Sunday, May 26, 2024

Racial equality in squash: 96% of SEA students identify as people of colour but many feel alienated at wealthy white clubs

SEA chief Tim Wyant paints a mural of a multi-coloured future for squash
By ALAN THATCHER – Squash Mad Editor

As the Covid-19 headlines give way to news of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the world, squash can add discussions about racial equality to the debates about the safe reopening of our courts.

At the professional level, the PSA World Tour provides opportunities for players from every conceivable ethnic background.

The World Squash Federation, with its long-established Ambassador Programme, makes annual visits to emerging nations to encourage the growth of the game in far-flung corners of the globe.

However, at club level, some private facilities in America stand accused of making non-white visitors feel “alienated and unwelcome”.

Those are the words of the leader of America’s Squash and Education Alliance, Tim Wyant, whose dynamic statement is printed in full below. The SEA is a powerful collective of urban squash programs providing squash and education opportunities for inner-city children across the States. They are now standing firmly against racism and seeking to break down racial and cultural barriers that exist in squash.

I recalled my own squash memories of trips to America as I watched the “Black Lives Matter” protests spread across the world following the death in police custody of African-American George Floyd.

Police brutality is clearly being encouraged by the current incumbent in the White House, with the threat of military action against his own people next on this dangerous individual’s agenda. Fortunately, his military leaders are trying to talk some common sense into this narcissistic man-child.

From my own experience, one of the great joys of organising squash tournaments is welcoming players from a wide variety of countries. Those players often make friends for life as tournament volunteers pick them up from airports and railway stations. Host families often play a key role in making players feel settled when they are travelling thousands of miles from home. And finding out the local stores that stock halal meat will also make a Muslim visitor feel very much at home.

This is a massive part of the squash tournament scene across the world, and especially in America. I have visited several clubs over there, some clearly dripping with white privilege, and I have enjoyed some amazing, multi-ethnic experiences at others. Squash communities in some cities clearly grow up faster than others.

Eight years ago, while working at the North American Open, it was my pleasure to welcome Zambian professional Patrick Chifunda on to the glass court set up in the tennis hall at the Westwood Club in Richmond, Virginia.

He had been awarded the wild card and was drawn against former world champion Thierry Lincou of France in the first round.

It was one of the most special occasions I have experienced in squash as more than 500 locals filled the bleachers to support this hugely popular black professional who had earned a loyal following thanks to his inspirational coaching in the region, and his huge, warm, smiling personality.

Lincou, now based as a coach in Boston, is from a mixed-race background himself, born in the remote Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean with a French father and Chinese mother.

It was February 2012, and I wrote at the time: “The crowd cheered their local hero to the rafters as he dived around the court and every winner earned a raucous standing ovation.

“Lincou happily played the fall guy and sportingly engineered an entertaining straight-games victory, allowing Chifunda to go tantalisingly close in the third game before he clinched victory 11-3, 11-3, 11-8.”

Richmond, remember, served as the capital of the Confederate States of America during a Civil War fought over slavery.

Those supporters who turned out to cheer Chifunda were mainly white, some quite possibly descendants of families who fought against the abolition of slavery in the American Civil War.

Patrick Chifunda in action at the UVA squash centre in Charlottesville

Some of those squash fans may well have joined the largely peaceful protests in Richmond in the past few days that led to the toppling of the statue of Confederate Army General Williams Carter Wickham, which was pulled from its pedestal in Monroe Park.

Highlighting a change in consciousness among Americans campaigning for civil liberties, Wickham’s own descendants suggested several years ago that the statue should be removed.

Here in England, similar events took place in Bristol on Sunday when crowds tore down the statue of slave trader William Colston, who made so much money from this vile practice that he left a fortune to the city upon his death. His name is linked to many major local institutions, including a school and a concert hall.

In recent centuries, Bristol was one of the main slave trading ports as European settlers in America followed their mass genocide of the native “Indian” population by importing millions of African slaves to work in industries that boosted the fledgling American economy.

Bristol is now a melting pot for squash, with talented players of many nationalities and skin colours congregating in the city to hone their skills at Hadrian Stiff’s Elite Academy.

Most of the squash players competing in Richmond back in 2012 were delighted to stay at the luxurious Jefferson Hotel, named after America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and also founded the University of Virginia.

The UVA now boasts one of the world’s greatest squash facilities at its Boars Head complex in Charlottesville, some 80 miles from Richmond. This quaint colonial town was the scene of a far right, white supremacy gathering in 2017 (protesting at the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee) where a car was driven into a group of counter protestors, killing one woman and injuring a further 28 people.

The UVA squash centre show court at Charlottesville

I wonder what Jefferson would have made of it. At times an outspoken critic of slavery, Jefferson called it a “moral depravity” and claimed that “all men are created equal”.

Jefferson nevertheless owned more than 600 slaves during the course of his life, many of them incarcerated at the Monticello Plantation near Charlottesville. Moreover, following his wife’s death, he is believed to have fathered at least six children with one of his slaves called Sally Hemings.

Against this paradox, it is heartening to recall that former South African president Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for 27 years for leading the fight against apartheid, said 20 years ago: “Sport has the power to change the world”.

America stumbled from its own Civil War into more than a century of apartheid as slavery was followed by segregation and oppression of African-Americans.

Mandela’s message of breaking down barriers through sport has been amplified in American squash circles by the continued growth of urban squash programs and the development of the Squash and Education Alliance.

Former US international Tim Wyant (pictured), now Executive Director of SEA, last week wrote to all of the group’s members and supporters highlighting the progress already achieved by the organisation in projects that are aimed at attracting new players from all walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, with an emphasis placed on supporting those from underprivileged communities.

He also underscored plans to make squash more accessible for players who might feel “alienated and unwelcome” at some clubs that are full of wealthy white people.

Tim Wyant wrote:

Dear SEA Community,

My colleagues and I have spent the past days and weeks thinking about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless others whose lives have been tragically lost because of racial violence. The senseless killing of black people by fellow citizens and the very people charged to protect them is an outrage.

It is heartbreaking that we live in a country where people can feel unsafe walking in public parks or going for a jog simply because of their race.

In this moment, SEA wants to make our position clear. We stand in solidarity with the students, alumni, and staff throughout our network – and all people – who peacefully protest police brutality, racial violence, and institutional racism. We commit ourselves as an organisation and a network to fight racism in all its forms.

When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, virtually everyone that I came across in the squash community was, like me, white and economically privileged. Today, more than 2,000 students from underserved communities across the country are enrolled in SEA member programs, and 96% of those students identify as people of color.

But the progress the SEA network has made — thanks to the hard work and accomplishments of our students and alumni — does not exempt us from the responsibility to further advance the fight against racism. As a start, all of us in the SEA network should be honest about the ways in which our particular community has yet to achieve the promise of racial equity.

Pittsburgh players enjoy their squash

While squash in the U.S. is more accessible than it was just a few decades ago, the sport remains predominantly wealthy, and some of the places where it is played can make people of color feel alienated and unwelcome.

For years, our students have privately talked about the challenges of navigating the world that our programs introduce them to, from having to wear all-white clothing at clubs that appear to have no black members, to being suspected of theft at junior tournaments when a racquet has temporarily gone missing.

I’ve been a part of this network since its founding, and over the years I haven’t appreciated well enough the impact such experiences have had on our students emotionally and psychologically.

As a community, we need to be more intentional about the environments we create. As staff, volunteers, and supporters, we need to be better equipped with the language and tools that will enable our students to feel fully included and equal.

Many of the same racial imbalances that exist in society at large remain within the SEA network organisationally. A large majority of the leaders of our member programs are white, and people of color are not well represented on our boards, including at SEA. We are missing an opportunity to live the values we believe in and to make our organisations even stronger and more successful.

As we protest the most conspicuous and hateful forms of anti-black racism, we must challenge ourselves to examine the subtler forms of racism that surround us, and that at times we unwittingly perpetuate. This starts with opening our minds and hearts, with listening to our students and alumni and the people whose communities we serve.

Youngsters from the Metrosquash squad in Chicago

In the coming months, SEA will create dedicated spaces for honest – and sometimes uncomfortable – conversations about race and identity, and we will ensure that those conversations lead to concrete actions.

We will partner with experts in the field to provide race-equity trainings for staff, volunteers, and board members, and we will implement measures that increase the number of people of color who serve in leadership roles throughout the network.

As we develop these initiatives, we will make sure our students, alumni, and staff of color are co-creators of our response and centered in our conversation. We invite anyone with reflections, stories, or thoughts to submit them, anonymously or by name, at Race Equity.

I also invite anyone to reach out to me directly. My colleagues and I are eager to hear suggestions about how our network can more effectively live up to its ideals.

For 25 years, the SEA network has been driven by the desire to make the world a more fair and just place. Today, we recommit ourselves to that effort.

Tim Wyant
Executive Director, Squash and Education Alliance


Website: Squash and Education Alliance

Comment on the events in Bristol from The Guardian

Pictures courtesy of SEA and US Squash websites 


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