Listening to the Voices: The Experiences of African American Female Student Athletes

By Bruening, Jennifer E.; Armstrong, Ketra L. et al. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Listening to the Voices: The Experiences of African American Female Student Athletes


Bruening, Jennifer E., Armstrong, Ketra L., Pastore, Donna L., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


"Women of color ... have historically been silenced in society and sport" (Smith, 1992, p. 228). This study examined the sport participation patterns of 12 African American female collegiate student athletes using qualitative methods. Data were collected at a large midwestern university during the 1998-99 academic year. An emergent theme was the effect of silencing by the media, athletic administrators, coaches, and other student athletes on the experiences of African American female student athletes. The findings are presented in the following order: the theoretical framework for the study, an introduction to silencing, an overview of the research analyses, a description of the research setting, and a presentation of the data surrounding the theme of silencing as told through the participants' voices. Following these sections is a discussion and suggestions for future research.

Key words: cultural aspects, gender in sport, race in sport, sociological aspects

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From Margin to Center: Black Feminism

As hooks (1984) wrote, "To be in the margin is to be a part of the whole but outside the main body" (preface). "Being on the margin" is a concept coined by bell hooks (1984) to explain the position of African American feminists in relation to modern feminism as a whole (N.B. The terms African American and Black were used interchangeably as descriptors for the participants in this study). In articulating the tenets of Black feminist thought, Patricia Hill Collins (1990a, 1990b, 1998, 2000) referred to this concept as the "outsider within." Both of these phrases suggest that modern feminism is not an all-inclusive theory, as it does not embrace the specific challenges faced by African American women. Hooks (1984) stated "... much feminist theory emerges from privileged women who live at the center, whose perspectives on reality rarely include knowledge and awareness of the lives of the women ... who live on the margin" (preface).

"Privileged" can encompass both race and class or social standing. Black women occupy a place in America "in which their experiences resemble others in that they share gender identity with other women but also "remain unique" (Collins, 2000, p. 35). They might not share similar class associations, and definitely do not share the same social standing. Because gender is not the "sole determinant of [a Black] woman's fate," African American women sit "collectively at the bottom of the ... ladder ... [with an] overall social status ... lower than that of any other group" (hooks, 1984, p. 14). As such, African American women's perceptions and constructions of their place in society undoubtedly inform feminist (modern, traditional, or otherwise) ideologies. Therefore, it is crucial to provide the opportunity for these women to have a voice and share how their "lived experience may shape [their] consciousness in such a way that [their] world view differs from those who have a degree of privilege" (hooks, 1984, p. 15).

African American women experience intersecting oppressions, or the "convergence" (Collins, 2000), of being both Black and female and, in some instances, of a lower socioeconomic class than traditional White feminists in a world where those identities label one as "other." Their position is one in which the separation of race and gender oppression is impossible, as these entities are simultaneously experienced--"racism multiplied by sexism" (King, 1990, p. 270) or, when class is also added into the equation, Patricia Hill Collins' "axes of power" (Collins, 2000). Being both Black and female designates African American women from other women and from other African Americans. African American women possess "double consciousness" (Collins, 1998). This intersection presents African American women with both common challenges and collective experiences.

In addition, Black feminism "asserts self-determination as essential;" stating "Black women are empowered with the right to interpret [their] reality and define [their] objectives" (King, 1988, p. …

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