How do you put yourself in another’s shoes?

As a sideline to Roller Derby in Oakland, I had a small 3-person PR firm:  Gerald Seltzer and Associates (fancy huh?).  It was Herb Michelson (who wrote “A very Simple Game” an oral history of Roller Derby from the skaters’ point of view…..Try and find it if you can); and a copy writer.

Image by Janusz Gawron from

We represented the Oakland Clipper Soccer team, the first professional League in the US that was major league (Pele played with the New York team), and several other clients, including the fight promoter in Oakland.  He came to us to see if we could help him get permission to have Muhammad Ali fight an exhibition bout at the Alameda Naval Station as a benefit.  This is when Ali couldn’t fight because of his refusal to go into the army.

Herb and I met with Ali at Pelosi’s, a restaurant in Oakland that featured a good steak and potato for $1.25 lunch, so you know that was a number of years ago.  We laid out a plan on how we would try to utilize all of our contacts and efforts to make the fight happen.  Ali said to us “you have the connections and the complexion”.  I am sure that was not the first or last time he said that expression, but it keeps coming back to me.  Unfortunately, we got close to make the fight happen, but it was stopped by pressure from the federal government.

I am of a different generation than most of my readers and therefore the racial division in America is probably a lot more apparent to me than those of you who have grown up in a more tolerant society.  We all seem to be more comfortable being around people of our own ethnicity or culture or education, but think how difficult it is to be a different color.  For those who watch the Larry David show, I am reminded of when he parked his car in a lot and a black man walked behind and he turned and set the alarm….Wanda Sykes came out screaming at him that he was a racist and wouldn’t have done that if a white man had walked by his car.

Will we ever have a color-blind society?  I am not sure.  When I first started promoting Roller Derby we were contacted by Jay Lee Friedman out of Atlanta to establish s team in the South that would play in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and Florida.  Using the most popular stars that we had available, we presented the strongest possible team.  It was coached by Ronnie Robinson, son of the great fighter Sugar Ray) and featured Bob Woodberry, a tremendous physical skater, as well as a great women’s team.  The prejudice we encountered was overwhelming, and we had to cancel most of the dates.

Starting with my father, Roller Derby has been integrated since the 40’s.  But often not without protest, not only from management but from the skaters themselves.  They worried that if too many black skaters were on a team, the audience wouldn’t come.  To be honest, that never was a consideration with us, as we were just happy to get the talent. And Frank Deford in his piece in Sports Illustrated made a point to mention (this was 1969) how both home and visiting teams were integrated and the fans even in Richmond, Virginia, cheered for all the skaters on the home team, and booed all of the visitors.

This brings me to something that disturbs me about the current women’s Roller Derby.  Why are there so few women of color in the leagues?  Is it because of the cost of continuing to support the league, that there are not the roller skating opportunities;  I know the talent is there, about 40% of our skaters were African-Americans.

I have been taught not to generalize, but if anything the rollergirls are super tolerant.  And I have seen great skaters of color in recent tournaments…….maybe you have the answer.

15 comments on “How do you put yourself in another’s shoes?

  1. I think derby’s having an even tougher time bringing in Hispanic skaters and fans than African-Americans. To some degree there’s a language barrier, but also some cultural ones as well.

    Wikipedia says that Hispanics (of all races) currently make up 15% of the U.S. population. African Americans make up 12%. And Asians make up 5%. I’d guesstimate that Hispanics and blacks are probably under-represented in modern derby. Asians probably come a bit closer to being proportionally represented in derby?

    My league has black skaters, a black ref, and one (Flyin’) Hawaiian. No Latinas as yet, and no Deaf skaters (they are a MAJOR minority culture in my city).

    Our events are Deaf-friendly (pre-game and halftime announcements are interpreted, and we distribute pictures of ref hand signals). We do have some Deaf fans, so I imagine we’ll get Deaf skaters eventually. Fortunately we have a few ASL-fluent hearing skaters (it’s a job skill here) to help them out. The first ASL “terp” to volunteer for our league was WFTDA Executive Director Juliana “Bloody Mary” Gonzales’ mom!

    Things that are different now than when your league was operating:
    There used to be three to five TV stations in any metro area. Odds were, Derby (or Games) was on one of them. Now the average viewer can watch hundreds of different stations. And derby only shows on a few cable stations in select cities.

    The more channels we get, the more “self-selecting” we’re tending to become. If the news disagrees with us, we switch to news that “confirms what we already know.” During the 1970s black characters started popping up on TV shows, with a few shows dedicated to them. Nowadays there’s at least one network entirely dedicated to African-American interests.

    Today’s derby rising as a grass-roots sport has also made it a word-of-mouth sport. Also as an “alt-sport.” Odds are if there’s a band playing at halftime or playing a benefit show for the league, it’s a punk or rockabilly band.

    Another thing I think has a big impact is that derby gets mistaken for “a white thing.” It was mentioned on the humor blog, “Things White People Like.” Minorities sometimes seem to want to avoid things that are “too white.”

    I like to think we’ve done our best to be inclusive. Nowadays if you go out and say “Let’s recruit more of THIS kind of person” that can get taken the wrong way.

    I believe our first African-American skater heard about our league from one of her students (she’s a Women’s Studies Chair at a local college). I’d love to see her and the others interview with the local black papers and radio station.

  2. I think “Whip It!” has helped broaden the knowledge of derby altogether. Along with spreading derby into South America, Asia, France (ten leagues!), Mexico, and further into Europe, I think it’s broadened the audience in the U.S. Which inevitably broadens the participation.

    Odd thing: I was on the IMDB message board for the film, and someone (I dunno what race) wondered if Eve’s character was just something dropped in to appeal to black audiences. They actually asked if there was REALLY any black derby skaters out there. I straightened them out on that.

    • A big YES please to Deaf Derby skaters. I know of a couple of Deaf women who want to get into it and I am being as encouraging as I can -if they come along I have told them I will be at any trainings they attend I want them there that much!
      I did connect with a Deaf player in New Zealand but she’s the only one I know of personally.

  3. It’s also a demographic thing… Phoenix’s population contains many Hispanics and our league has many Hispanic skaters. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to seek diversity and spread that message though.

  4. I am with Alissa. If you want to see some major diversity in derby, come to Phoenix. Between the different leagues, I have seen many regions of the world represented.

    I think that one reason why derby has a lack of people of color could argue that the roots of the original post-resurgence rollergirls in the punk/tattoo scene, which was pretty white dominated.

    We must also commend the sport for significant representation by the lesbian and bisexual community. The sport continues to fall short in accommodation of the transgender community. The sport has many more opporutnities to make a positive statement in this area.

    But yes, come to Phoenix and see diversity alive and well in our sport!

    with derby love…

  5. Sac City Rollers in Sacramento is rather diverse, too, and we’re still working on it. I’m not sure whey there isn’t more diversity in general. Could it be that Roller Derby lacks appeal for minority women (much like sky diving, or water skiing)? I doubt it’s because of any resistance on the leagues’ part (though I’m sure there are exceptions). We just don’t seem to reach some demographics. I’m going to do some thinking about how to reach out to other sides of the community.

  6. We have a deaf skater who plans to try out for the local league and it really got me thinking. Are there really no other deaf skaters out there? That seems so unlikely!

    I’m curious about how to accommodate her needs while still playing by WFTDA rules. If she makes the travel team and starts playing in sanctioned games, will they accept the changes needed for her to play – the main one being communicating penalties safely. How do we train visiting refs? It got our coaches thinking about how to run practices.

    I’m really excited about the potential to make our sport more accessible. I’d love to find out if any other leagues have had similar challenges and how they’ve been able to adjust.

    • There’s about a half-dozen or so Deaf skaters around the U.S. (and maybe Canada). Jay Levy was the first deaf derby skater back in the 1930s. I believe Noisy from Rose City Rollers was the first Deaf skater in modern derby. She’s since retired from skating, but is a well-known Deaf entertainer. She helped develop some derby-specific homesigns on the DeafDerby Yahoo group.

  7. There are deaf skaters. There are a few transgendered skaters, but as Michi-chan states, accommodation for such people has still fallen short.

    It may be more than just demographic. It may be lack of interracial exposure between people. It may be just veiled racism. Phoenix may be greatly diverse with minority population. A new league forming in the ghetto slums, the hillbilly mountains, or the affluent suburbs may not be greatly diverse.

    I got deeply involved with roller derby under the impression that this was the one aspect in this world that I would not have to deal with racism, prejudice or ignorance. Leagues want to give the impression that all people are accepted, but this is not the case as cliques and alliances form within the faction. I would also guess that not many African-Americans (or any other minority population) have years of experience on roller skates, to prepend Poohbah’s point of derby being a “white thing.”

    Baby steps. After all, it took a couple hundred years for the United States to have a minority president.

    • Roller skating has tended to be quite popular within the black community. More so when there’s rinks nearby, less so when they’re only out in the outer burbs.

      Ever seen “Roll Bounce?” It’s a fictional film, but it it reflects a style of skating that was popular in the black community then and now. Shuffle and jam skating are about as black as they are white. In some areas considerably more so.

      One way leagues can help open the door to more diversity is to invite jam skating groups to perform at halftime. Diversify the music the DJ plays. Maybe ditch most of the heavy metal and punk music.

  8. It ain’t for a lack of trying in my league. We simply have no minority fresh meat coming out and it’s not like there isn’t the demographic. We don’t know why. Perhaps it simply doesn’t interest the girls in our area. Again, we don’t know. They will come to open skates, but aren’t interested in coming out for derby.

  9. I recall being at Western Regionals and noticing maybe 10 black people in the whole building. Jerry you and I and Poobah have discussed this more than once. I think when it comes down to it those who think the punk/alternative subculture plays a part in that are pretty much right on. Most of the black women Ive seen in derby fall into that category or (and please do not flame me here) the lesbian community. Surely one does not have to fall into those categories to do the sport and I am not saying that someone who wanted to try would be shunned everywhere or anywhere if they were not. But perception often becomes reality.
    So how does that change? Your guess is as good as mine.

  10. We have a deaf girl on our team, and there is a deaf girl on a team that’s less than an hours drive from us. Plus both leagues have multiple Hispanic ladies. We are in New Mexico, so that latter is expected given the mix around here. It all really depends on where you’re at, I’m sure.

  11. Funny thing, I actually grew up watching roller derby with my grandmother so when I saw signs for roc city roller derby’s inaugural brawl in 2009 I made a bee line to go and check it out! It only took me one bout to decide that derby was the missing link in my life!!! Completely balanced me out! Btw, Sometimes when people of colors say something is “too” white what they are actually saying is they are not sure how welcomed they’ll be. For example, is the team/org/neighborhood/etc all white by coincidence or it is all white intentionally? Many assume (based on history and experience) that it’s intentional so tend to do better when teams/orgs/neighborhoods are actively welcoming/inviting. For me though, it was about playing a woman’s sport that was alt sport that looked like a lot of fun!

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