Brown Skin, White Ice: A closer look at Apna Hockey

Lali Toor at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship South Asian Kick Off in Langley, British Columbia. Photo from Drishti Magazine.

In the summer of 2019, Alysha Bains (PhD student, Simon Fraser University, School of Communication) and I went to Calgary, Alberta for a week to hang out with Apna Hockey, an organization that aims to provide South Asian hockey participants with a safe space to enjoy and learn the game of hockey. We were going to help push some pucks on the ice for a week of camps and finish by conducting focus groups with the participants. The only problem was that the camps didn’t run. Three hours before I was supposed to get on the airplane, Lali Toor (Co-Founder of Apna Hockey) phoned me and said that camps were cancelled that week. Welcome to the wonderful world of research!

Alysha and I had accommodations and flights booked so we were still going to Calgary. We needed to figure out a way to salvage our research trip. So, what was supposed to be a week long on-ice ethnography with focus groups turned into four interviews and some personal reflection. We interviewed Lali and Dampy Brar (Co-Founder), along with one Apna Hockey coach, and a parent of a regular participant. We wanted to capture the work of Apna Hockey in these early days of its development. After each interview, Alysha would share her own memories of being a South Asian girl in hockey with me while driving around Calgary. We decided to combine the interviews with Alysha’s own autoethnographic reflections. The interviews we conducted served as a form of memory elicitation for Alysha. Some researchers use photos to elicit memories and reflections from interview participants, so I figured, why not use other people’s stories to do the same!

A little over 1 year later, our article, “Brown skin, White ice: South Asian specific ice hockey programming in Canada,” was accepted for publication in the journal South Asian Popular Culture. Here, I’d like to give you a quick look at some of the main themes of our paper.

The first theme was about the importance of creating ethnically/racially specific sporting spaces in the face of consistent racism. “Brown out” spaces is a term coined by Stanley Thangaraj from his research on South Asian specific basketball programs in the United States, and he describes these spaces as offering respite for players who experience daily racism:

Apna enables South Asian Canadians to experience browning out at the rink and offers an entree into whiteness. It is made possible by the enhanced class position of a specific demographic of South Asians, predominantly represented by the children of immigrants from the 1960s wave of Canadian immigration and later (Szto 157). Previously, South Asian hockey participants lacked the socioeconomic and cultural capital to participate in hockey or collectively challenge racism. The notion of generational change has been a repetitive theme in research with South Asian hockey participants (Szto 135). As described by hockey parent Lakhi, ‘now as a second generation [immigrant], I am making sure I get my son experiencing all these things.’  While ‘generation’ is a problematic sociological concept that has narrow explanations of social mobility (Rajiva), it can mark visible shifts in hockey culture and access to participation. 

Brown out sporting spaces are important for players to enable them to learn from and with people who look like them, but also for parents who can find it difficult navigating white dominated arenas.

Another theme we explored was the deployment of respectability politics as a way to combat/survive racism. Apna Hockey uses the rink to teach its participants respectful decorum, but we cannot ignore the fact that these are white interpretations of respect:

Positioning oneself as a respectable citizen in a white settler society was consequential for the Civil Rights Movement; Black bodies claiming respectability was seen as a ‘subversive’ act (Higginbotham 187). While respectability politics will not prevent anti-Black/brown violence/racism by itself, it can challenge racist stereotypes (Gross 422). The mentorship opportunities offered by Apna attempt to negotiate double-consciousness by helping South Asian Canadians affirm and uplift their identities within the predetermined confines of white Anglo-Saxon respectability. Akin to the Midnight Basketball programs that were used as social interventions in Chicago during the 1990s (Hartmann 6), Apna uses its platform to challenge stereotypical notions of South Asian boys and men as pathological social problems. Midnight Basketball was created to address the assumed criminality of young Black men by giving them an ‘alternative’ activity that could be surveilled and teach respectability politics/discipline. The main difference, however, is that Midnight Basketball was not created by young Black men for other young Black men. It was created by the Chicago Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Urban Development with the ideology that Black youth are inherently lacking–in moral character, guidance, education, and options. Thus, while Apna includes elements of respectability politics, it is more similar to programs such as Black Girl Run! (72 chapters across the United States) that seek to claim space and address social isolation (Smith-Tran 2). The self-authorization of these spaces is premised on challenging stereotypes and supporting each other away from the white imagination.

Respectability politics provides contingent acceptance into white sporting spaces. It should be understood as a survival technique but not as the solution to racism.

Dampy Brar is the 2020 winner of the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for his work with Apna Hockey.

The last theme we unpacked was the importance of visibility and self-authorization via social media. Similar to other accounts like Black Girl Hockey Club, Black Girls Run, and Brown Girls Climb, Apna Hockey provides a space where racialized athletes can see themselves represented in a positive light and in various interpretations of success:

Toor uses Instagram to ‘shed light on players that work their butts off and play at a high level. They should get recognition. They should understand what they mean to our community.’ He continued with a reflection about what this type of media amplification would have meant to him in his younger days: ‘I didn’t know what I meant to my community because I didn’t know I had a community. That’s just how disconnected I was.’ Even though there are far more South Asian participants today, many remain isolated from each other. Apna social media accounts foster a sense of community where one may not exist easily because of geographic constraints (e.g., Hirschfield 16; Sharma 51).

I’ll close here with one of Alysha’s reflections where she articulates how the desire to perform whiteness in hockey culture is often connected to a silencing of the self:

I learned how to deflect every gut feeling, put my head down and see how hard I could push myself.

I asked my parents to tightly braid my thick curly hair so it appeared to be thinner and ‘neater.’ I didn’t want to look so ‘big’ and brown on the ice. I dreamt of having a straight ponytail like the others on my team. I took every chance I could to deflect my culture, race, mother tongue and appearance. I was reminded when players on competing teams would shout ‘brown b*itch,’ but I wasn’t allowed to make a scene. Instead, I remained patient and silent (most of the time) as a way to cope and continue to ‘work hard.’

For racialized athletes, Alysha feels that there is a massive contradiction whereby one wants to be the best athlete they can be while also trying to blend in as much as possible. Especially in multicultural societies where unity is supposed to be the standard state, it can cause those marked as different to silence themselves. Arguably, the development of these ethnically/racially specific sporting spaces are ways to speak back after decades of silence.

“Brown ice, White ice” is now available in the fall 2020 issue of South Asian Popular Culture [HERE].

Check out my conversation with Alysha Bains [HERE].

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