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Sunday Thomas - You tell me

If you truly get to know me, you will know that I have a sincere love for people; regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. Some of my best friends in the world are white, I have many Asian and Black friends that are dear to my heart, and I have Inuit friends that are as close to me as my birth family. Part of the beauty of being Canadian for me is the ability to make such bold statements about who my friends are.

All that said, let’s call a spade a spade. As Canadians, we sometimes have blinders on when it comes to race, diversity and inclusion. We seem to live in a perpetual “thank God we are not like them” state.

Canadians finally seem to have accepted that institutional racism exists and is a problem that we must address. On the other side, the occurrence of overt racism is something we seem to have a difficult time grasping.

I have occasionally been frustrated while telling my non-visible minority friends about my experiences. Some typical responses to my stories are “You sure?” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way.” “Maybe you misunderstood what was happening.”

Okay, so on this occasion you get to walk down memory lane with me, and you tell me what you think was happening...

In 2006 when we lived in Miramichi New Brunswick, I coached the local High-school Boys Basketball team. The boys were a closely-knit bunch and had played together since their elementary school years. The kids were very respectful and I loved coaching them. Fortunately, or unfortunately for them, they were exposed to experiences they otherwise would not have had, if their coach was not black.

There was only one African Canadian kid on the team; let’s call him Johnny. He and I stood out in almost every gym we visited in New Brunswick. Interestingly, we didn’t seem to have much in common. After all, I hailed from big city Toronto and he was from rural New Brunswick. One evening, our worlds collided and suddenly we were thrusted together into a common experience.

That evening the boys and I were engaged in a usually hotly contested match with our Regional rivals; Bathurst High School. At a contentious juncture of the game, Johnny and a player from the Bathurst team became embroiled in an altercation. I remember it like yesterday; the Bathurst player swung a fist at Johnny and struck him in the face. Johnny swung back but did not connect. Guess who was tossed out of the game? Johnny! The referee’s decision took everyone in the gymnasium by surprise. My team was upset and looked to me for direction. I went to the ref and I was trying to explain to him that the other boy swung first. The next thing I knew, he threw me out as well. In all my years of coaching, no one had ever thrown me out of a game. Nevertheless, the referee asked Johnny and I to leave the gym. There was no warning, “Go directly to Jail, and do not pass Go.”

In the locker room, I sat quietly contemplating what was happening and how embarrassing it was for me to have been thrown out of a game with my player. Johnny was upset; and was throwing his gym bag around in the locker-room. I didn’t stop him. I was struggling to make sense of what was going on myself. If I am being completely honest, I let him vent because I felt he was justified in his anger.

Out of no-where, the same referee came barging into the locker room fuming. He marched directly toward me and said, “I’m going to call the cops on you.” I looked at this guy like he had two heads. He calmed down when he realized it was Johnny that was upset. I said nothing to him and he said nothing else to me, then calmly composed himself; walked out of the room and went back to referring the rest of the game.

As I sat there, I asked myself, “What the heck was that?” “Did he actually stop the game to come and say that to me?”

Okay now, you tell me, what do you think was happening?

The reason why most people struggle to believe that overt racism exists is because it usually happens in the shadows, and often in isolated events. The critical thing about that particular event is that it unfolded in front of many people. I have often wondered what the conversations must have been like between the kids and their parents on the drive home that evening.

For me, I received a two game suspension for being tossed out of the game: League rules. How’s that for justice? Fortunately, concerned parents in the stands took action and made formal complaints to league officials about what the referee did.

Many years have passed since that night in Bathurst. Yet, the experience has never left my mind. It is as vivid in my memories today as it was that evening 16 years ago. You know what’s interesting; Johnny and I have never spoken about what took place during that game. Was the event as profound for him as it was for me? Does he ever think about it? Does he understand the impact of what happened that night? I believe, even if it was for a moment, our experience brought awareness to a remote rural community.

As for the referee, I don’t know what ever happened with the complaints and whether the league actually followed up. Does it really matter? In any case, I have not really thought about him until now. One thing I do wonder though: What did he think was happening?

My family and l lived in Miramichi for 5 years; and I would like to think that our presence exposed our inner circle to what life is like for people of colour. Is that not what it’s all about; an awareness of what life is like for others? One thing I can truly say is that Miramichi will forever have my heart. I will always appreciate those boys and their parents for walking with me through some of my experiences as a person of colour. Had the experiences made the boys better people? I would like to think so. One thing I know for sure is that I am Canadian and my experiences are the Canadian experience; and the Canadian experience is after all, their experience.

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