When I was 14 years old, I was told by a hockey parent in the stands to “go back to the bush in Africa.”
When I was 17, I was screamed at by a fan two feet away from me at a junior hockey game that I should “stick to basketball.”
When I was 33, a GM who was looking to sign me asked his team captain if I’d be “bad for team morale” because I was black.
These memories are not easy to share with you. But with everything that’s happening in the world right now, I feel like I have to speak up and tell my story.
The fact is, I’ve known prejudice my whole life.
In 1954, my grandfather, Cecil Fraser, immigrated from Kingston, Jamaica, to Kingston, Ontario. He moved from an almost exclusively black city to one where his family was the only black one in town. His son, Hugh — my father — went to law school in Ottawa and followed him into a career as a lawyer. As a student, Hugh married my mother, Ann, a white student from the Ottawa Valley. In 1976, he was an Olympic sprinter, and he remained the fastest man in Canada for a decade. In 1993, he was appointed as a Provincial Court Judge.
From my grandfather being the first black man to graduate from law school at Queen’s University in 1961, to my family being the only black family in Kingston in the ’60s, to the prejudice my father endured for being in an interracial marriage — my belief was always that what my father and grandfather had had to endure was much worse than anything I’d have to.
I was born in 1986. Growing up I felt privileged that my life was easier than theirs, and I was grateful for the racial challenges they had endured so that I didn’t have to. But of course, like I said, I’ve experienced racism throughout my hockey career. As have many black players.
This past winter, Akim Aliu, a black former NHL player, spoke out about a couple of incidents that happened to him earlier in his career. In one story, he outed a former coach of his (who was by then coaching in the NHL) for having used the n-word multiple times toward him. He also recounted the story of a team Halloween party where one of the staffers went as Akim Aliu — in blackface and a hockey uniform.
Believe me, this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the things black players have had to endure in the hockey world.
Akim’s courage in speaking up about events that had happened to him a decade ago created two reactions: one of shock and support, and one of hate and disgust. Some thanked him for speaking out, while others attacked him, saying, “Why are you trying to ruin the game of hockey?” Instead of acknowledging the wrong in the racism he’d experienced, there were voices claiming that his complaints stemmed from not being good enough to last in the NHL. That his beef should be with himself and his own flaws instead of with a perfect game with a perfect reputation.
Please don’t get me wrong. I love hockey, I love the fans, I love the guys I played with, and I am a proud member of the hockey community. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities hockey has given me in life — opportunities in many cases for which my father and grandfather had had to fight, while enduring deep levels of racism and hate. They struggled so that I could grow up in a world, in a country, in a neighborhood, and in a sport, that would not inflict the same levels of pain.
But as I sit here today, I truly have to wonder to myself, is this life really any better?
What’s changed? The same issues that plagued Willie O’Ree, Tony McKegney, Val James or Claude Vilgrain are still the same issues that we, as black hockey players, have to deal with today.
Only two months ago, the 2018 first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, K’Andre Miller, was victimized by a hacker who posted the n-word hundreds of times in a chat while Miller was doing a Zoom interview with the Rangers. Willie O’Ree broke barriers by becoming the first black to play in the NHL 62 years ago. Let me say that again: 62 years ago!! Willie is now 84, while K’Andre is only 20. So that tells me that this is a problem that’s almost as old as the game itself.
This has been in existence in hockey for well over a hundred years dating back to 1895 and the founding of the negro hockey league of the Maritimes.
For us black hockey players, this isn’t something new. We have all been victims of racism, not only in our own lives, but also in our beautiful sport. When a player like Akim speaks up, he doesn’t do it to tear down the NHL, or to cast some shade on the game he loves. He does it to shine a bright light on the problems and unspoken prejudice that players of color have had to endure.
His story is about wanting to be heard. It’s about wanting our pain to be acknowledged. It’s about wanting to educate the hockey community, which is a predominantly white community, on some of our struggles and hurt, as well as on inconsistencies with the NHL’s message on inclusivity. But what will really help our voices be heard, what will truly make a difference, will be when the majority stands with us and loudly acknowledges our suffering and its support for progress.
Now what the hockey community needs to realize is that they aren’t that different from society today.
I woke up on Tuesday, May 26, to the horrendous and appalling video of George Floyd losing his life at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. I was brought to tears out of sheer disbelief that, while knowingly being filmed, police officers could show such disregard for a human life. What I felt wasn’t just disgust from hearing about another racist incident in my sport. And it wasn’t an exasperated reaction to yet another example of racism or police brutality.
No, seeing this hurt. It hurt my heart, it hurt my soul.
You can hear people in the video pleading with the police to let George up. You can hear a woman say she’s a first-responder and plead with them to check George’s pulse. I realized that morning that I had just witnessed a modern-day lynching on my phone. I had watched a murder happen as the victim called out for his mother.
I have a reputation in hockey as a tough guy — a guy who’s hard as nails and will play through pain and injuries without complaint. Trainers used to tell me my pain tolerance was much higher than most.
But looking at my phone that morning? I couldn’t help but cry from the pain of watching what happened to George Floyd.
I realized that morning that I had just witnessed a modern-day lynching on my phone. I had watched a murder happen as the victim called out for his mother.
My only hope — every night since this happened — is that this unjust treatment of people of color and blacks in America will stop. Right now.
Protestors are now gathering in the streets all across America, but my tears haven’t stopped. Riots are happening as a response to the injustices, but my tears haven’t stopped. Buildings are burning to the ground, but my tears haven’t stopped.
If you are wondering why or how someone could burn down parts of his own community, first ask yourself — how pissed off must you be to do something like that? What levels of pain would you have had to endure to act like that? For HOW LONG would you have had to suffer in silence before that was your response to something? How UNHEARD as a race and community of people must you feel in order to light buildings on fire as an act of speaking out? Ask yourself those questions and you will find your answer to why these riots are happening. It’s the same reason I’ve woken up crying every day this week from seeing what’s happening on social media and on the news.
You’ve all seen the videos.
All of it angers me to my core.
All of it makes me want to revolt.
All of it makes me want to join this fight with more passion than ever before.
And all of it continues to make me cry.
These are my people, and every day I have to watch how more and more of them, who are standing up for what is RIGHT, are being beaten up, assaulted, run over, arrested and pepper sprayed — instead of being heard.
I cannot recall a time in my life when I have cried for a week straight. I cannot recall a time when I have been on such a roller coaster of emotions. But out of everything I’ve read or heard this week, what has hit me the hardest and has made me shed the most tears is seeing my white peers stand up and say, “This isn’t right.”
I cannot express the deep, deep emotion that is stirred up inside me seeing people who have only ever known white privilege stand up and join our cause. This is a moment in history that we should all want to look back on and think we contributed to forward progress in fighting against systemic racism.
They truly have no idea what it means to me, a black hockey player who’s dealt with racism for most of my life. They’ll truly never know how much relief and security and support I got from their words.
For the majority out there, for my white friends, for my white teammates and peers, for the racially privileged, please don’t just acknowledge what is happening around you as wrong. Justice will not be served until those unaffected are as outraged as those who are.
The majority have to speak up and stand up for us.
This is not a black-only fight. This is not a fight that solely belongs to people of color.
Please don’t stop making noise. Be courageous enough to let your voices be heard. Because I know what it’s like to complain about my pain but never feel heard. Even more, I know what it’s like to be too afraid to even speak up, for fear of being punished. Don’t let that happen to you as the majority. This is not just my fight. This is not a black-only fight. This is not a fight that solely belongs to people of color. This is our fight, and being silent will only enable this type of treatment to continue to happen. Know that.
And to the hockey community, know that what’s happening in America today is a reflection of some of the hate your black teammates and friends feel just from looking different. So please don’t stop making noise. Please don’t go silent. Silence is violence in this case. Be proud to know that you are not only standing on the right side of the fence, but you are also actively using your voices and letting yourself be heard in support of our cause and our fight for justice and equality. Show us your love. Show us you love us. To quote Senator Cory Booker, “What does love look like in public? It looks like justice.”
Social media posts are great, but it can’t end there. Don’t let an Instagram story be the only thing you did. That’s not enough. We need more. George Floyd needs more! Trayvon Martin needs more! Breonna Taylor needs more! Eric Garner needs more! Ahmaud Arbery needs more!
THIS IS REAL! My brothers and sisters are dying. For what? Please, someone tell me, for what?
Police are shooting peaceful protestors in the face with rubber bullets and tear gas. Whites and blacks alike. Encourage people to vote and get real leaders in positions of influence who actually want to see change happen. Educate yourself on our struggle. Try to disarm your privilege to better understand. Educate your children about equality. Raise your children to love, not hate. Raise your children to understand white privilege and how many don’t get that benefit. But please don’t go back to being silent. That will only hurt us in the end.
Only a majority can fix this. Only the majority can make a difference. We need laws to change along with the system of accountability. United we stand, divided we fall.
To the majority: Practice what you preach and help us fight for change.