On Ultimate and “Equity and Diversity”

Below is the speech I was going to give at the USAU Town Hall:


I’d like to thank Dave Klink for asking me to speak tonight. There are a lot of amazing people in the Minnesota ultimate community, who’ve been here longer, so this is an honor and a humbling experience to be able to share these next 10 minutes with you all.

I was given a list of potential topics and asked to give a talk that would, “Help foster thought and offer a perspective that will resonate with some and challenge others.” So I thought, this is a no brainer — I’ll talk about equity and diversity.

But as I was thinking about what to say tonight, I realized there are two problems with this topic. One is that racial diversity and gender equity often get conflated even though they’re two issues that both need to be addressed. In other words, we’re more comfortable talking about gender equity, but that doesn’t solve the racial diversity issue. And the second problem I stumbled across, which is related to the first, is — how do you explain racial diversity in a place or community where it doesn’t exist?

How do you convey an experience to someone who can never fully understand what you deal with? Sure, people might try to sympathize or think they understand. But even when you can only explain the surface of your experience as a person of color, how can we ask others to empathize and understand the necessity of racial diversity, beyond using it as a buzzword? We’re living in a time that requires us to act with a sense of urgency. Complacency, turning a blind eye, ignoring a problem because it didn’t affect us personally, those all got us here. You might be thinking — well sports are apolitical, keep politics and ultimate separate. I know because I also believed that. But here’s the thing, ultimate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from the world we live in. And trying to pretend that it does, though a disservice to yourself, might not ever affect you. But it could negatively impact your teammates and the people around you who don’t get to experience ultimate separate from the bodies they occupy or the color of their skin.

I want to share a couple stories with you all. They’re not anything exceptional or inspirational. They’re actually quite simple and perhaps boring. But it’s through their simplicity that I hope to capture its ripple effect and the significance of something that’s easily dismissed.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by diversity. Though admittedly, I didn’t actually know what diversity looked like until I moved to Minnesota. But even while growing up in a place where I could see a reflection of myself in my peers, when it came to sports, I only knew one Asian American athlete. One. It was Michelle Kwan and out of all the sports she played, it had to be figure skating. And let me tell you. I am not a figure skater. So while I grew up playing soccer and doing martial arts, I never believed Asian Americans were athletes. Sure, they could have finesse like Michelle Kwan, but athletes with speed, strength, and power on the field or the court? Never. It literally didn’t occur to me that Asian Americans could compete as elite athletes. It was unimaginable. Sure my friends and I messed around with football and basketball, and played high school sports, but in my worldview, Asian Americans weren’t athletic, let alone pro athletes, unless it was in figure skating.

I went to college and played ultimate at UC San Diego, which is important in this story because it’s code for, there are lots of Asians. Half of the players on the team were Asian American and after the very first field practice, between watching these women huck, layout, and sky each other, I thought, “What. I want to be like these people.” I was inspired by these Asian American athletes who taught me how to throw an IO flick break (also known as the Asian squat throw) and tore down stereotypes both in society and in my mind. They were breaking down my own internalized racism, where I believed Asian Americans were physically unable to be athletes. They showed me who I could be, and that what others thought of me, and perhaps most importantly, that even what I thought of myself couldn’t stop me. And this was how, over time, I realized Asian Americans could play sports.

In 2011, my teammates and I went to Austin, TX to play at Centex. With our 21 person roster, we could call an Asian line and still have subs. And this was something that was so normalized that I didn’t really think about it as diversity, and in retrospect I took for granted.

Saturday morning of Centex, we were walking over to tournament central, blasting Ke$ha, obnoxiously drawing attention to ourselves, when out of nowhere we hear someone yell

“LOOK!! THAT TEAM HAS SO MANY ASIANS!”

We turn down the music and we’re looking around to see 1. Who yelled that and 2. What team has a bunch of Asians? We pause for a moment, and we see this Asian girl sprinting towards us from another field. And then we realized she was talking about us! We were the team with a bunch of Asians. It turned out, she was a team where she was the only Asian player. She asked us, “Where are you all from?” (ironically) and we told her — California. Immediately, she yelled back to her teammates, I TOLD YOU GUYS THEY WERE FROM CALIFORNIA! At this point, we’re all laughing, and before she runs back to her team, she tells us, “This is so cool. It’s awesome to see other Asian ultimate players. I thought I was the only one.”

And I thought, whoa. How would my ultimate experience have been different if I didn’t see a reflection of myself in my teammates? If I couldn’t share my life experiences, some of which only other Asian Americans could understand. What would it be like to be surrounded by a bunch of white players and the only Asian on the team?

And then 4 years later I moved to Minnesota.

And this past summer during a trip in Seattle I hung out with a frisbee friend I knew from college and she said to me, “You’re the only Asian player on Drag’n Thrust. Way to represent.”

**

That phrase, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” which has been used a lot to promote gender equity through visibility, couldn’t be more true. I’ll qualify it by saying there’s no simple answer or one solution to address equity and diversity. But what I do know is that equity and diversity are incredibly important. And I’m not talking about its value in numbers or statistics. There’s a value that can’t be measured by anything other than our life stories and experiences. There’s no metric system or easy way to assess how equity and diversity can change lives. I can’t stand here, pointing to a dataset, to get you to value these beliefs. To get you to see how much it matters for this sport and beyond.

Before ultimate, the way in which I viewed the world was rooted in the assumption Asian Americans didn’t play sports. It seems like such a simple, insignificant assumption that would have little impact on someone’s life path. But if we think about Jeremy Lin in the NBA, the phenomenon of Linsanity wasn’t just because Lin surprised us by his performance in a few games. Linsanity was about an Asian American athlete who could compete in the NBA. He surprised us because he was Asian American.

A lot of us are here today because ultimate is meaningful to us. It’s more than a sport. It’s developed us as people, it’s changed who we are. It’s increased opportunities, thrown us into a community like no other, and it’s helped us reimagine the world as we once lived it. This community is unique and inclusive, perhaps more so than many other spaces in this country. And we know that, we’ve heard this before. But if this community, of well-educated, open-minded, inclusive, and progressive people can’t take the conscious steps towards a more equitable and diverse future, where we take the initiative to educate ourselves, to continue to learn, grow, empathize, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and shut up and listen — if even we can’t do that for ourselves, what do we expect from the rest of the country?

This sport has done much more for me than offer a disc, a field, and people to throw to. Think about what this sport has done for you, how it has impacted your life, made you who you are, and how it has gotten you to this very room. Imagine what kind of community we could create if we harnessed ultimate’s values and potential intentionally, thoughtfully, and consciously.

Thank you.