by Matjie Lillian Maboya (UCT)
Reflections of a black woman playing Ultimate Frisbee in South Africa
It was in early autumn of 2013 when one of the ex-co members of UCT’s Ultimate Frisbee team (the Flying Tigers) asked:
“Lillian, would you be willing to co-captain the second team?”
Instead of the typical excitement that one is supposed to feel when given the chance to captain a high-intensity sports team, I was overwhelmed by nervousness and fear. I had only been playing Ultimate at university-level for a year and I still felt inadequate. In retrospect, I felt green for two reasons: Firstly, I felt I was not athletic enough to teach Ultimate Frisbee to competitive players Secondly, I was a black woman who was expected to teach a group of white teenagers who’ve just started university, a range of new skills.
How could this be? Lillian, who had grown up in Mankweng Township in Limpopo Province and who has only ever been an unimportant player when given the chance to do sports? Where I come from, if you are a boy, you play soccer and if you are a girl, netball is your only option. My performance at netball was not impressive at all, I felt. The best I did was when I was selected as a reserve player for the second team. I came to accept that sport was not my thing and decided to focus on my academics. Ten years after my netball shenanigans, I was placed in a leadership position for a fast-paced, fun, co-ed sport called Ultimate Frisbee at the best university in Africa!
Being a woman
The first challenge with co-captaining was that I am a woman. In most sporting codes, men (apparently because of their physiological build) are faster and stronger than women. Very few sports have men and women play against each other. So regardless of any other physiological attributes, the sexual organs that one possesses determine who your opponent will be.
So, here I was leading a mixed gender team that was generally dominated by males. I was expected to help support them to become better athletes, even though society tells me that I can never be a better athlete than a male player even if we get equal training. There is also this hard-line masculinity that is associated with sports, where the most aggressive, angry-looking players are deemed the most dedicated, or the best. Gentleness, softness, love, patience and kindness are not often associated with competitive sportsmanship, and here I was (with a strong preference for the latter values) not feeling good enough to work in this position.
But who do you tell?
Do you say to your team, “No thanks, I think I am too ‘feminine’ for this position?”
This reticence made me realise how important it is for us, the Ultimate community, to think about incorporating women into all levels and leadership positions in the sport. Not just as ‘extra’ players, but as key individuals who are given the capacity to lead teams in various ways.
Maties vs UCT 2012 – photo credit: Matt Lewis
Being a black woman
Perhaps what was more daunting was that I was not just a woman, but that I was a black woman. In South Africa (and the world over), the relationship between a black woman and a white man has always been a contested, complex one with thorny power dynamics. Growing up, I was always socialised into believing that everything white is superior to anything black. In fact, the word ‘baas’ is the default name for any white man that many people in my community come across. Even if one were more educated, or older than that white man, one would have to refer to him as baas. For his whole life, my dad has never seen a white person learn (or admit to learning) from a black person, except a few insignificant words in Sepedi such as ‘thobela’(hello) and ‘ke a leboga,’ (thank you) –which would both be terribly pronounced anyway.
When I dated a white boy some time ago, the first comment my dad made upon finding out was: “does he not find you disgusting?” That comment made me very sad; for if it had been a black boy, my father would have asked if that boy deserved his princess. But then when I thought about my father’s upbringing, black women only worked to serve tea to white masters and their children. There was no case of a black woman being in an equal or superior position to a white man. My dad could not imagine a black woman teaching a white man anything, let alone being attractive to a white man. I continued to struggle with these thoughts.
Being a black woman grappling with the legacy of apartheid
You may ask yourself what this had to do with my experience of being co-captain. What you need to understand is that I am my father’s daughter. Most things I know in this world, I was taught by him and my mom. Now, coming into a leadership position where the historical positions are reversed: the white athletes looking up to the black athlete for ways to improve their play in Ultimate is immensely challenging. The black woman has been told for more than 20 years that she is inferior to anything that is white. The black woman has been told that the only way to be successful in life is if she is more ‘white.’ Therefore, blackness is not synonymous with success in today’s world. The psychological impact of growing up with this doctrine goes far too deep and cannot be undone easily. Yet, with my new position, I continued to challenge my own preconceptions, and those around me
What did I learn?
I have been privileged to have access to an education that tries to teach me about the works and contributions of my people, and this has begun to give me confidence to navigate some of the boundaries of the white superiority/black inferiority complex. This is why, for example, I had the confidence of joining a white-dominated sport; because I believed that there were no super-powers associated with whiteness that made them good at this game. I too could learn how to play. But there are many who have not been as lucky as me. And if these are the people that will be recruited into playing this sport, then it is important to understand (or at least to listen) to their stories, perceptions and experience related to race that may make it difficult for them to join or thrive in the sport.
To be honest, the actual co-captaining work was not difficult. I worked with a very hard-working and enthusiastic lady. She made the effort to include me in all the decisions regarding team placement, player positions, organising practice and also giving feedback to players on the field. She was the reason why this daunting task became more doable and enjoyable. Was it because she was a white foreigner to South Africa? I don’t know.
Although my own growth as a player was delayed because I was focusing on that of the new players, the satisfaction I got from seeing the new players become stellar athletes within a few months warmed my heart enough for me to not feel like I have made a loss. Teaching is my passion and having had the opportunity to teach someone how to hold a disc, how not to run in a vertical stack, or how to make a stall count gave me immense pleasure. So even though in my head it was wrong for a black woman to teach a white man anything, with the help of my co-captain and the committee at the time, I felt respected, I could challenge my own self-doubts and was happy with my contribution to the team.
What was the hardest?
The most painful aspect of this experience was when some of the white players constantly referred to me as Thulie.
Thulie was the only other black woman playing Ultimate at the time.
I felt offended that those players could not differentiate between us. She and I are not even related. When someone calls me Thulie, it implies that they have decided to replace ‘black female player’ with ‘Thulie’ and will not bother to learn actual names of their team mates. Where I come from, a name is everything. We believe that if a baby is given a name that is not destined for them, he/she will cry until the correct name is given unto them from the ancestors. After my family went through all the effort of naming and renaming me until I became Matjie Lillian Maboya, someone just decided to call me by someone else’s name. This is hurtful.
The bitter-sweet experience of co-captaincy has taught me that we need to create open, safe spaces where race and issues related to it are openly and frankly discussed and addressed. The Ultimate community cannot continue to exist as though we are not aware of the ways in which skin colour has given each of us a different upbringing and continues to dictate how we interact with one another and with the game.
I do not have the answers to all the hard questions that Ultimate relationships in post-apartheid South Africa force us to confront.
Nor do I know exactly how exactly we should negotiate grappling with the answers.
But I do know these questions should be asked and that all of us in Ultimate community can reflect individually on how we portray thoughtfulness, sensitivity and consideration to race on and off the field.
I am grappling with them, and would love to hear about reflections too.