Pretend you're a dark-skinned person. One day your friends tell you about a new, tiny, unofficial sports team they're in. They invite you to come play. You arrive and nope, there are no other dark-skinned people there, but also nobody mentions it, and they invite you to keep coming back and playing, and you do, because it's a fun sport. This feels great! You may be the only one there like you, but you're not excluded or treated differently, and the friendly, this-is-about-a-sport-not-your-race environment is easy, fun, and a welcome relief from your often-fraught daily experiences as a minority.
Then one day, a few more dark-skinned people start coming to practice. "Hey, that's great!" you think, and your teammates say the same, and things continue as normal. But…now, as the team gets bigger, and begins to sign up for some local inter-team events and tournaments, people begin to approach you about "playing in the dark-skinned games". Often these are people you meet who, like you, are dark-skinned and play the sport. "There's a tournament just for dark-skinned people in California next month," they say; "Will you come?" Your teammates, who are also your friends, are not invited of course — but they ARE invited to other tournaments and games that you can't play in, because they're — yup — light-skinned-people-only games. You try speaking up about this, about how it makes you feel excluded and like you're being pushed into a different group because of your skin-color and that's not fair, but your teammates all tell you that you've got nothing to complain about, since all that's happening is that everyone is being offered MORE opportunities to play. You can still come to the co-ed practices like normal! It's just that these extra games and tournaments are, well, they've always been done a certain way, and you certainly don't *have* to participate.
So you mostly don't, because the people who don't do the daily grind of minorityhood don't understand this but man, it just really sucks the fun out of something for you, when someone tells you to go stand with, go play with, go sign up with the other dark-skinned people. Do you have anything against dark-skinned people? Of course not — but soon, you get treated as if you do, when you turn down invites to play in the dark-skinned-only tournaments. Both light and dark-skinned people give you suspicious looks and one even asks if YOU're a racist, because surely if you weren't, you'd be doing your part to support the development of teams and games for dark-skinned people. You are put on one, then several, mailing lists for dark-skinned people in the sport, and you don't know how to politely get off of them.
How do you explain? How do you tell them that you felt LESS excluded when you were the only dark-skinned person there? How can you look at them, including the hopeful faces of the other dark-skinned players, and tell them that in your guts this feels WRONG, this FEELS like racism, like segregation, like being shut out and pushed aside, and the fact that you're being pushed into "separate but equal" games doesn't make it feel any better? How do you express how hurt you are that your friends, your team, now consists of players who go to light-skinned tournaments and players who go to dark-skinned tournaments, and you don't often get to choose which one you're allowed to attend?
Your attempts at expression do, in fact, fail; your friends think you're being unnecessarily negative and looking for problems where there aren't any, and they grow away from you all the quicker as more and more "optional" segregated activities come around, providing experiences for them that you can't share, and vice versa. You are encouraged to choose to participate and make friends and be part of the sport — but only if you choose to participate in the dark-skinned activities. Your teammates tell you that they could see your trying to force your way into the light-skinned games *if you were really really good*, because that's where most of the exceptional players are, and if you were exceptional they might let you in too — but you're not; you're just okay; and that would make trying to gain access to the light-skinned games really rude. When you point out that it sounds exactly like you're being told that dark-skinned players are worse players than light-skinned players, people mostly just shrug and say that if enough dark-skinned players were that good, they'd be playing in the light-skinned games, now, wouldn't they?
You used to have aspirations of learning to play this game really really well — you love it, and you're not bad at it, and with practice you could be really good. But the bigger games and tournaments are the way to advance, and the more exposure you have to them, the more wearying it becomes. "One day you too could compete for the world cup," the leaders tell you excitedly. And this is true — you could even, with some work, get most of the way there playing only in mixed teams, though the higher up you go, the harder it is to avoid being put, at least occasionally, on a dark-skinned-only team. There are segregated teams at the world-cup — a light-skinned cup and a dark-skinned cup — and only the absolute best players are invited to play in a special game where everyone is together again. Getting good at this fun sport is starting to sound like a lifelong political battle and a massive undertaking…and not like very much fun. So you back out of the tournament track and just focus on playing at practices and trying to have fun anyway, because that's what brought you here in the first place.
Your friends get better more quickly than you, since they go to more tournaments, some of which you could attend if you wanted, and some you couldn't. It's hard to ignore the pull to get better and go to tournaments yourself, and sometimes you really consider it, but it always winds up unpleasant at some point — someone always at least *asks* if you wouldn't like to play with the dark-skinned players — and you gradually stop responding to requests about tournaments. This gets you a reputation among the dark-skinned players for being, at best, antisocial and uninvolved. When you turn down their invitations, you are asked if you hate them, or the sport, or both.
After long enough, you're tempted to say "both".
And yes, this is about being a woman in #underwaterhockey, and yes, this is what it's felt like for me and yes, I get to say so based on my several years of personal experience, and just because you have your own experiences doesn't mean you get to argue with mine. If you don't like how this sounds or how it's made you or I feel, maybe there are things you can do about that.
I've been out of my local underwater hockey games for injury and illness and I swam for the first time in months yesterday. It felt AMAZING; I totally remembered why I was in love with it for so long. I barely had any breathhold (was coughing my guts out for weeks), but I was instantly happy on the bottom of the pool with my stick and glove and fins and puck; I *love* this sport, as an activity. And I've made many friends — male and female — while playing it. And I can't wait to get back to practice.
But I also got invited to a women's tournament today, by an email (from a women's-only mailing list that I somehow landed on) that told me in no uncertain terms that if I wasn't interested in women's tournaments, I "hated women and/or underwater hockey". NO, I'M NOT PARAPHRASING. Wish I was.
One of the many things I liked about hockey was the travel opportunities, the chances to meet people and go places to play tournaments. I can't often afford to do this now, but I've long looked forward to being a better player later and doing more of it. For all of the reasons above, because of all the ways in which guess what, segregation feels like segregation (I know right??), I now have no plans to play in tournaments. Even playing in the smallest local tournament I know about carries an unspoken automatic sign-up in the "women's game", and last time I did that and tried to back out of the women's game, it was really uncomfortable. No thanks. I love hockey but it IS supposed to be fun, and that's just not worth it, sorry.
I feel terrible for excellent players whose enjoyment and progress might be hampered by the gender-segregation in our sport. Fortunately I'm not excellent, and if what I can have without feeling shitty about it all the time is just practices and pick-up games and nothing fancier than that, well, that'll have to be good enough. Maybe I'll find another sport I can participate in as an equal, and get good at that instead.
***Someone made a very good point — it behooves me, as a white person, to point out here that while my example works as just that, an example and a thought experiment, it is NOT intended as an equivocation or a claim that racial and sexist problems are the same, or are experienced the same. The point of the example is to show that **segregation is segregation**, and it's no more relevant or less awful to divide people up into "light and dark" (ignoring those in the middle, or arbitrarily assigning them a side) and make them play in separate sports competitions, than it is relevant or unawful to divide people by gender (again, ignoring those who don't identify with or fit in one of our two whopping categories) and force them to compete separately. That's a good and useful point IMO, but since I'm white and this discussion is mostly happening among white people, it's important that we all realize that the useful example before us is more than just an example to other people and in other contexts, and in those contexts, WE are the privileged ones and should shut up and listen.