“A N*gger in Net”: A proud product of Canadian immigration and Canadian integration?

Malcolm Subban. Photo from the Toronto Sun.

Like peanut butter and jam, with Malcolm Subban in net for Team Canada during the World Junior Tournament also came the racist tweets and comments.  It is becoming old news: black hockey player = racist taunts.  If you would like to see what was tweeted check out this article by Rachel DeCoste, ‘A N*gger in Net’: Racism at the World Juniors, or this one by Neate Sager, World junior championship: Racial tinge to social media slams of Canada goalie Malcolm Subban.  Like I said, it’s nothing new when social media enthusiasts capitalize on the rarity of a watching a person of colour play hockey to write about bananas, cages, and monkeys, but what I noticed this time is how writers and commenters are so quick to defend Canada’s multicultural identity.  Granted, not all of the tweets are from Canadians but regardless of where they come from we as noble Canadians often uncritically stand up and say “Whoa! Racism is not cool and that is not what the maple leaf stands for.”  I think it’s time to face that fact that maybe it is what we are about, at least a little.

Sager wrote, “It’s brutal. No one should be singled out on the basis of race, least of all during a spots [sic] event….It should be embarrassing that some Canadians revealed such an ugly side while getting caught up in the world junior championship.” Similarly, Decoste concludes her article stating

Nevermind the naysayers: the values Canada stands for have seeped into our roster at the World Juniors.  Canada will continue to prove to ourselves and the world that our multiculturalism, our diversity and our spirit of inclusion form a hat-trick that cannot be beat.  Go Team Canada!

First of all, a sports event is the PERFECT arena to single out an athlete for any reason.  Much like gladiators in the Colosseum, they are the centre of attention.  We see their faces on the jumbo-tron when they score and when they get a penalty.  We single out the game-winner and we single out the game failure.  If you want to make a fool or hero out of anyone a sporting event is where to do it.  Furthermore, when Sager writes, “least of all during a sports event” it is as if sport represents something holy and sacred where expectations for both players and spectators are higher than in any other activity.  If best behaviour is expected at sporting events then they should probably stop selling alcohol, but I digress.  In other words, you can have racist thoughts and share them but not at a sporting event. Maybe sports is supposed to bring out the best in us but we should not be so naive, or perhaps ignorant, to think that the worst in us stays at home on game days.  Unfortunately, we are package deals and if you discriminate at work, home, or school you will also discriminate on the field.

Second, Decoste’s statement drips with polite Canadian ideology.  This is not necessarily a bad thing to believe that we are an inclusive nation and it is definitely accurate to describe us as a diverse peoples; however, to say that diversity inherently breeds inclusion is a problematic, and usually false, conclusion.  Just as Canada has prided itself on a peacekeeping identity so too have we puffed out our chests with regards to multiculturalism.  But when we stop living in the past and rhetoric that makes us feel good we realize that in 2006 Canada ranked 55th out of 108 countries for peacekeeping participation and currently approximately only 100 of the 70,000 peacekeepers deployed are Canadian.  Similarly, when we shake the house that represents our multiculturalism we learn that it is not nearly as solid as some would like us to believe.

Not talking about race and pretending not to see colour is not multiculturalism.  As Joseph Mensah (2002) explains “As Canadians, we have the tendency not only to ignore our racist past, but also dismiss any contemporary racial incidents as nothing but aberrations in an essentially peaceful, tolerant, charitable, and egalitarian nation.” (p.1).  This is a perfect explanation of the articles I referenced earlier where both of the writers treat these racist tweets against Subban as aberrations. I suggest that they only seem like aberrations because watching a person of colour play hockey in Canada is itself an aberration.  However, if every time someone who is non-white puts on a jersey and a racist comment is made then the act of racism is consistent.  Decoste says that our “values…have seeped into our rosters” but I think that as more Kadris, Subbans, Kariyas, and Tootoos make their way to higher levels of hockey that is when we will truly find out which are our Canadian values.

As a Chinese-Canadian woman I grew up with the same philosophy that both Sager and Decoste write about, that as Canadians we welcome everyone and that race doesn’t matter.  Today, I understand that this an ideal and far from reality.  We should use these instances to reflect on the separation between our words and our actions.  Don’t get me wrong, I am and always will be a proud Canadian and hockey fan but I think it is time we acknowledge that there are more racist and discriminatory feelings and acts within our borders than we would like to believe.  We can either continue to believe the myth or make it a reality.

I will conclude with excerpts from an open letter titled, The Myth of the Mosaic as food for thought:

The picture that we have is that Canada is a land where new immigrants are encouraged to retain their traditions, where we respect the uniqueness of minority groups, and where pluralism and diversity are honoured.  Canada is contra the U.S., where immigrants are assimilated, where they are forced to pledge allegiance to the American flag first, and where their traditions must be secondary to the American way….

Government policy is one thing, but the question remains, how do people actually live in Canada? In Vancouver, as in Toronto and Montreal, there is a very different perception of diversity than in the rest of the country.  For those who live in one of these three cities, it probably seems like Canada is a pretty diverse place.  But even in Vancouver, this may not be as true as we think.  Our ideal of different people living together, each enriched by others’ cultures, has typically manifested itself as a series of ghettos for minorities.

The myth of the mosaic betrays the Janus face of Canadian diversity: we live in a country where women couldn’t vote until 1918, where Japanese-Canadians were forcibly moved into camps during World War II, where Aboriginals on reserves were denied patronage until 1960, where it was illegal to be a homosexual until 1969, and where we’ve been bragging about our multicultural, tolerant mosaic since the late 1930’s.

Works Cited

Mensah, J.  (2002).  Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions.  Halifax: Fernwood.

9 thoughts on ““A N*gger in Net”: A proud product of Canadian immigration and Canadian integration?

  1. Very insightful. Just to share, I got to live in Czech Republic for a while, and as a mega hockey fan, I played in an amateur hockey league while closely following the Czech Extraliga. I am Asian-American, and as you can expect in Europe, it was quite noticeable that I wasn’t white. Then again, the people there tended to be very open and welcoming, treating me like one of them, almost ignorant (in a good way) that I didn’t look like them. Which was why I was incredibly dissappointed when last year Wayne Simmonds was jeered with monkey noises at an Extraliga game. It was a sad reminder that hockey will for a very long time be (or implicitly thought of as) a white man’s game.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! You are right, a game of snow and ice generally means a white man’s game. Also, not to rank suffering, but it would be interesting to see which races bring about more taunts and if the types of taunts differ. Perhaps Asians just don’t stir the same kind of hatred/unease.

  2. No problem, as a hockey fan and a social science lover, I love the idea behind this blog. I think taunts of course differ, and from my experience I learned it is largely dependant on cultural context. Living in Europe was a total punch in the face for me in terms of race relations. I learned that they operate on a completely different cultural symbology than what I am used to. For example, remember the controversy with the Spanish national basketball team stretching their eyes to “celebrate” the Chinese before going to the Beijing Olympics? I dont condone eye stretching in anyway shape or form because it brings up painful memories of racism for Asian people who have lived in white societies, then again, I did not get the sense of malice, hatred, or racial superiority that others have interpreted from that controversy. From my experience, I think to a lot of people in Europe view eye stretching as rather innocuous, and I think it is because they do not have it burned in their collective memory that it is a symbol of racism, repression etc like we do in North America. Another fnuny story, when I was going to international school in Holland, I met a dutch girl (white) who did the eye stretch thing to me when I told her my parents were Korean. Again, the gesture did not evoke any sense of malice or rudeness, and later as it turned out, she had a crush on me.

    So I think this goes the same way for the monkey taunts toward athletes of African descent in Europe. I do not forgive rowdy fans for evoking reminders or eurocentric racism and I do think that type of racist behavior is extremely hurtful, but I also learned to try to understand these gestures in context.

  3. Hey i’m doing a university assignment on nationalism, and wondering what your thoughts were on the topic. Do you believe that having people of different ethnic backgrounds in our national sports, is part of what it means to be Canadian? Or does the skin colour and origin even matter at all?

    • Hi Christopher, thanks for the question. I would say that having a diversity of people involved in anything is valuable for propping up our national identity as a mosaic. Also, skin colour and origin matter only because we make them matter. If no one had to identify with a race, ethnicity, or nationality then no, it wouldn’t matter because that means no one would ask you where you were from, or where your parents were born. The only reason why we would ask these types of questions are because there are assumed differences and similarities. If it didn’t matter what we looked like or where our ancestors were from then a mosaic would be a moot point; there wouldn’t be anything to integrate.

      Like I said, I think showcasing people like Kadri and Subban are necessary for the myth to live on. Sadly, that’s all it takes. A photo of a black athlete here and some chinese actors in a Tim Horton’s commercial there and rarely do we challenge the story.

      Hope that helps! Good luck on your assignment.

  4. You say that “skin colour and origin matter only because we make them matter”. Do you believe that our nationalism would be as strong as it is if no one ever thought this way?

    • Again I would say that our nationalism is whatever we want to make of it. The current American debate around gun control is a great example of what nationalism can do to a country. The notions that Americans are free to bare arms and that any restrictions on this freedom are an attack on their rights and identity have been cultivated through a history of American imperialism and a culture of fear. I would say that how Americans protect guns and baseball is similar in how we protect multiculturalism and hockey.

      I agree with Benedict Anderson’s (1983) concept that nationalism is merely predicated on imagined communities. You might want to check out Kristi Allain’s article about Crosby and Canadian identity, Kid Crosby or Golden Boy: Sidney Crosby, Canadian national identity, and the policing of hockey masculinity. The section about hockey and the myth of Canadian identity explains really well how hockey has been used to invent something unnatural all the while making it appear natural. In reference to Hobswan (1983), Allain writes, “Invented traditions work to create communities through common stories, to justify existing power relationships and bring people together through shared moral understandings. Through the repetition of national mythologies, or invented traditions, certain ways of understanding the nation, its history and its cultural practices become taken for granted.”

      The short answer to your questions is YES. I think our nationalism would be strong regardless of it was based around. Every country is proud of something, whether fiction or not, and perhaps one of the best illustrations of this pride occurs every two years at the Olympics.

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