Racial disparity in roller derby and the work it will take to fix it

I’ve been dreaming about interviewing Foxxi Brown about her experience playing roller derby for months now, and specifically about the racial disparity I witnessed when we skated together. If I’m being 100% transparent, when I first thought about starting this series, I knew my Dream Team of players would be the three interviews this now encompasses: Dreadlocked N. Loaded, Singh Machine, and Foxxi.

Here’s the thing about Foxxi: she’s this stunning goddess of a woman who owns the room when she walks in it. When you hear her talk about her life, she’s incredibly fascinating. She grew up participating in pageants, which is evident in the way she presents herself today. She played sports, which is evident in the way she performs on the track. She’s a model, a lifestyle influencer, a social media maven, and a complete beast on the roller derby track. And despite all of this success, I continued to see that she was treated differently from other skaters.

The legendary Foxxi Brown, making a presence in a tournament in which she almost didn’t get to skate

What is racial disparity?

I’m going to pause for a moment and talk about racial disparity, since I discuss it throughout this post. I want to start by stating Foxxi did not personally talk about the term “racial disparity” but her stories are filled with stories about how it affects her.

The Urban Institute explains how the massive differences in policies and practices have historically undermined how Black Americans are treated in the criminal justice system, in housing, in the workplace, in healthcare, and as I’ve seen it first-hand in roller derby as well as other sports.

After I retired from derby in 2016, I couldn’t shake my disappointment in how I saw people talk about Foxxi. I’ve encouraged friends to follow her on Instagram, to send friend requests to her on Facebook, and it’s all because I find her so talented and inspiring and I want the world to know her. I don’t think I’ve ever actually told her that, probably because it was hard to say those things while you’re trying to out juke her on the floor so you don’t get slammed into a wall with one of her massive hits.

We start with the Foxxi hair flip

I wanted to start by asking Foxxi to tell a story she told us at the 2015 International WFTDA D2 Playoffs in Cleveland, Ohio. She joined the Kansas City Roller Warriors earlier that year and we were thrilled to have her join the All Star team.

What I’ve now dubbed the “Foxxi hair flip” was an issue with her first league, and a huge part of her derby personality. I wanted her to detail the story to begin to illustrate the racial disparity I noticed from her first days with KCRW.

How Black bodies are perceived in derby

People notice Foxxi when she walks in the door, or rolls by on skates. While roller derby typically is a body positive sport, it’s obvious that people look at Foxxi differently. I noticed it from the first moment she skated with KCRW, but it turns out it’s been happening long before those days.

Foxxi details the early days of her roller derby career, how she was told she didn’t look like everyone else and that her actions would look worse than everyone else. Today, she believes the optics of a Black woman skating illustrates that disparity. I ask, “Is there a double standard in roller derby?” We both agree wholeheartedly that yes, it does.

Representation matters in roller derby

Foxxi met a Patti Whackin, a veteran Roller Warrior, at a bout several years ago. She says it was a wake-up call to her after a series of bad days. And after meeting some little Foxxi fans, she realized how important it was for her to continue to skate. Despite that fact that racial disparity exists, she wants to fight for the future of those coming behind her.

Racial disparity at the WFTDA level

This part of the interview shocked me, and it’s something she’s not talked to anyone about until now, so it’s likely that even her teammates don’t know about it. At the 2016 International WFTDA D2 Playoffs in Wichita, KS, the tournament was actually paused as a group of referees discussed whether Foxxi would be allowed to play because of how she was wearing her hair. I was in shock on many levels, but one of the largest is because of recent efforts the government has made to prevent those types of issues.

The CROWN Act, which is a law that prohibits race-based hair discrimination, was introduced in 2019 to prevent this type of discrimination from happening in the workplace. There have been 10 states that have signed this legislation into law, and while this legislation was not a law during the 2016 playoffs, I was disturbed to learn that despite WFTDA’s progressive policies, this one was found lacking on a racial disparity level.

To be clear, WFTDA tournament refs were not necessarily Kansas or even Wichita refs. Referees are typically sourced from all over the globe and brought in to manage tournaments. I don’t know the communities were represented by referees in this tournament, but I would be surprised if a number of them weren’t from racially diverse communities across the United States. I don’t understand why her hair was an issue.

I also dug back into the rules for WFTDA, but from what I can tell, aside from game play tweaks, not much has changed since I retired in 2016. There was never a rule regarding hairstyles. Please chime in in the comments below if you know of something different.

The shared experience of Black skaters

Foxxi also talks about giving back to the league despite her experiences, her fears about being a Black woman in a modern America, and how skaters can think critically about their leagues and whether they are welcoming to people of color.

We also discussed the 2020 hangings of Black men and how Foxxi felt compelled to speak out about her own safety and mental status. From all of this, one of my takeaways was this: Foxxi has been very alone as she carries the weight of racial disparity on her own and doesn’t let her teammates and friends inside to know what she’s dealing with.

Foxxi is not alone

While many of Foxxi’s experiences are similar to what other Black skaters have gone through, she also paused to thank her friends and allies who were compelled to speak up, which was such a wonderful way to end the interview. But I couldn’t help but feel heavy as we ended our interview. She shouldn’t be dealing with this alone.

Final thoughts

What needs to change? In my opinion, a lot. We need to stop picking at Black woman for their hair, their size, and everything else. We need to allow them to be who they are without judgment or stereotypical narratives rising to the top. It’s contributing to the racial disparity in leagues.

I’d also like to hear your thoughts on Foxxi’s concept of “two different rule books.” Is it time for new policies to be written to support Black women and people of color? Do any of these rules that Foxxi listed specifically make sense for why she’s been so heavily scrutinized? Feel free to ask any questions or comment below to help unpack her experiences and make suggestions about how we could fix these issues.

5 thoughts on “Racial disparity in roller derby and the work it will take to fix it

  • Holy crap I had no idea the refs were debating her hair style. We played KC at that tournament and I saw no issues with her hair. She is a great player and gave us a really hard time on the track, that’s the game! I can’t believe there was any discussion about her hair style! UGH!

    • Her own teammates didn’t know. It’s shocking on so many levels, especially considering the fact it was a WFTDA tournament. I wouldn’t expect it from a home game, let alone a tournament. I can’t even imagine what the problem was.

  • This was great to hear and watch! I just nodded and said “mmhmm” through the whole thing ❤️ and I’m a skating referee! I have to tell you as a Black woman referee, I was aware of the disparity of my colleagues that they were so quick to dismiss. I think that some of these experiences can be improved if there were more Black women refs, but I found that white male dominated ref culture part of derby to be very toxic. I have been out of derby for 3 years after pregnancy/single motherhood. I want to go back and be strong to support the Black women skaters but I have to say the culture among refs was some of the worst subtle racism and sexism in sports I have every experienced. And it doesn’t help that derby has sold itself as progressive so most of the white male refs feel they are “too liberal” to be above criticisms. And absolutely no real support from white woman skaters to improve the ref culture of their league because they benefit.

    • That idea of “subtle” racism and sexism is fascinating, and I know exactly what you’re talking about. I hope it will change, I really do. Call me an eternal optimist, but I like to believe even progressive organizations can learn from where they’ve failed to improve. Thanks for taking the time to chime in. And I hope your league can convince you to return. You sound like an amazing role model for your league AND your kiddo! ❤️

    • I agree on the sexism issue in reffing. I cannot speak to the race issue, but as a female ref, when I first started I was stunned by the constant mansplaining and the self-serving focus of the refs on their specific knowledge superiority/power rather than as background people to support the game; adding a race into the mix would only make the situation more challenging.

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