1: BLACK MEN CAN’T SKATE
“Reexamine all that you have been told in school, or in church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your soul.”
– Walt Whitman
I was six years old the first time I heard the “N word.” I was the only black kid in my first grade class of twenty. There was an East Indian girl, but the other eighteen kids were white.
The teacher asked each of us to draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up (you remember those assignments, right?). She left us alone with our crayons, and we all began drawing.
I wanted to be #4, Bobby Orr, the Wayne Gretzky of the time. So I carefully drew him in the black-and-gold Boston Bruins jersey instead of the stupid red turtleneck with a fish on it that I was sporting. I used my brown Crayola to make him black, and the black one to give him an Afro. Keep in mind this is long before the NHL had black superstars like Jarome Iginla.
I was looking at my picture, pretty proud of it, when this blond kid checked out my drawing, looked at me, and said, “You can’t play hockey. You’re a nigger.”
Then he swung at me.
Before I knew it, he and seven other boys were piling on me and beating the hell out of me for having the audacity to want to be a hockey player – a black hockey player. I remember thinking I was going to throw up after one kid punched me in the stomach. I saw the East Indian girl looking at me, and she had this expression on her face as if to say “Wish I could help you out, buddy, but you’re on your own.” She knew the deal.
And I learned it too that day. The deal was that these kids saw me as “less than” them, because I looked different. That day I learned that people put expectations on you – high or low – based on superficial things. I was beaten up because of my skin colour, but I’m sure there were other kids who were bullied or teased for other reasons. “Too short,” “too tall,” “too fat,” “too smart,” “too dumb,” from the “wrong” neighbourhood – if you didn’t fit into this box they expected you to stay in, they were going to try and shove you back in your “place.” It didn’t matter what you wanted to do or could do.
BTW: Black Men in the NHL
When I was a kid, the idea of a black man playing professional hockey – well, you know the story. Brothers were supposed to play basketball, supposed to play football, supposed to box. That was society’s expectation.
I obviously wasn’t the only black kid who wanted to be a pro hockey player. Jarome Iginla, all-star and captain of the Calgary Flames (and a much younger cat than I am) has said that when kids told him he didn’t “look like” an NHL player, he took inspiration from goalie Grant Fuhr, who played in the league for almost two decades, including the Gretzky Stanley Cup–winning era of the Edmonton Oilers.
That’s why I’m so proud to see brothers like Jarome among the NHL’s most respected players, continuing to pave the way. Someday, nobody will tell the next Iggy he doesn’t “look like” an NHL star.
Growing up, my family lived in an apartment in the North York area of Toronto. I used to play with our next-door neighbours, a young girl and her brother. One day, she looked at me and said, “Wes, when are you going to turn white?” Like my skin was going to change along with my height, and maybe I was just a little slow developing.
With my six-year-old logic, I actually thought that was a pretty good question. So after dinner one night, I turned to my dad and asked, “Dad, when am I going to turn white?” My dad chuckled and said in his Guyanese accent, “Boy, I’m still waiting.”
Looking back, I think he handled that the right way – with humour.
I’m telling you all this because it illustrates what I was up against. It was difficult to figure out where I fit in; I was ostracized because I wasn’t like everyone else.
You know, sometimes people’s expectations of you don’t always come out in a negative way, like being bum-rushed by a bunch of bullies. Expectations like those aren’t hard to figure out. Sometimes it’s the subtle ones that can hurt more.
My little neighbour was asking me an innocent question, but I guess I had already figured out that “white was right” or I would’ve asked her when she was turning black ’cause “black’s where it’s at.” I suppose most of us learn quite early in our lives that majority rules. Since then, I have learned, and I hope you will also, that sometimes when you’re sticking to your vision, you’re going against the majority.
People put expectations on you based on what they’ve been taught. If you’re different than they are, and you want to do something that isn’t in their realm of imagination, they may try to stop you or try to put you “back in your place,” verbally or physically. Identifying these expectations is the first step to overcoming them.
Exercise 1: Identifying Your Assumptions
This is a good time to begin your Vision Book, which is your personal journal to record your thoughts, feelings, and progress towards your vision. You can get an inexpensive one from your local dollar store or a fancy one from a stationery store, whatever works for you and makes it yours. Some of the exercises in this book have blank spaces where you can answer the questions but you might need more space or prefer to record your thoughts in your personal Vision Book.
1. Write down three limiting assumptions people have made about you. Who made them, and what did they give as a reason (if any)?
2. The people who said these things, why do you think – in terms of their lives, their backgrounds – they put that on you?
3. How have those assumptions affected you in terms of what you want to do? What you think you can do? What you think you can’t do?
4. Who inspires you? If you can’t think of someone, list the qualities in others you find inspiring.
Excerpted from Stick to Your Vision by Wes Williams, with Tamara Hendricks-Williams Foreword by Chuck D. of Public Enemy. Copyright © 2010 by Wes. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.