Racism and Colorism are as relevant to the topic of sailing as how to rig a boom preventer and where to position a traveler car to maximize upwind performance. And yet there is a great divide within the sailing community about whether racism should even be mentioned in a space reserved for the general topic of sailing–even if the discussion is about how racism can impact the sport of sailing, how it can determine who is most likely to become a sailor, and how certain sailors will describe different experiences while sailing based on their race. For example, I know some sailors in the Los Angeles area who experienced so much racism at a hidebound yacht club that they are breaking off to form a Black yacht club so that Black sailors have a place to feel welcome.
And yet many people still cling to the refrain that a discussion of race has no place in an environment devoted to the topic of sailing, as though a person’s experience of racism can be magically separated from the activity during which it occurs. Some will say they are here to discuss sailing only and that a sailing space is a non-political space–as though racism does not happen in this space so long as we don’t discuss it. Another favorite claim is that there is no “drama” allowed in sailing-related spaces, and that the mention of racism in sailing will only cause drama. Well, the drama is already there, whether we discuss it or not!
A few years back, while I was eating dinner with a mostly white race crew, I expressed disappointment about a racist comment that a coworker had made about Serena Williams. Instead of agreeing that racist comments are wrong, the boat owner deflected by making a sexist comment about me. He said I was only dwelling on that because I was a woman, and a man would let it go. When I disagreed, one of the few female crew members backed him up, saying there were in fact biological differences between a man’s brain and a woman’s. The next morning, I was the only one not woken for breakfast, even though I’d been told I would be. And I was told I could no longer race on that boat the next time they raced.
Recently, there was a split in the Women Who Sail Facebook group over the topic of racism, which caused the formation of a second group. In a subgroup for Puget Sound members, some did not want the group’s mission statement to explicitly state that it is against racism or that Black Lives Matter. They said that to do so would politicize the group. Others said that racism was a humanitarian issue more than a political one. Since Black and other people of color are statistically underrepresented in the sport of sailing, it is therefore necessary to make the group obviously and actively inclusive by using anti-racist language.
It is with the same motive that I have always called my YouTube channel “Adventures of a Black Woman Sailor.” As a biracial Black and white woman, I embrace all three aspects of my racial identity in an inclusive way, separately and together. In other words, I am not a nothing who belongs nowhere–I am biracial, I am Black, and I am also white. I find it important to actively mention my Black identity in spaces like the sailing community, where Black people are underrepresented. It lets other Black people know there are others of their race to relate with, which builds strength. And it shows young Black girls who might feel excluded from the idea of sailing that it is possible to enter a space that seems, from the outside, very white and male. To them, I might seem like another white person too if I didn’t actively point out my Blackness. I don’t “look Black” to many people, so words are how I let the world know there is another Black woman taking up space in this disproportionally white and male environment.
This brings me to the topic of colorism, which has a lot to do with racism, but is a little different in how it is defined. Racism is prejudice based on a person’s ethnicity. People who share an ethnicity might not share the same color or other physical traits—for example, two siblings with different skin tones. Or, two people with Black ancestry, who also have different degrees of white ancestry—as is very common in the Black community. Colorism refers to the color of a person’s skin, which is usually but not always determined by ethnicity, and the fact that our society is prejudiced against darker skinned people.
As a light skinned person with half Black ancestry who looks lighter than most half Black people, I have always been more privileged in regard to my color than a Black person with darker skin or two Black parents. When I was scrambling to get my boat ready for my Vancouver Island trip, I pulled a few all nighters. One night, I was driving home and found it a real challenge to stay awake. A couple times, I drifted to the edge of my lane, and a cop saw me and pulled me over. I explained to the cop why I was tired, he found it amusing and let me go. When I talk to a cop, I am only mildly nervous that I will experience racist treatment because I am Black. The very perceptive will know right away because of my brown eyes, flat nose, full lips, and curly 3B hair—but my skin is a light olive, so it probably won’t happen. But for a darker skinned person, any racist will instantly know their ethnicity, so the fear is much greater and more constant. While this incident did not happen while I was sailing or in a sailing-related space, it would have effected my ability to sail or even to do my trip at all if that cop had been a racist who perceived my ethnicity. This is why, in the sailing community, it is important to not only discuss racist behavior while sailing, but the inherent racism in the absence of Black sailors in the community. If a community will not acknowledge the systemic reasons for Black absence or blames it all on Black culture or the failings of Black people, that is as racist as an overt racial slur. In some ways, it’s even more damaging, insidious in its inability to be pinpointed as racist without complex analysis.
Pointing out my Blackness in my channel name means that every video I share about sailing in a sailing-related group will also confront every person who sees it with my ethnicity. This makes the feedback I receive a lot more mixed, with most people expressing support. But then, there is always a small yet very noisy minority of mostly white men who hate that I openly identify as Black in my channel’s name. (Notably, they never care much that I mention being a woman, which reveals that race is far more taboo a subject than gender in the sailing community.) This minority will make every effort to treat me like shit for suggesting that my ethnicity has any relevance to sailing.
Since I started my channel two years ago, when posting in general sailing groups, I have been called expletives. I have been accused of “asking for hand outs” merely for having a Patreon link in my videos—which literally every white YouTuber has, and goes by uncriticized. I have been told that I’m racist against white people because I pointed out that I’m Black. I’ve been called lazy and I don’t work hard, and should get a job. I’ve been informed that if Black people wanted to sail, they would, and it has nothing to do with racism—it has to do with the flaws within Black culture. I’ve had white men call me not Black, and I was recently called “irritating” because I am “the new Rachel Dolezal of sailing.”
By pretending I have lied about my ethnicity because of my light skin tone, these individuals can deflect from the issue that my channel title has forced them to reckon with: racism exists in the sailing community, and the absence of Black sailors in the community in proportion to their percentage of the general population is a problem. It is a thing. And this makes the presence of a Black sailor in the group worth mentioning out loud, with pride. Racists hate it when Black people are proud of who they are, and they will grasp at any straw to deflate that pride.
They will even call me “attractive” in a way that is meant as an insult, targeted to invalidate what I’m doing, and in a way that reveals their racist beauty standards. One said I shouldn’t call myself Black because I have “lovely fair skin,” then proceeded to state that the sea doesn’t care what color you are. A few white men bonded in my thread about their frustration that it was the “beautiful” people who always get the most likes, which would not be the case with a “darker” skinned person, whom they didn’t see as beautiful. The fact that they feel so free to call dark skin ugly in a space like that just confirms how alive and well racism is in the general sailing community.
Unfortunately, due to the colorism experienced by darker skinned Black people at the hands of a white supremacist culture, biracial or light skinned Black people are often shunned from Black spaces as well. Our Blackness is denied entirely and our experiences with racism are dismissed as nonexistent because they happened less frequently or in different ways than what you normally think of. For example, something must have caused me to obsess over wanting chemically straight hair and blue color contacts all those years growing up, even though I only remember being called the N word twice.
Unfortunately, what excluding biracial people from Black spaces does is it gives those same racists who treat darker skinned people like crap all the time, validation for the way they treated us when they perceived who we were, or when we pointed out our race. Racism is racism, and racists should always be called out for their seriously wrong behavior.
Shunning in Black spaces has happened to me a lot outside the sailing community, but it hasn’t happened to me much in the Black sailing community at all, and for that I’m so grateful. The Black Sailors group is a great, inclusive, and supportive group. There is also Women Who Sail: Women of Color, which is also very supportive.
I really value support in any form I can find it. Perhaps because the BLM movement has gained steam in the past year, I have noticed an increase in the people who will defend me against hateful comments in the general sailing groups, and I have also noticed a decline in the number of people who feel free to come on my posts and spew racist garbage as a result. Because of all the people who won’t let an ignorant comment go by unchallenged, those who would make them are learning that their comments will most likely be opposed and it won’t be so easy for them. And many of the people defending me are white, and male.
In conclusion, multi-racial solidarity is important in the sailing community. While I might not feel comfortable sharing this article in the most general, popular sailing groups because I’ll probably get banned for bringing politics into sailing, I do believe that racism in sailing needs to be discussed beyond just Black-only sailing groups in order for real progress to be made in the sport of sailing.