If you think history was made when P.K. Subban hit the ice for the first time in the Valentine's Day Men's Hockey game in the Sochi Olympics, you're wrong. The first Black man to play for Team Canada was Quebec's Claude Vilgrain. The Caribbean-born immigrant donned the Team Canada jersey at the 1988 Olympics. A quarter-century later, Norris trophy alumni P.K. Subban is playing for the country of his birth (sometimes).
There are no references to the welcome his predecessor received from viewers in the pre-Internet era. But today, the level of "discomfort" hockey fans have with a hockey player's pigmentation is quite clear. The phenomenon coined "colourism" by Alice Walker in 1982 is not a synonym of racism. Rather, colourism is defined as prejudicial or preferential treatment of people based solely on their colour. On this superficial scale of chromaticity, P.K. Subban is endowed with the darkest of chocolate hues. None of this should matter in a game of Olympic hockey where the only colour on our minds is gold. And Subban's skin colour should definitely be of no consequence in a multicultural country like Canada, where systemic racial discrimination is said to be a figment of the imagination.
Yet, reaction to the sight of a black man on Team Canada's Sochi roster, as it did at the 2013 World Juniors, revealed that a nation that "doesn't see race" has discarded its rose-coloured glasses. An Afro-Canadian wearing black clothing is cause for a dark kind of hockey humour... When Team Canada wears white, Caucasian players are discernible, identifiable and all is
white right with the world. Once Coach Babcock allows a fly in the milk, it's irrevocably spoiled for some fans.
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Decidedly, many Canadians can see race after all... or they pretend not to see race depending on the colour of Team Canada's jersey, in a Paula Deen-esque show of racial proclivity. Is this the opportune time for a national conversation on our "discomfort" with P.K. Subban and people of colour in positions of power and influence in general? As the official Olympics' national media sponsor focuses on everything from Russian to goulash to the Indian luger, the edifying discussions have steered clear of our own introspection.
But there is hope.The Vancouver Sun courageously dared to "go there," and they hit the nail on the head in their Team Canada "Cheat Sheet":
About: P.K. Subban is a right-shooting defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens. He is one of the best offensive defencemen in the NHL, which, of course, means people question his defensive ability, but he tilts the ice so much in his team's favour that any defensive deficiencies are a moot point. He's also a black star in a predominantly white game, so he's frequently described as having a bad attitude, i.e. he's too black. It's really dumb.
Expect to hear: "That P.K. Subban is so brash and so reckless."
Don't expect to hear: "I suspect my opinion of P.K. Subban is coloured by a preconception of the way black athletes usually act, and my own, haughty, overly moralistic and fully unwelcome opinion about how they should act. Once his confidence and basic enthusiasm for the game is filtered through the lens of my unspoken, racially-driven bias, it comes out looking like arrogance and selfishness to me. But rather than search myself and sort out the complicated relationship with race that's driving this perception, I call for him to smarten up, which is silly and hypocritical. It's my problem. I am the problem."
The darker the berry, the sweeter the juxtaposition.
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