Sports societies can do more to foster integration

FrisbeeRacial discrimination and its twin sister, the failure of integration, have become prevalent topics at the University of York, and many other UK universities, over the past few years.

A recent York Student Think Tank public policy paper on Racial Discrimination, of which I was a co-author, found that 1 in 10 students faced racial discrimination, while this percentage rose to 22% among non-British students.

From the focus groups held to gather data for the research paper and from personal experience, I have noticed three broad trends with regards to racial discrimination and the failure of integration and how sports societies can help bridge the gaps. Firstly, fostering integration requires a significant degree of social engineering. Sports societies can provide the necessary secular platform for this. This is especially so because directly contrived social engineering would lead to poor participation rates and skepticism among the student body. For example, if a society were to hold a social event whose explicit aim is to bring international and home students together, it would tend to lead to poor participation among home students, since they would perceive it as being catered to internationals.

Instead, a better way to facilitate integration is via an indirect, informal approach. For example, the Taekwondo society holds annual Chinese New Year dinners followed by a drink at a pub. Everyone was encouraged to wear red clothes during these Chinese New Year dinners, since red is the traditional Chinese colour for good fortune, and it was also joked that “wearing red leads to better orgasms for the rest of the academic year”. The Tai Chi society holds end-of-term dinners at Chinese restaurants followed by going to Willow in what a British friend described as part of a “time-old Chinese tradition”. This casual approach, spiced with a bit of British humour and drinking, can be far more effective in bring BME, internationals and home students together compared to direct social engineering.

Secondly, sports societies are uniquely positioned to overcome lad culture. Lad culture was highlighted by the focus group participants and the report as being one of the major obstacles towards integration, because it tended to be dominated by white male home students and discouraged other ethnicities and females from joining it. It may be that the Eton Mess controversy could occur because the lads involved did not have any BME friends in their social circle, hence at no point did anyone point out to them that blacking up was crass at best and downright racist at worst. This was corroborated by a paper published by the NUS, which highlighted the problem of lad culture and defined it “as a group or ‘pack’ mentality residing in activities such as sport and heavy alcohol consumption.”

Fortunately, sports societies can help overcome lad culture. Some Muslim BME students of South Asian descent in the focus groups noted that in sports society clubbing socials, their white counterparts made a point to bring non-alcoholic drinks so that they could participate too. These small gestures of sincerity can go a long way towards increasing friendships between different ethnicities and making up for the microaggressions that minorities face on a daily basis.

Thirdly, neuroscience has shown that prejudice may not occur due to skin colour, but rather to norm violations. Studies have shown that the amygdala becomes most activated when white participants see both white and black participants committing acts that do not conform to societal norms, such as being a criminal, a gang member, or being homeless. The results suggest that if the implicit attitudes are corrected, prejudice can be reduced.

Sports societies can therefore play a crucial role in forming a common set of norms that bind people together and also in helping correct perceptions of norm violations. For example, it may be that white home students perceive BME students as “violating social norms” because BME students may be of a different faith and adopt different cultural values. The amygdala and other brain regions light up in response to these perceived norm violations, and this may increase prejudice towards BME students. However, through interacting via sports, these perceptions can be corrected. White students may come to realize that BME students share the same aspirations and goals, and that actually the perceived differences in values and religion aren’t that significant. This can reduce prejudice in the long run.

In summary, sports societies are uniquely poised to play a key role in fostering integration and reducing prejudice, and YUSU and the executive committees of sports societies should be more cognizant of this potential. Doing a sport and sweating out makes the brain and body feel so much better and more refreshed and primes people to work together as a team, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. It can overcome perceptions of direct social engineering, lad culture, prejudice and false perceptions of norm violations while ultimately enabling everyone to simply have a boatload of fun.


1) Phipps, A., & Young, I. (2012). That’s what she said: women students’ experience of’lad culture’ in higher education. That’s what she said: women students’ experience of’lad culture’ in higher education.

2) Goh, G., Mahmoud, Z., Lyons, S., Akinsaya, O., Scurr, M., Cox, A. (2014). Consultation into Racial Discrimination at the University of York. York Student Think Tank.

3) Schreiber, D., & Iacoboni, M. (2012). Huxtables on the Brain: An fMRI study of race and norm violation. Political Psychology, 33(3), 313-330.