Campbell: How one wrestles against racism and sexism today

Updated: July 16, 2020

(Photo: Kelsey Campbell has competed in two World Championships and also represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics. This is Part 1 of a 2-Part column by Kelsey Campbell that appears in the July issue of WIN Magazine.)

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By Kelsey Campbell

Changing the system is hard. We accept a system because on some level, it works. And depending on what side of history you find yourself on, you may have built a life and a plethora of success based on that very system.

I’ve had to revisit so many thought processes, belief systems, and even who I believe myself to be in the face of our current health and social climate.

The temptation as an athlete is to zero in on the training and the goal and the light at the end of the tunnel: Olympic. Gold. Medal. But there’s more. I am “mixed (half Jamaican, half white),” a fact I’ve always been quite proud of … although there were many times growing up that I felt unsure of what mixed even meant.

I also happen to be a female wrestler. Contextually, the term ‘sexism’ was born out of the civil rights movement, but historically, it always did exist. I’ve known for most of my career that sexism existed. I would speak up at times, but it’s tough to make a point in a room full of genders that are not your own.

The few brave individuals to come forward or fight the good fight paid a big price for it. In any case, I think in order to get my point across, I should share the textbook definitions of sexism and racism, alongside my personal experience with both, in order to paint a whole picture of it, from the perspective of a mixed, female wrestler.

Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another; that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Racial separatism is the belief, most of the time based on racism, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.

Sexism, like a lot of things in a confirmation bias era, can appear and describe itself as a lot of things, depending on where you look. The definition that seemed the most relevant is: “Sexism is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. It can affect anyone, but primarily affects women and girls. It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles, and may include the belief that one sex or gender is intrinsically superior to another.

“Extreme sexism may foster sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. Gender discrimination may encompass sexism, and is discrimination toward people based on their gender identity or their gender or sex differences. Gender discrimination is especially defined in terms of workplace inequality. It may arise from social or cultural customs and norms.”

I think the question that resonates with all athletes of color/female athletes is: how do we change hearts and minds?

I was introduced to a pretty racially diverse wrestling roster in high school and truth be told I never felt like a minority on the team. I was the only girl, and I think the potential for that could’ve have gone one of two ways. Early on, I’d hear horrible stories about females trying out for wrestling and having awful experiences. I was awful from a technical standpoint. But I definitely had a place on my team.

I attribute much of my early experience to my coaches. The trickle-down effect is real and athletes will reflect their leadership. Robert Lippi, Bobo Umemoto, Roy Pittman and Thom Ortiz felt that I had a fighting chance because they treated me like an “athlete.”

It’s not the coach’s job to parent their athletes, but I think many high-level performers can agree that so much of our influence came from our first coaches. Coach Pittman made everyone in the room literally wrestle everyone in the room. I remember wrestling Fargo national champions as a first-year wrestler in that room. The only thing coach would say afterwards was: “Did you learn something? What are your goals?’ There were other things, but he always  brought us back to the importance of getting better, and wrestling everyone can help make you better.

Since making the Olympic Team in 2012, I have experienced, or at least become more aware of the inequalities that exist within my sport. I naively believed that once I’d achieved a certain level of success, coaches, athletes, and entities would suddenly support me in the way I’d seen so many males before me get support.

At one place I trained in particular, I was promised quite a bit. With ‘Olympian’ stamped on my resume, it was a good look for them and potentially a great situation for me. Not only were those promises of support never realized, I saw other males come in to train like I was, who were provided money, housing support, gear, and a locker.

These things don’t make a champion, but it was a hard lesson of a culture that had always existed. I knew of men who had not even made the national team but were awarded more support than me and my three Olympic teammates combined. I am grateful for my sponsors and my support system. Many female wrestlers at a high level have similar stories. Most of what we have, we asked for. Repeatedly. I heard a quote from my superior during my time at eBay that always resonated with me: Women are rewarded for their performance. Men are rewarded for their potential.

Part of change starts with your community. It’s coaches and teammates refusing to categorize each other by race and gender in how we treat and respect one another. We are in an era of unlearning some things about racism and sexism, relearning others, and for some, understanding it’s realities to begin with. But you also must want this. You must want the best out of a situation.

I’m grateful I was able to compete at Arizona State under Thom Ortiz, but I believe a big reason he invested in me the way he did was also because I really did show up and do the work. Early on, that was all I knew how to do. There are layers to it.

Combating sexism and racism in this sport has been a long road and to most females/athletes of color, it’s a constant reality. It’s not just about working hard. Most of us work hard. It’s using our success as a platform to speak up to those of influence, diversifying those same positions of influence, having challenging conversations and speaking up when we see sexism and racism.

The world now is not only listening, but is willing to listen. At first, the dream will take you places. I would love for my example to inspire change. Historically, individuals who fight for change have a lot of naysayers. It’s not a pleasant or glamorous position to be in. We look back and often romanticize and revere ‘heroes’ that have paved our way, not considering the blood and tears shed. Not considering those very individuals were not only called traitors, rebels and heretics, but under their own laws, were often times lawbreakers.

Today, Dr. Martin Luther King’s approval is close to 90 percent amongst white Americans. During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, that number loomed around 30 percent, similar to Colin Kaepernick’s approval among white Americans today.

Change starts with a vision, but action creates a movement.

Editor’s Note: Kelsey Campbell will share additional ideas in Part II on what governing bodies and other groups of people within the wrestling world can do to fight racism and sexism in the next issue of WIN, which will be published on Aug. 12.

(Kelsey Campbell represented the U.S. in the 2010 and ’11 World Championships and 2012 Olympics. Follow Campbell on Twitter @worldchanger55 and Facebook at kelseycampbellwrestling2012.)