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Laura Sell
Duke University Press publishes books and journals in the humanities and sciences.
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Reply from Erica Rand: Hey, D. I have indeed looked back quite a bit before this Olympics, and I’m well aware that U.S. Figure Skating has come far from the days, not far enough past, when Mabel Fairbanks was prohibited from competing because skaters had to belong to a USFS skating club to compete and no clubs before the 1960s admitted African Americans. Her coaching and advocacy, in turn, helped advance the skating of some of our idols. I have also seen Johnny Weir lately, including in the vintage pink Chanel blazer that he wore a few days ago. The fact remains, however, that if Weir were competing versus commentating at these Olympics, he’d still have to contend with rules enforcing gender-normative presentation—like the mandatory one-point costume deduction for men competing in tights versus trousers (2014 Official U.S. Figure Skating Rulebook; sections 1071 (subsection C.1.d) and 4033). Would a skating version of his leather leggings pass the test? He’d actually have to think about that. Weir would also have to contend with the less codified pressure that is still evidenced in the remarkable uniformity among high-level skaters, and, indeed, among aspiring contenders at very early levels and young ages. Gendered ideals also involve race. Ideas about the exotic “Orient” likely factored into why fifteen-year-old Michelle Kwan was handed a harem costume and Dance of the Seven Veils for her breakthrough-to-artistic-maturity long program in 1995-1996 while fifteen-year-old Tara Lipinski, coming up a few years later, skated to nothing like that. Dominant norms of movement and music explain why a white skater’s performance in 2006 to Herbie Hancock’s 1983 Rockit went viral for novel and refreshing hip hop. Yes, it’s important that figure skating standouts do not all look like our Ladies of Sochi. But I still contend that micro- and macro-effects of racism and white privilege, within and outside of USFS, have contributed on innumerable levels to what happens in the sport, including how the selection of the 2014 Olympic team played out and the continuing predominance of white athletes. For a visual representation of that predominance, look at the January issue of Skating magazine. The cover photo advertising Nationals shows only white athletes. Inside, so do almost all of the shots of competitors as well as almost all of the ads, including the USFS’s full-page celebrating USFS and National Skating Month, for which other decisions might easily have been made. Or, check out the USFS website page for the Basic Skills program, where even rotating images show only white skaters, from the little kids bundled up for their first skating lessons to Ashley Wagner advertising Hilton Honors. I write in Red Nails, Black Skates that “white supremacy, white privilege, and racial bias result not only from willful, premeditated racism. They also come from complacent disregard for even obvious inequity and failure to pursue antiracist education and transformation. The predominance of white people is rarely an innocent accident” (p. 132). I stand by that.
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