Saturday, September 26, 2009

On Sport, Hybridity, and Multiculturalism

Hybridity is the diffusion between cultures that emerges due to globalization, in particular the economic and political imbalances that shape cultural interchange, appropriation, and assimilation. Though seen in numerous forms, hybridity is perhaps most analyzed in popular culture.

In an earlier post, I argued that Samoan youths’ integration into American football ultimately reaffirms the same racial stereotypes that keep Samoans (in this case predominantly males) from being respected intellectually, but valued for their physicality, and feared by a society where Samoan youth are already over-represented in the justice system for violent offenses. In short, the dominant narrative surrounding Samoans is “brawn over brains,” and the sporting discourse could but does not change this.


In NPR’s ongoing focus on high school football, Tom Goldman profiles a rural 8-man football team in Oregon comprised of very diverse exchange students.

GOLDMAN: Meet the team. Caleb Andrews, fullback, Hereford, Oregon. Justus Wise, halfback, Hereford, Oregon. So much for the easy part of the line up.

Mr. KAN BAKAI UCHKUN UULU (Left Guard, Burnt River Bulls): Uchkun Uulu Kan Bakai, left guard from Kyrgyzstan.

Mr SZU-YAO SU (Quarterback, Burnt River Bulls) Su Szu-Yao, quarterback from Taiwan.

Mr. JOVAN RADAKOVIC (Left End, Burnt River Bulls): Jovan Radakovic, left end, Serbia.

Mr. JU HYOUNG PARK (Right End, Burnt River Bulls): Ju Hyoung Park, right end from South Korea.

Mr. CEM ERDOGDO (Right Guard, Burnt River Bulls): Cem Erdogdo, right guard, Bremen, Germany.

Mr. BAN DU (Center, Burnt River Bulls): Ban Du, center from China.

GOLDMAN: Six exchange students have turned the Burnt River Bulls into a virtual U.N. in helmets and pads. These 15- to 17-year-olds plopped down in the Eastern Oregon town of Unity, population of about 120, for a crash course in rural America.

Like a lot of remote areas, Unity brings in exchange students to increase funding for schools, and for the cultural give-and-take with the locals. For the new boys, it's also been a crash course in a sport they had never played.




While not necessarily reaffirming any particular race-based stereotypes due to the team’s extensive diversity, the story illustrates first, how some American schools utilize foreign exchange students to maintain funding streams, and second, how sport is used as an agent of assimilation. Because the students are so diverse in terms of culture (including language) and nationality, American culture is all the more dominant in unifying the youth within a sport that absolutely requires unity and a respect for authority.

Additionally, a theme of multiculturalism appears to be running through this NPR series on high school football. The typical liberal approach to multiculturalism amounts to celebrating diversity through examples of structural integration and cultural artifacts (e.g., food, clothes, music, dance). Lost in that discussion is a more discriminating conversation on more serious issues that may or may not be relevant. How are these youth received by American high schools? What forces of globalization influence student exchange and is the flow mutual? Why didn’t NPR do a big series on girls’ volleyball?

I personally don’t see anything bad in this particular story. However, in the acceptable multicultural conversation, when one raises these types of questions he or she is tagged a troublemaker. Unfortunately, then nobody asks the hard questions.

(Photos courtesy of NPR).
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