Body language easily misread across races, cultures

Photo courtesy of U of M Destiny Pitts (l) with Coach Lindsay Whalen

In January 2020, female college basketball player Destiny Pitts was indefinitely suspended from the University of Minnesota Gophers by her coach, Lindsay Whalen, for her “body language.” After sitting out two games, Pitts decided to transfer to another school. The incident raises important questions about how we read each other’s body language, especially cross-culturally.

Experts define “body language” as “a powerful indicator of others’ emotions” and point out how “unintentional factors can influence these interactions.” It includes such behaviors as facial expressions, body posture, gestures and eye movement.

“I was blindsided and shocked by the suspension,” former Minnesota junior Pitts explained on her Twitter page. “This was my first discipline situation of my career at Minnesota (or as a basketball player at any level). I have decided to…further my academic and athletic journey in an environment that will support me while I develop into the person I want to become.”

Brookings Institute Fellow Dr. Andre Perry explained that an athlete’s body language often can be viewed as an affront to the coach’s authority, calling it “a lopsided power dynamic.” He wrote in an April 2019 article for “The Hechinger Report,” an educational newsletter, that college coaches “can exacerbate power dynamics in mundane situations. They can have an athlete get punished for petty reasons.” 

Perry, himself a former college athlete, said, “I am not surprised whenever an athlete is suspended or kicked off the team for no apparent reason. It typically means that there was a disruption in the power dynamic which the coach would not tolerate.”

“Black women are living with being perceived differently based on their race and their gender. I believe in athletics the same thing comes into play.”  

Up to the suspension, there apparently had been no conflicts between Pitts, a team captain, and second-year Minnesota Head Coach Whalen. Then, during the Jan. 9 two-point home loss to Northwestern, Pitts was taken out of the game and never returned. It turned out that would be her last appearance in a Minnesota uniform.

The player later told the MSR that she was unaware that she had done anything wrong until Whalen informed the third-year player the following day she was suspended for “unspecified conduct unbecoming a member of the team.”

Pitts’ suspension was “pretty severe,” retired Minnesota high school coach Faith Johnson told the MSR. “It clearly appears that she shrugged her shoulder away from Lindsay’s hand,” she said. “It appears that there is more going on that we aren’t aware of. You don’t just act like that—there is something that led up to that, whether it is misinterpretation, feeling misunderstood. There’s something behind that’s underlying that we all don’t know.”

It might have been a combination of things. At the time, the Gophers were mired in a losing streak, and tensions were at a fever pitch, Johnson observed. “I think this could have been addressed in a meeting,” she said, “and maybe it had been. We don’t know if it had or not.

“I would have sat her down for the rest of that game, maybe not start her the next game, definitely would have a team discussion. The more you allow it to go on, the more things continue. At that level, you don’t have a lot of time to address a lot of these issues.”

Johnson said that she also was bothered by the subsequent narrative that circulated of Pitts, the Detroit-born young Black woman and team leading scorer, losing a battle of wills between her and Whalen, a hometown hero. “Unfortunately the stereotype is the angry Black woman,” Johnson noted.

Or was this a case of miscommunication or misinterpretation? Were there other problems that led up to this? Could it have been amicably resolved?

Brookings Institute (l-r) Dr. Andre Perry, Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique

“She also played for another coach,” Johnson said of Pitts, who was recruited by former coach Marlene Stollings, now at Texas Tech. “They may have understood her passion, and maybe she [Pitts] misses that. Then you have a new coach coming in. She [Whalen] has been a player but is also learning [as a first-time coach].

“It takes a few years for anybody to get to the level where you know what you are doing. I think a seasoned coach probably would have seen the warning signs a lot earlier and been able to address it,” Johnson said.

Misinterpreting body language is all too common in our society, especially involving race, Perry pointed out. “That occurs in policing, coaching, in professional roles. No one knows for sure from the slightest movement…, but you know [it] can set off calls to 9-1-1. [That] can lead to police violence on people of color.”

Is body language different with Black females as opposed to Black males? Perry explained, “Black women are achieving at every aspect of our lives, and they are standing up for themselves in lots of different ways. The coach-player dynamic in the women’s game is different. You’ll see moments the coach can be wrong and women taking a stand.

“It’s pretty sophomoric whenever you see a coach suspend or expel an athlete,” said Perry. “It generally means they have given up on the athlete.”

San Jose State Associate African American Studies Professor Dr. Akilah Carter-Francique said, “Black women are living with being perceived differently based on their race and their gender. I believe in athletics the same thing comes into play.”   Carter-Francique is a former collegiate track athlete and now the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sport, Society and Social Change at San Jose State.

“It comes from our interaction with one another and how we are perceived by White society,” Carter-Francique said. There are “cultural nuances” that some Whites in leadership roles, such as coaches, must understand:  “[Whites] can take offense to it and perceive it as being aggressive, angry, being negative and defiant in some respects.”

“I wish Coach Whalen and her staff nothing but the best,” Pitts tweeted.

“We wish Destiny the best moving forward,” added Whalen.  

“Minnesota in itself is a different culture,” Johnson pointed out. On Pitts’ decision to leave Minnesota, she surmised, “We have a good player that demonstrated outwardly as a player that plays hard, and we obviously don’t want to see her leave. It’s unfortunate. The questions are what we could have done to maybe prevent some of this.”

The body language issue isn’t discussed enough, Carter-Francique said. “I think it goes back to education, diversity and inclusion training, and cultural competence training that really need to take place. Coach and player are often learning on the job and trying to figure those things out. If you haven’t been exposed to those types of conversations, and understanding the importance of those types of conversations…then you end up in the situation where one or both parties are hurt in some way.

“It is an ongoing conversation happening not only in sports, but it is starting to happen in other industries. I think sport is a great space in learning and development, but look at it from a holistic perspective, not just in the game of play but beyond the court.”