Mark Fraser: Your Voice Will Give Others Strength

Mark Fraser turns 34 in September. He was born in Ottawa in 1986. His mother, Ann, is white. His father, Hugh, is black.

Mark has dealt with racism his entire life, but it didn’t stop him from following his dream to play in the NHL. He was drafted 84th overall in 2005 by the New Jersey Devils. He played for the Devils, Oilers and Maple Leafs, and played pro in Germany this past season. Hockey provided him with wonderful opportunities, but unfortunately, it didn’t insulate him from racism.

Fraser spoke eloquently and passionately about the hockey community, and how much he loves it, but more importantly, he spoke about how the hockey community can change and help Black players and other minorities. This isn’t just about the NHL, it is an issue at all levels, and Fraser spoke about what the hockey community can do to become more inclusive. It is worth your time.

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Here a transcript of the interview Jason Strudwick and I had with Fraser recently on our TSN 1260 radio show.

Jason Gregor: Being a Black man growing up and playing hockey in Canada, was enduring racism a normal part of your hockey experience? Was it rare? How was it for you growing up?

Mark Fraser: It wasn’t a constant thing, however, some of my memorable incidents dealing with racism in hockey came at a younger age, unfortunately. You know whether that be from opposing team’s parents or then at the junior level, ridiculous fans sitting beside the penalty box, and having a few moments to utter some racial slurs your direction. That was definitely something that I experienced before I hit the pros.

At the pro level though, I mean yeah, definitely I encountered it. I don’t think that there is a single black hockey player who hasn’t experienced racism both at grassroots and at pro levels if they made it that far.

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The difference between the two, for me, was the overt racism in my youth. At the pro level, it would have been more, more in an inadvertent, perhaps systematic or systemic way. Just things and experiences that all black athletes and hockey players would have dealt with at that level, at that scope.

It might not be overt, especially in the hockey community, a place of ignorance, a place of unknowing, a place of not really even fathoming or understanding that things that could be said, perceived, directed, decisions made, just things that are almost on a day-to-day basis.

When you’re not used to dealing with a particular minority group, and you assume we all have the same experiences and come from the same place. And that when we get to leave the arena or the facilities that we train in that we all continue to have the same experiences. That’s just not the reality for black hockey players. So, the type of racism that was seen, at least in my experiences and obviously there are a lot of black hockey players who can share different stories and at the NHL level we have tons of different known public stories of racism that black players have had to deal with.

Unfortunately, my love of the game put me in the situation where I was just going to continue to live as a visible minority in an industry that I was very comfortable with, but I never really felt understood in, if that makes any sense.

Jason Strudwick: We have a lot of listeners who are coaches, male and female, it doesn’t matter the sport, but they are coaching obviously all different types of players, different colours, abilities, skills, male, female. So to those coaches, what is the message you would like to deliver to them as far as how to handle situations where minorities are being treated improperly or things are being said to them whether by opposing players, coaches, fans?

Fraser: My advice to any coach or parent or any sort of authority figure among these young athletes: if there is a known situation where one of your players of colour, or athletes of colour has been a victim of racism and it is known, or at least all of the other adults were made aware of it, that’s a teaching moment.

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A lot of coaches will use a stupid penalty late in the game as a teaching moment for their team. This is a teaching moment for parents to use with all of their players. What I would do in that exact situation is I would address it to the entire team, even if they are 10, 12, 15 years old, I would address it to the team. I would address the player who is the victim. I would ask them their feelings or emotions on it. Depending on their own awareness of it, they may not completely even comprehend. I didn’t completely comprehend when I was 13, 14 years old, and parents were telling me to go back to the bush. I had a parent who explained to me that they are basically telling me you belong back in Africa. I didn’t know what it meant at that time.

But you have to have an open dialogue, because the thing for me growing up in the industry, growing up in the game, growing up loving the world and sport of hockey, is when these things did happen to me, when I was a victim of them in whatever severity it came, I didn’t have anyone to talk to.

I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I had some of my best friends, guys who I had been in their wedding party, they’ll be in my wedding party; those are my boys for life. But because they couldn’t really comprehend or didn’t have the capacity to understand what it was that I would be going through, I never had the opportunity to release that. I never had the opportunity to number one, educate them. But also just to express my pain, perhaps my frustration, my anger, whatever emotion it may have been that I was feeling.

So you have to give these kids a platform, not only the victims, but everyone to understand what happened and what’s going on.

And if I may take a brief moment here to share a quick story…

I played in Germany this past year and there were four black guys who played in the league. Among 14 different teams, four black guys. One was a young German kid. He played in Cologne in a massive city, in a massive market, and there was a racial slur said to him during one of the games. The coach, a Canadian guy, he found out, he brought the young man into the room afterwards in front of the whole locker room and said, ‘Tell the guys what they said to you.’ And it was something along the lines of a monkey comparison, monkey talk, monkey slurs that were made in his direction. The kid had the floor and he broke down crying.

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He starts crying. He starts expressing the pain, and this isn’t the first time he heard it and it got real. It was something that he dealt with that no one else had dealt with in the room. No one else had experienced and no one else had ever considered it. Half of the guys didn’t even know that it had happened during the game. But the coach was wise enough to draw attention to it, the player then expressed his sentiment. He is now in tears, he’s emotional in front of his closest boys, the guys who battle with him. And from one of the players in the room who told me the story, the majority of the guys were tearing up. Everyone went over and gave him a big hug and said, ‘That’s complete BS, you’re our guy, you’re our dude, we got you no matter what.’ And they unified around that moment. That was how the coaches and parents should be handling any type of situation that happens at the minor league level.

You have to address it, depending on the maturity level and understanding of the kids, but let them understand that this is a thing and that it is a real hurtful thing for someone they consider their friend, their teammates, their brothers or sisters. It’s a truly hateful and hurtful thing that a lot of black people have to walk around with that pain daily and there is no true way to express it. But if you want to build unity, and equality in sports, you’ve got to have the ability to have these conversations so that these who are the majority can understand the pain of the minorities.

Gregor: You were born in Ottawa in the mid ‘80s. Your mom was born in Canada, but I think your father immigrated here. You mentioned you didn’t have friends to talk to — were you able to talk with your parents at some point about your feelings and dealing with racism?

Fraser: I’m biracial. My mom, she is from the Ottawa valley, she is a white Canadian and my father is Jamaican decent. He is full Jamaican immigrant, came over in 1959 I believe when he was seven or eight years old. My grandfather moved here in 1954, when my father was two. His mother then moved in 1956 when my father was four of five and it wasn’t until my father was seven that he and his brother came to Canada to join them.

My father (Hugh Fraser) was a Canadian Olympic sprinter for a number of years. He then went to law school, he married my mom, entered a public interracial relationship. His experiences are things like moving from Kingston, Jamaica, to Kingston, Ontario, and being the first black family in Kingston, Ontario. Trick-or-treating as a 10-year-old with kids around the community. He was dressed like a little devil trick-or-treating door-to-door and people would say, ‘Doesn’t that costume look great,’ and ‘Man you have that paint on well,’ and they would rub his arm trying to see how he got this costume on so well not realizing he’s just black.

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Fast forward to his track career, now where he’s married to my mom, but they are competing in the States at various track meets. I grew up on stories of my mom having to go in to get a room at the hotel just simply knowing that if your father went in to book the room for the night, we weren’t going to get it. And this would have been the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in certain areas of the US.

Of course around my family, and my older brother and father they were definitely guys I would have leaned on and spoken to. Then getting to the pro level, Joel Ward, Kevin Weekes were guys that I would speak to about some of this stuff just because you were finally at an area where you kind of had guys around who get it.

But that being said there was no one who was in my circle. No one who was in my group of friends, or my teammates really understood. I did play with black guys in Jersey, like Bryce Salvador or Johnny Oduya. We all got each other, but that was maybe a year or two of my entire career. I haven’t had the opportunity to have many, obviously brothers with me in the locker room environment. So it has been tough at times, but I have been fortunate through family experiences and family pain that I do have people in my corner that do have experiences who can mentor or just kind of coach my emotions through those situations.

Strudwick: You talk about being on an island in many ways as a player, but you had the support of your family. Was there anything that your teammates or coaches could do to be more supportive or more there for you or were they just kind of doing their thing? How would you like them to handle that or to help you if that makes sense?

Fraser: It’s a tough question to frame but it’s a good question. To be a good, honest, the inclusivity was always there. So, me getting invited to a movie, or a dinner, or a lunch, whatever, that’s always there. The boys being boys, that was never an issue. So it’s not that they necessarily have to change, but it’s the culture of hockey that needs to change, because the culture of hockey is very singularity minded in the sense that they assume that we are all alike.

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There are obviously a bunch of common denominators that make everyone in the hockey community, or players especially, alike, but there are a lot of things that once we walk out of that rink and we go for lunch, you guys know what that’s like — you go for lunch with your colleagues, or your boys or whatever it may be. When we are no longer in the presence of the arena or the training facilities, us all feeling the same is no longer a thing.

That’s just the way that it is. There might be something that I deal with, with a manager at a restaurant or the server or a person at the store or whatever it may be that my teammates will not have to deal with. My teammates will not get the same kind of profiling. I have so many experiences and stories of this happening.

So, it’s not so much the teammates, or the coaches, perhaps the coaches because they have the authority to make change by introducing some kind of education. But more than the players themselves, it’s the hockey community who needs to just open up their eyes that we have different races.

We have different ethnic backgrounds, we have different diversities who love our game and if the hockey community wants to preach that they are the best game, we are the best game in the world, we are the best sport in the world, and all that, which obviously with a passion in my heart I want to believe that. They need to just understand that we just aren’t all the same. There are a lot of their own players for generations, not just Simmers (Wayne Simmonds), not just PK’s (P.K. Subban), not the Stewart brothers (Chris and Anthony), a generation way beyond ours, and we have the conversations with all of these who know it, we are paying the same kind of ignorance, the same kind of lack of understanding, the same kind of fan or perhaps media abuse. It’s always been there and it’s always existed.

What I would encourage now, my teammates or former teammates to do, as you guys can probably imagine, the last week or so it’s been a hard week and I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me saying, ‘We stand with you, we hear you, we’re offering our support.’ That’s amazing.

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When Blake Wheeler and Logan Couture, and some of these guys started posting their genuine sentiment and disgust at what is happening in American right now…for the first time, it was so weird but, for the first time I almost felt like reading these white hockey players genuinely upset, not just, ‘We all love and hate,’ genuine upset and outrage in their tone, I all of a sudden felt like I found my voice.

Because it was really hard for a lot of the black players who do feel oppressed for whatever reason to speak out because of fear of being dismissed. Fear of burning a bridge, fear of whatever. The same reason why Akim Aliu might have been afraid to do it, or people have been afraid to follow him because he did it and then people started bashing him for doing it.

All that we are trying to do is just speak our truth, a truth that needs to be heard.

So when those players like Wheeler, Couture, posted what they posted, it touched me so deeply. I wish I will have the opportunity to share that with them one day. Because hearing a white hockey player’s perspective on racism like that, a genuinely true, heartfelt perspective on it allowed me to understand that I can say this too.

I’m the victim here, but if he can say it and the majority can, then I can finally say it. But I was always afraid to say it. So, what hockey players can do it they can give us a voice by using their own voice. And I mean like actually using their own voice. My biggest fear right now is that in another week’s time things are going to go quiet. Things are going to go silent and that’s my biggest fear, because it is nice everyone posted a black square on their social media, but in a week’s time, when perhaps let’s just say that things cool down maybe in the States, the hockey community is just going to continue.

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Hockey will be back. Eventually games will be happening again, trades will be happening, the whole bit. But what doesn’t get to go back to normal, or what is my normal is, I still daily will have to deal with racism. I will still have to walk out of the front door of my house or go to a store or a training facility.

I’m in an interracial relationship myself. I’m going to have to go somewhere and perhaps be profiled for that which has happened regularly. So that’s my normal. But the biggest hope is what people can do in the hockey community, players coaches and anyone alike, is not stop making noise.

Understand that silence is bad. Silence is wrong right now. We need to continue to make noise right now. Because if you play for the Minnesota Wild, and you’re boys with Matt Dumba, he doesn’t get to, in a week, forget that this happened, his life is going to continue to have these types of experiences. No different with any of the black players in the league or black people in society.

So, I guess, and I know that was a really long answer, but I would say don’t stop making noise. You can’t stop contributing, you can’t stop making donations, just bringing awareness to the situation because the black players will never get to have a break from racism. So, understand the power and the unifying sounds of a white athlete’s voice when it’s talking about fighting, truly fighting against this issue. There is so much strength behind their voices to the point where I found my own voice from my white peers speaking up.

Gregor: You mentioned teammates saying things now, which is great, but really a lot of this comes down to society as a whole and there has to be more people who are willing to say, ‘That’s not right,’ in regards to racism towards Black people, Indigenous people in Canada, or other minorities who experience prejudice comments and action. The uncomfortableness or the willingness of others to keep it going, that has to change. I agree with you. I’m a little skeptical if it will. People are doing it now, and it’s on social media, but that’s one thing. To do it in real life or face-to-face is difficult.

Fraser: Well yeah, exactly. There’s a thought that I had today was, if there was a really nasty hurricane that was blowing through America right now, or some part of the world, a really nasty one, people would be making donations and contributions, posting about it on their social media, but they would be working towards some kind of a relief. And let’s just say a second hurricane came and you’re like ‘Damn, they still need relief funds, they still need help.’

So you’re going to continue to track that story and continue to donate or provide your $5, $50, $10, whatever it is you can contribute and you’re going to continue to contribute some kind of relief for the people hurting in that situation. The unfortunate thing about a fight against racism is that there is no final date.

There is no eventuality of it ending, right? So, my biggest fear is that all of the social media love and platforms and speaking out like this seems like almost every single person and their mother understands that racism is bad. This is now a very evident in America and in a lot of other social situations, our social societies. What are we going to do about it? The posts are great because we need actual support, we can’t cash posts. We can’t take that to the bank as a black community. So you’re totally right, my only fear in this is that it will eventually slow down and people will forget that they once were trying to fight and unify towards real justice. Justice against the injustices in communities in North America, and other communities of colour. And as well as the police brutality that is very evident in some cases and constantly being documented these days. Not just in the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and the list goes on.

Obviously I don’t want to turn this into a whole political rant here, but the point is it is a little bit of a fear of mine. Clearly everyone is aware this is an issue, and it’s a terrible one, and everyone wants to be on the right side of the argument. I sincerely hope that everyone as a whole understands, I’m half white, so I hope that our white community understands that this isn’t a problem that is going to go away like a relief fund would help to rebuild a community that got destroyed from a natural disaster. Because this isn’t a natural disaster and there hasn’t been a time limit on this. In the entire history of Blacks in North America, there has been oppression. So, this doesn’t make any sense that it would be any different in today’s day and age.

Gregor: Mark, this might be a tough question, but I feel I have to ask it because a lot of us don’t truly understand. Can you explain how it feels as a black man when you experience racism from other citizens or potentially even a police officer and how citizens treat you when you walk into a room or walk by them?

Fraser: It is difficult to explain. I’ll try but…typically for me, its immediate anger. It’s like instant anger. I’ll try to think of some kind of sports comparison. If I was playing a game in hockey and someone did something bad, really shady and dirty and got away with, then I immediately saw red and I wanted to react in a way, and the only way that I would know how to react in that situation was through physical outrage.

By doing something that is either going to get me suspended or clearly lead to a fight in hockey, something like that. It’s that type of anger and rage. In reality it is understanding that okay, I like to think that I’m a pretty good human being. I like to think that I have good character and morals and values and the majority of the people who hang around me and who know me would tell you that I do. So, if I’m a likeable person in general, I’m typically a guy who has a smile on my face. I don’t need everyone in the world to like me, but if for no reason, whatsoever, a person all of a sudden chooses to cast this paralyzing emotional anger on me, or at least that’s my response to it, is this paralyzing anger, it’s not just a combination of anger and madness, it’s also sadness.

It’s also questioning myself why am I not good enough? It’s also telling myself to be taught or believe that I on the exterior have done something wrong so that I now have to either repair this image of myself in this persons eyes or I perhaps even have to be cautious of my surroundings because I might be the next one to go. And what I mean by that is in the situation with police profiling or what not.

I’ll share a quick story, but I used to go to the Osheaga music festival in Montreal, when I was a Toronto Maple Leaf. I went with my boy Mike Kostka who was a D partner of mine and our conditioning coach with the Leafs. One year we went they would played this prank on me, basically at the end of the day when we were trying to get off of the island and get back to our hotel, our strength and conditioning coach pretended to be so inebriated that he would go up to a cop and was being aggressive and then got arrested. I had no idea that this cop was his ex-girlfriend from high school. This was the whole plan all along for them to fool me that our boy was about to be thrown in the back of a cruiser, but when this was happening, when Mike Kostka, my peer is laughing, and he’s starting to film it, and my reaction to what is happening is ‘Why in the hell is he filming this because if cops see us filming them do something bad, they’re going to come after me.’

And my next reaction was I looked at him and right before they dropped the punchline of saying this is our boy’s ex-girlfriend, right before they dropped the punchline, I started, literally back peddling into my background was bushes, or shrubs. I started back peddling so that I could remove myself from the situation. I recognize that he’s too far gone for me to save him from police handcuffs but for whatever reason. I’m completely innocent and my father is a judge and I’m a Toronto Maple Leaf. If I got arrested, I’m probably going to be the safest one as far as being persecuted, but my feeling was that I can’t be around here anymore. Because if for whatever reason this cop reacted so quickly that they are throwing Anthony into handcuffs, who is to say that I’m not going to be next?

And why is that my response? Why is that my reaction? Well because of the inherent belief and experience that I have as being profiled by Toronto police, right? Have no acknowledgement that I am Mark Fraser the hockey player and person, but that I’m just a black guy in a black SUV driving down Queen Street, have been profiled.

So, that type of fear is also a part of the emotion that you feel from racism. To know that I did nothing wrong, so why isn’t this person liking me? I’m mad now because this person is not liking me. I’m sad because it hurts that they don’t like me, and I’m also afraid because they don’t like me, and I don’t know what they will do. But if a confrontation happened, I’m probably going to be accused, well I’m going to be the accused. I’m not going to be the victim anymore; I’m going to be looked at as the accused. If me and a white person have some kind of an argument on the side of the road and a cop drives by, I know that I’m in more trouble than the other guy.

And that’s not to say that there aren’t amazing cops out there who wouldn’t sit us down and have a conversation and fully listen to us and see what happens. There are many who would. But my point is that that is a systemic feeling. That is an inherent feeling that I’ve been taught to feel that way. Not through my own choices. It’s hard to really pinpoint what kind of emotion is felt, but the emotions I felt from anger and rage from seeing people post stupid things in response to this fight against racism, to the tears I’ve shed of reading peoples sentiments, like Wheeler’s and Couture’s and Connor Carrick’s.

You can’t pinpoint it because literally if you could have a 360 circle of every type of emotion that is out there depending on the circumstance, you’re going to have 10 different feelings all at the same time. And it’s such a weird experience because sometimes it’s hard to explain one emotion, let alone 10.

You’re really kind of like mentally all over the map on how to handle it, but it just feels like a deflation, no matter how I did, no matter how my society looks at me, no matter how my community holds me up, no matter the heights I’ve reached professionally, no matter the platform that I even have, I’m still that little Black boy who is a threat to you. That’s just truly crippling, paralyzing, deflating, those would be the types of feelings or the words that I would use the most.

Gregor: That is very powerful Mark. Thank you. I hope in a week and longer people are still talking about it, because your normal has to hopefully get closer to what our normal is.

Fraser: I appreciate that so much, guys. Like I said, I’m a biracial guy, my mother is white. I know that you guys are in the majority of good people, but truly it is these types of conversations and relationships that, not only are they going to help push the needle in the hockey community but also in society. I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to speak on this platform about something which is a very personal experience in my life.