create stereotypes and social boundaries, especially regarding race and the prowess and the position of the Black athlete. Because sport is a contested terrain for maintaining and challenging racial norms and boundaries, the Black athlete has always impacted popular (white) perceptions of Blackness in a global manner.

The Black Migrant Athlete analyzes the construction of race in Western societies through a study of the Black African migrant athlete. Munene Franjo Mwaniki presents ten Black African migrant athletes as a conceptual starting point to interrogate the nuances of white supremacy and of the migrant and immigrant experience with a global perspective. By using celebrity athletes such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, and Catherine Ndereba as entry points into a global discourse, Mwaniki explores how these athletes are wrapped in social and cultural meanings by predominately white-owned and -dominated media organizations. Drawing from discourse analysis and cultural studies, Mwaniki examines the various power relations via media texts regarding race, gender, sexuality, class, and nationality.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496202840
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Series: Sports, Media, and Society
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 276
File size: 417 KB

About the Author

Munene Franjo Mwaniki is an assistant professor of sociology at Western Carolina University. 

Read an Excerpt


Race and Sport

Situating the Black African Athlete

The representation of black athletes has its roots in how blackness itself has been constructed over time. Indeed, we can go back to the formation of our modern conceptions of race — their development through the intensification of the Atlantic slave trade — and find similar tropes existing today. I cannot possibly give a full overview of the entire body of research here, but it is worthwhile to sketch a few important points of departure and mention some of the work that has been done on black African athletes and black (im)migrant athletes in particular. To those ends this chapter will first examine what Ben Carrington describes as the racial project of "the black athlete." Carrington's work is important not only as a framework in demonstrating the development of the notion of "the black athlete" as a departure, or change, from previously held notions of white physical supremacy but also in its discussions of why the black athlete is so important to the study of race, sport, and sociology — as a racial spectacle for the masses. Following this, with an eye toward my own analysis, I will examine some of the previous research that has been done on the representation of black African and black (im)migrant athletes. We will begin to see that there are very clear similarities with how early diasporic black — African American and Black British — athletes were constructed in the West.

Formation of the "Black Athlete"

My research is founded on the premise that sport represents the main cultural field within which black (African) immigrants can first make their presence known to their host society. The first exposure of recent immigrants to members of the dominant society is more likely to be through sport than any other means, especially for those who have little contact with members of racial minority groups. The implication here being that studying sport can give us insight into how Western media is making sense of foreign blacks for its white middle-class target audience. This offers insights that are, of course, different from those provided by other forms of textual analysis that have tended to privilege, for example, works of literature or music. While the analysis of different cultural forms has offered immense insight and contributions to social theory, the often marginalized study of sport offers an analysis of culture that gets at the heart of the masses, including the working class and semiliterate. Sport saturates our everyday, impacting us whether we follow it closely or despise it thoroughly, and hence it is an aspect of society that is difficult to ignore completely — particularly in Western societies. Sport is a populist cultural form that covers a wider swath of the population — especially when we consider race, gender, and class — than any specific form of literature, film, fashion, or music can. While other cultural forms lend themselves to being "read" along the lines of conventional literary criticism, Carrington notes that sport's "very physicality, the emphatically embodied nature of its performance, the sheer diversity of sporting forms and sites, and its assumed 'non-art' instrumental rationality, make[s] it a distinct cultural type that cannot easily be 'read' in the same way as these other cultural practices." In the following pages I hope to adequately address the cultural form that is sport at some of these different levels of significance.

In Race, Sport and Politics: The Sporting Black Diaspora, Carrington expertly traces the development of what we consider "modern sport" to the logics of rationality and modernity that allowed Europe to brutally conquer, colonize, and exploit the resources of the world. As European expansion after 1492 led to increasing growth through the influx of wealth found elsewhere in the world, Europeans began to see the complexity of their societies as an indication of higher human development. European countries believed that they dominated the far reaches of the globe because of their natural and inherent traits of rationality, ingenuity, and strength (masculinity). Non-Europeans lagged behind the "development" of Europeans because they lacked the rational traits of civilization and could only hope to learn them — when such a thing was even given a thought — through a disciplined, or colonial, "schooling." This relationship between the colonizer and the colonized or enslaved was built on the assumption of the inherent nonpersonhood of the non-European Other. Non-Europeans were consistently infantilized, made childlike, in historical texts, speaking to their lack of full personhood that allowed Europeans to think of themselves as beneficent adults. Any form of resistance by the enslaved or colonized only further confirmed their innate irrationality (emotion) as the Other by rejecting the "gracious" gift of the colonizer. Hence the rise of Europe and the industrial revolution were seen to result from European society's own internal qualities and not the mass plundering and enslavement of non-European peoples. These kind of beliefs and shared benefit from participating in the colonial and slave economies over time helped crystallize a transnational identity among Europeans that distinguished them from non-Europeans. This identity has revolved around slightly different dichotomies — civilized versus savage, Christian versus heathen, European versus non-European — but, as Charles Mills comments, "they all eventually coalesced into the basic opposition of white versus nonwhite."

In his body of work on the creation of white masculinity, James Mangan explains that the rapid social and economic changes in Europe around 1850 (modernization) led to an obsession with personal fitness and the rise of specific forms of leisure that had not previously existed. Around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth sport began to be emphasized in schools throughout Europe (particularly in the United Kingdom) and "professional" leagues in baseball, football (American and European), and rugby were organized. Sport also began to take on an important role as an agent of militarism, imperialism, and morality for the nation-state at this time. We see the popularization of ideas such as "Muscular Christianity," which held that a well-trained body was a moral one, and social Darwinism, which saw war as necessary for the vitality and protection of society and the white race. As Mangan discusses, a militant masculinity was established in Europe over time that was developed and proven on the playing field and through the concept of "athleticism." Militarism and imperialism became valued concepts integral to patriotism and necessary for self-defense, wars and violence became rites of passage for boys, a militant masculinity was designed to expel all that was feminine and intellectual, and imperialism itself became seen as a moral endeavor tied to civilizing savage heathens.

All of these concepts became interdependent. By the 1880s sport was successfully being used as a means to socially control young men in European public schools as well as colonial natives. The establishment of schools in sub-Saharan Africa was centered not on building well-educated subjects but rather on "building character" (submissiveness) and converting the native to Christianity. Sport thus became a defining feature of colonial "education" because it was thought to promote a morality and manliness that could then be controlled by colonial administrators. Though colonized subjects around the world would resist these colonial discourses in different ways, sport nonetheless became an important colonial technology that significantly remade "traditional" cultures while simultaneously driving the impulse among the colonized to further organize and resist through colonial sport forms — soccer and cricket in particular.

It is within this context that the notion of "modern sport" is still rooted. More recent versions of modernization theories hold that the "traditional mentality" of the non-European precludes the scientific and progressive ways of thinking that spurred Europe's rise. In these formulations, Europe is the natural creator and disseminator of culture, progress, morality, and everything else that is "good" in the world. Europe naturalized the myth of its self-propelled progress, morality, and rationality so that it came to validate classical colonial practices and ongoing practices of economic neocolonialism. "Modern sport" betrays its Eurocentric creation through its positioning against "traditional" movement forms that go unacknowledged as "sport." We are often told that the (colonial) primitive, lacking in mental and social complexity, had little to no notion of rule-bound (complex) sport forms. It was thus the rational European mind and colonial project that extended our notion of modern sport to the rest of the non-European world. Again, this was a process whereby any involvement or notion of addition by non-Europeans to European sport tended to be marginalized or ignored. That we are now geared toward seeing sport as the outcome of a rational and "civilized" process belies the often irrational and brutal aspects of both its expansion throughout the colonial world and its ongoing contemporary reliance on exploiting violence — on predominantly black and brown bodies — for profit. Hence it has always been a myth that modern sport has achieved some sort of temporal or moral distance from primitive or traditional sport forms. Sport "[embodies] not so much modernity and its self-declared properties — secularization, rationality, meritocracy, and so on — but rather the incomplete, partial and paradoxical elements of competing modernities that refuse to be disavowed." As with most dichotomies, we are given and made to assume complete separation, yet we can see that "modernity" and "tradition" are always intertwined. This means that modernity's obsession with tradition ensures that tradition is always internal to (within) modernity and necessary for its continued existence. Yet the myth of modernity as having left tradition behind allows, in this case, modern sport to appear separated from its history of white supremacy, colonialism, and sexism. In short, sport acts as if it is apolitical.

Carrington argues that the formation of "the black athlete" in history is the result of an ongoing racial project — "sporting racial projects" — rooted in sport as a mass commodity spectacle. Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in their theory of racial formation — "the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed, and destroyed" — describe racial projects as the ideological links between social structure and cultural representation. As they explain, "Racial projects connect what race means in a particular discursive practice and the ways in which both social structures and everyday experiences are racially organized, based on that meaning." The black athlete conceptualized as a racial project thus carries important meaning for our everyday discursive practices, but also for how those practices are translated into or maintained in our social structures. Drawing on the work of Anne McClintock and her ideas on how scientific racism was most effectively disseminated to the masses through everyday commodities (commodity racism as consumer spectacle), Carrington similarly sees sport as a form of racial spectacle through which popular racism is "lived, embodied and challenged." As the black athlete emerged throughout the twentieth century our "categories of 'blackness,' 'whiteness,' and even of 'race' and 'sport' have changed over time and changed as a result of their co-articulations with each other." So not only have our racial categories — particularly the assumed natural advantages and disadvantages of different races — been changed by sport, but sport itself — who it is for and who is excluded — has been influenced by black athletes gradually pushing the boundaries of "blackness." Sport becomes productive of racial discourses, shaping and shaped by race, that then have an impact on our other social institutions.

These changes over time in our categories of race and sport due to the emergence of the black athlete can likely begin with many individuals, but at the level of global significance there is no better starting point than the African American boxer Jack Johnson. When Johnson beat Tommy Burns in 1908 to become the first black heavyweight champion of the world it marked the beginning of a shift in conventional thinking about race. Until then white supremacy was based on the notion of both mental and physical superiority over nonwhite populations. It was "well-known" that blacks lacked stamina and courage and were weak in the midsection but not the head — because of their thick skulls. Not only did Johnson physically dominate Burns and later challengers, notably Jim Jeffries in 1910, he also displayed superior technique and the ability to out think white competitors during fights. His success was an inherent critique of the main pillars of white supremacy that maintained racial oppression around the world and paid the "wages of whiteness" for poor and working-class whites, but it is important to remember that his impact on racial ideologies was not limited to the United States.

Theresa Runstedtler explains that during the early twentieth century many black American men and women traveled to Europe and worked on ships or as porters, performers, and athletes, seeking ways to make a living that were denied them under Jim Crow. Runstedtler's work is important for understanding how a "global color line" was coming into being at this time. As Jack Johnson traveled around Europe, Australia, and Latin America, his routes mimicked those of other black Americans attempting to find a place for black political freedom. Like those other black Americans, what Johnson found was that white supremacy and the Jim Crow color line inevitably followed him wherever he went. His victories did not bring him true freedom or acceptance in European societies; instead he found it more and more difficult to find white opponents to fight in countries that had previously enjoyed the spectacle of interracial boxing. As Runstedtler points out, commercial spectacles of race at this time were used to reach semiliterate and working-class audiences and foster national identities around "white control." Such spectacles — including fairs, exhibitions, images, and commodities focused on the display blackness and black peoples — occurred throughout the United States and Europe. While often fostering jingoism and a contempt for anything foreign or Other, such spectacles bolstered notions white supremacy (especially in Europe) while folding black Americans, black Europeans, and black Africans into the same (colonial) subject position. In the sport of boxing in particular, it was easy for advertisements and reporters to lean on the "uncivilized" nature of the sport and speculate as to how or why the ever "primal/primitive/savage" black boxer might have an advantage over white men.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were also a time when science was being used to provide a legitimate basis for white male supremacy. The ideas of eugenics and social Darwinism in particular were compelling and created concern that the white race was in decline. This concern was often explicitly gendered, as it was thought that modernity had made white men physically soft and morally vulnerable to the nonwhite Other. The maintenance of white supremacy not only required segregation from nonwhites but also led to policies that essentially criminalized disease and deformity, leading to the forced sterilization of unwanted populations in many instances. Sport was important because it was thought that sports such as boxing, football, and rugby could "make men out of boys," instill moral character, and prepare males for their rightful place as leaders in the world, whether as soldiers or colonial administrators. "Muscular Christianity" became an important ideology that made physical activity, games, and recreation more religiously acceptable and led to the development of sport programs within public school systems and independent organizations — such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and the Boy Scouts. Additionally, the popular transnational figure of the "great white hope" fit a discourse that allowed everyday white and working-class men (often newly arrived immigrants in the U.S. context) to play a role and imagine themselves as making a contribution to the "white man's burden" of imperial rule over the nonwhite world.


Excerpted from "The Black Migrant Athlete"
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Black African Immigration to the West
1. Race and Sport: Situating the Black African Athlete
2. Everyday Othering: Boundary Making and Maintenance
3. Model Minorities: Origin Stories, Hard Workers, and Humanitarians
4. “Bad” Blacks: Contingent Acceptance and Essentialized Blackness
5. Immigrant Reception: Nationalism, Identity, Politics, and Resistance
6. The Diasporic Athlete: Blackness and Meaning in the African Diaspora
7. The Sporting Migrant: Antiblack Racism and the Foreign Other
Appendix A: Methodology and Data-Gathering Procedures
Appendix B: Individuals in the Study

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