Supporting Black Students in Physical Education

Despite recent attention to the needs of Black youth, their perspectives are still noticeably absent from physical education in a way that fully encapsulates the full spectrum of their experiences.

In our recently published book Critical Race Studies in Physical Education, we decided to shed light on issues that could undermine the ability of Black youth to have positive physical education experiences. We wrote the book for physical education teachers, preservice teachers in PETE programs, and their instructors to use in class and in after-school, recreation, and sports programs.

Professionals must train to identify and support Black students’ learning needs and put in the work to be anti-racist. This helps them identify and address barriers to learning and development and encourages linkages between the home, school, and community.

As teachers who study and interact in physical education teacher education (PETE) contexts, we think other minoritized groups’ experiences are integral to understanding. Yet, in our review of physical education texts two years ago, we found few mentions of the diverse issues facing Black youth and those who educate them.

Given the history of the United States and the unique ongoing struggle for civil rights that Black groups (particularly African Americans) face, a robust discussion of the Black experience is integral to understanding how other groups have navigated racism and structural disadvantages in the United States. In writing Critical Race Studies in Physical Education, we set out to humanize Black youth while reminding the PE community that Black people are not a monolith. Rather, the Black community represents a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences, aspirations, and perspectives.

We Can Do Better

Two questions we have been consistently asked are, “Why write this book?” and “Why now?” There are numerous reasons. Given the scope of this blog post, the best way to answer this question is to reflect upon some current observations that we elaborate on in the book.

  • Despite Black youth not living under the same Jim Crow laws that imposed significant political, social, and economic anguish on previous generations, their turmoil continues and is unique.
  • Today’s Black youth are navigating the systematic and institutional racism of the past, political capitalism undermining democracy, and enforcements that treat Black bodies as a threat. 
  • Black youth are framed through media and technologies that provide content tailored to white audiences, featuring Black pain, struggle, and death.
  • Instead of providing real solutions to assist Black youth, time is spent traversing a cycle of emotionality where people are captivated, stunned, repulsed, or rendered numb by guilt and the realization that the nation’s history is not as pristine as we would like to believe.
  • Contrary to what is occasionally implied, physical education is not immune to inequities that exist in society.

Indeed, there should be no wonder why slogans such as “We Shall Overcome,” “Say It Loud, I’m Black, and I’m Proud,” and “Black Lives Matter” have and still exist. To be blunt, our nation repeatedly demonstrates that the lives of Black people are not valued fully. As professionals who work in physical education and espouse physical literacy, it is imperative to expand upon our notion of what “physical” means for Black youth.

In his 2021 book Black in White Space, author Elijah Anderson provides his perspective from years of study of racial barriers firmly entrenched in our society. As he mentions, “white spaces” are regarded as normal and taken for granted by white people. In contrast, Black persons entering these spaces are subjected to a host of systematic evaluations where they are constantly scrutinized, threatened, and judged, before being deemed “acceptable.”

These evaluations have negative implications for Black people, physically and psychologically. As we elaborate on in our book, Black youth are too often valued solely by their worth through their ability to entertain or athletically produce.

Why Critical?

The other inquiry we have garnered has been with the title of the book, specifically the words “critical” and “race.” As we are all aware by now, critical race theory (CRT) has been of fierce discussion in numerous parts of the United States, reducing an established academic framework to a catch-all term that falsely villainizes white people. CRT is an approach to studying U.S. institutions and policies that is taught in relation to examining race and law in the United States. It involves intersectionality, or the way in which various forms of inequality and identity can be affected by race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. CRT’s earliest origins began in the 1970s — taught primarily in law schools.

We use the word “critical” as it is common practice in writing books that seek to have readers critically think and reflect upon society and their decision-making processes. Critical Race Studies in Physical Education then, like CRT, is not a book that focuses on the criticism or blame of a group of people. Instead, it is a book that challenges readers to commit to learning about Black youth.

Physical education is no different from other education subjects that need fewer performative gestures and promises, and more strategies that bring about measurable and sustainable change for marginalized populations. History, unfortunately, has shown us that nothing will significantly change for the better if we let discussions of this nature linger on. We hope that you also choose to be proactive.

Black Life in Real Life

The case studies at the core of this book are powerful and intersectional. They are framed through real-life experiences from courageous contributors and bring attention to current challenges that Black youth navigate. In the case studies are topics related to:

  • Colorism and Protecting the Crown: A discussion on how Black girls are dehumanized by constructs of whiteness that marginalize Black beauty and negate physical activity engagement and well-being.
  • Acceptability Politics, Notion of Allyship, and the Power of Words: A focus on the complexities of terms of endearment, the savior complex, cultural appropriation, and the ramifications of this on Black joy and the human spirit.
  • The Intersection of Black and Transgender Identity: An examination of sexist and anti-Black beliefs, marginalization, and the promotion of gymnasium and activity spaces that are safe and judgment-free.
  • White Fear in Black Spaces: Confronting the fear that many student-teachers have working in predominately Black schools.

As Black scholars committed to equity, social justice, and anti-racist education — with intentions to foster cultural awareness and competencies among PE faculty and teacher candidates — we espouse that intentional focus on culturally relevant topics must occur to move forward the agenda for transformative racial justice in education. We invite you to assist us in our endeavors, as this commitment is not only powerful for Black students, but necessary for all of us as we advocate for efforts that help address inequities in education, physical activity, and health.

Additional Resources

Brian Culp

Brian Culp, Ed.D., is a professor and in the WellStar College of Health and Human Services at Kennesaw State University. He can be reached at Follow him at Twitter @CultureNmotion.

Tara Blackshear

Tara B. Blackshear, Ed.D., is an equity scholar who specializes in health, physical activity, and education. She is an assistant professor of kinesiology in physical education teacher education at Towson University. She can be reached at Follow her at Twitter @TaraBlackshear.