Opinion: How Diversity, Equity And Inclusion Training Benefits The Sport

Jun 22, 2021 - 2:58 PM

Editor’s Note: As part of its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Action Plan, the U.S. Equestrian Federation is hosting the next event in its DEI Community Conversation series, “An Introduction to LGBTQ+ and Becoming a Better Ally,” at 5 p.m. (Eastern Time) June 30 via Zoom. With a panel of diverse LGBTQ+ athletes and industry professionals, the session will provide helpful information about LGBTQ+ experiences and explore how people can become strong allies to their fellow equestrians, friends, and family. Panelists include Ashland Johnson, founder of The Inclusion Playbook; LGBTQ+ youth advocate Rebby Kern of Equality North Carolina; and Chris Mosier, athlete, coach and founder of transathlete.com. Registration is free, and USEF membership is not required.

In October of last year, the U.S. Equestrian Federation released its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Action Plan. I was invited to consult as an external thought leader during the development of the plan, in my roles as a Black equestrian, a scholar of Black history, and my engagement with DEI work. I count myself among those who see significant progress in the plan, even as I acknowledge that there are more steps I want USEF to take.

Some of the plan’s components are visible already, such as a directive to increase representation of diverse equestrians in advertising and news about USEF. Others, including a plan to support community riding centers, a new membership category, and an equity audit of USEF rules and regulations, are ongoing. As the co-founder of Strides for Equality Equestrians, I am encouraged by partnership opportunities I see for organizations like mine. And I can’t help but be amazed that an organization I previously assumed was indifferent to issues of justice and equality has followed through on a stated commitment to just these issues.

I am also aware of strong negative responses to the action steps within the plan. Though the plan addresses many aspects of human identity (including sexual orientation, gender identity, ability and veteran status), the most heated criticism seems to regard its anti-racist implications. No one has dared complain to my face.

Social media posts have been another matter. They claim that the USEF is attempting to brainwash people, or that racism does not exist, or that money is the reason for lack of diversity in horse sports, not racism. Posters disregard the perspectives of BIPOC equestrians and their allies who identify the effects of racism in horse sports. Most imagine that if they cannot personally identify racism in themselves, then they cannot possibly be participating in racism. These critics are almost always white—and perceive that they have been singled out for shaming and persecution because of their whiteness.

Perhaps some people will not be convinced of the need for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. But I suspect there is a large and less loud contingent of those who do wish to learn more about how to create positive change.

For those who do, I start here: Racism is a broader system, not just a feeling that individuals do or do not have. The overwhelming weight of historical evidence shows that racism—individual, systemic or internalized—has been and remains a powerful force in our lives as Americans. The horse world is by no means exempt. In fact, the horse world, with its concentration of wealthy and powerful people and lack of diversity, reflects the patterns that maintain racial inequality in our larger society. It will take a collaborative, sustained and deliberate effort to make change.

Learning, Language And Lift

I will focus here on one aspect of the USEF’s Action Plan: the one-hour Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training that will now be required of all USEF staff, officials, committee members and other representatives. Individual members will be able to participate optionally.

I feel an hour of a virtual, free seminar represents a minimal demand on USEF representatives while having the potential to increase DEI literacy and fairness for everyone. Like other required education, this training will enable USEF representatives to do their jobs effectively while upholding the values and brand of the USEF. There is nothing that will force a participant to think a certain way after experiencing the DEI training. That said, I do hope my fellow equestrians approach the session with an open mind and a sense of curiosity.

I do not know what the seminar’s content will be, but I do know that it will be conducted by a well-respected firm, The Inclusion Playbook. Here is what I hope the sessions will accomplish with regard to anti-racism:

First, I want the sessions to enable learning the facts about race and racism. In my experience as an educator, most students arrive at college with almost no understanding of how race and racism have operated through history. When I teach even the most basic facts, students are often angry—not with me, but with the insufficiency of their previous education in this regard. While Black students are more likely to have learned some of the material before, students of all identities express that they wish their earlier education had been more complete. Many have been taught that “colorblindness” (I don’t care if you’re Black, green, purple …”) will solve racial inequities. Such an approach blinds people to the very real consequences of systemic racism. Consider, as I ask my students to do, that of the past 400-plus years in this land, the ownership of people of African descent was legal for nearly 250 of them. When this became illegal, a system known as Jim Crow preserved white economic and political power for another 100 years. In the experience of Black Americans, full political citizenship has only been available in the United States for the past 55 years. This fact has far- reaching implications in all areas of American life, including sports, and including equestrian sports. Should we not all wish to educate ourselves as much as possible to understand what these implications are?

Second, I want the session to offer language for how to talk about race and racism. For people unaccustomed to discussing these topics, learning this language can be liberating. Note that throughout this article I have used terms that people sometimes shy away from: Black, white, racism. (Editor’s Note: According to AP Stylebook, Black is capitalized, because: “Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.”) Naming things for what they are allows truths to emerge. Also, if you refer to a Black person as Black, I assure you it will not be news to them!
The other lesson about language is that a racial slur does not have to be used in order for language to have a racist impact. In fact, some racist language is ambiguous enough that many white people will not recognize it as such and think nothing of it. To people of color accustomed to hearing such language, however, it is insulting and even traumatic. Non-inclusive language fails to market equestrian sports effectively; we can and should care about how people of color who are participants and future participants perceive USEF competitions and their representatives. USEF can and should protect equestrians of color from prejudice and harassment by its representatives. I personally have read and heard a number of inappropriate remarks from USEF judges and organizers that repeat racist ideas or claim that diversity has no place at equestrian competitions. This behavior should be unacceptable in a representative of our national governing body. Shouldn’t we all wish to understand how language affects our fellow equestrians and helps or does not help grow the sport?

Finally, I want the sessions to motivate us to undertake the lift necessary for moving the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion in our beloved sport. To be honest, it takes effort to overcome the racism in U.S. culture and politics. Most of the time, people of color have had to bear the consequences of racism as well as do the work to lessen it. White allies who participate in this work have done so out of conviction and a sense of responsibility toward larger democratic ideals. By requiring that all representatives of the national governing body do a small part of this work, the USEF is creating accountability, which is one source of motivation. It sends a signal to equestrians of color that the USEF takes diversity, equity and inclusion seriously. And I hope that the experience of participating in the sessions themselves arouses curiosity and empathy that will push us to do more. Shouldn’t we all push ourselves to think outside our own experiences and look for ways we might understand the struggles of others?

The DEI Action Plan is important progress for our sport and for USEF. Horse sports have the opportunity to expand participation, attract more sponsors, and uphold our nation’s values of democracy and fairness. Shouldn’t all of us do everything in our power to help it happen?

Anastasia C. Curwood holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University (New Jersey) in history and is Director of African American and Africana Studies at the University of Kentucky. She has been involved in eventing for over 30 years and is currently an active dressage competitor. She’s a cofounder of Strides For Equality Equestrians and serves as an External Thought Leader for the USEF DEI Action Plan and as co-chair of the U.S. Eventing Association DEI Committee. All of the above views are her own and do not reflect the official position of any organizations in which Dr. Curwood serves.

This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 7, 2021, issue.

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