I come from a place of white privilege, so I can’t fully understand the depth of the rage and pain we’ve seen since four police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25. I’ve never been the victim of racism. I’ve never walked in those shoes. I don’t know what that feels like.
What I do know is it’s long past time everybody, no matter the color of their skin, who they are or what they do, stands and up and demands that real change happens now. What I do know is that talking about racism, as so many high-profile athletes from across the spectrum of the sports world are doing today as part of a rising tide of voices, is only a start.
It’s a first step that must turn into action and systematic change that endures after the protesting is done and the fires are out. Talk the talk, then walk the walk. That’s something, history shows without a doubt, we’ve failed at for hundreds of years — since the first ships carrying slaves from Africa arrived in the U.S. That’s equally true here Canada, where treatment of Indigenous people has been a disgrace that is only now starting to be addressed. The sliver of our existence that is the world of sport can play a role in setting things straight.
In recent days, we’ve seen that first step taken by several high-profile players around the NHL, including Edmonton Oilers’ captain Connor McDavid. We’ve heard from others, like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Taylor Hall, John Tavares, Anze Kopitar, Steven Stamkos and Tyler Seguin. Likewise, many teams have released statements. There is no major professional team sport as lily white as hockey, so it’s important the vast majority in the NHL take a stand alongside the minority.
MAKE A STAND
It’s been more than 60 years since Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL when he made his debut with the Boston Bruins. Yet here we are all these decades later listening to accounts of racism – blatant and subtle, individual and systematic – from players like Akim Aliu, Georges Laraque and Mark Fraser, who spoke to Jason Gregor Wednesday. We need to listen to those who have actually lived what we can only try to understand.
“I’m 84 years old and didn’t think I’d witness some of the stuff that’s going on, but this dates back to the slavery age,” O’Ree told The Canadian Press. “It’s very discouraging to see what’s going on now . . . it’s just a tragedy that every time an unarmed black man is killed there’s really nothing done about it at that particular time. It’s like you’re here today and gone tomorrow. Your life is just snuffed.
“Racism, it’s not going to stop overnight. I experienced it when I was playing and a lot of these boys and girls I come in contact with the Hockey Is For Everyone program, they’ve had racial remarks directed towards them on the ice, on the bench or in the dressing room.
“I think it’s just terrible you just can’t look at a person for who they are and forget about the color of their skin . . . maybe they’re starting to realize what’s been going on and what’s been happening, not only to black players, but players of color. Maybe it’s just starting to sink in.”
NO GOING BACK
I mentioned white privilege off the top and that, judging by some comments I’ve seen on social media, can stir up pushback when it comes to the topic of addressing and eradicating racism. It’s like, “Hey, I’m an average white guy and I haven’t had it easy either.” Fair enough. The thing is, white privilege doesn’t mean we don’t face hardship or worry.
We all, at some point, face challenges. Sickness. The passing of loved ones. Job loss and trying to make ends meet in an economy that is in tatters because of COVID-19. Imagine being a person with physical or mental challenges. Imagine being homeless. We all live with one degree or another of angst about what comes next. What I, and people who are not of color, don’t face is treatment and judgment based solely on skin color. That’s white privilege. It’s not a put-down, it’s a reality.
I’ve had discussions about racism over the years with players like Laraque – I was standing beside him when he confronted Sean Avery in the parking lot at Staples Center — and Mike Grier, the target of a racial slur by Chris Simon. They’re just two of a long line of players of color with the Oilers that has included Grant Fuhr, Joaquin Gage, Darnell Nurse, Theo Peckham, Sean Brown, Eldon Reddick, Anson Carter, Fred Brathwaite and Shawn Belle.
Seeing racism it isn’t the same as living it, although I’ve been touched by it and I’m reminded of it on an ongoing basis. My wife is Asian. Several years ago, a guy pulled into the auto glass shop I owned. He was pissed – the windshield in his Range Rover was cracked. He got out ranting and raving about what had happened. He told me he took a rock off the tire of a car driven by an Asian woman. I didn’t see why race mattered, but he was just getting started.
It was those F-ing Asians this and those F-ing Asians that. I said, “Look, man, sorry, but we can fix it.” He kept running his mouth. I said, “My wife is Asian, you need to stop talking.” He didn’t hear me or just didn’t care. He kept ranting. F-ing come to our country this, F-ing come to our country that. I was blind angry now.
I grabbed my phone, which has a photo of my wife and my son Sam on the welcome screen. I stepped toward him – my glass installer had a firm grip on my belt from behind by now. I extended my arm, held the phone up to his face and said, “GTFO of my shop now.” He shrugged, “OK,” like it was no big deal. It was to me, if not to him. I can’t begin to imagine being the target of that kind of racist hatred and ignorance day after day, month after month, year after year. I don’t have to walk that road, but people of color do. It has to stop here and now.
THE WAY AHEAD
It’s been said often in the days since George Floyd had his life snuffed out over $20 that not being a racist isn’t enough. We must all take another step and be anti-racist – not only in what we say but how we live, no matter what our walk of life. In our deeds. In our interactions. That’s damn sure going to take the kind of change we haven’t managed up until now.
I’m hopeful that the events we’ve witnessed on TV from cities around the globe these last several days will finally move us toward where we need to be and then keep us there after the fires are out and the outrage fades. I’ve seen people fill the streets in protest and cities burn before, yet here we are. We can do this. We must.