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Leafs, Habs and racial insensitivity

When hating the other team goes too far

Aaron S. Bayley

On Saturday November 30 I attended a hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal. With me were five others, all males. During the game, a racially charged incident occurred which, unfortunately, became our "road trip" story, but which I thought presented an opportunity to discuss the difference between "racism" and "racial insensitivity."

As we were watching the Habs lay a beatdown on the not-so-truculent-Leafs in the nosebleed section of the claustrophobic arena, one of the guys (we'll call him 'Rob'), a die-hard Leaf fan who happened to be wearing a Wendel Clark jersey and who also happened to be quite drunk, bought a P.K. Subban Bleacher Creature doll from the Montreal Canadiens team shop, tied a small noose (which he had brought from home) around its neck, and began heckling the Montreal fans by holding it up high and even suspending it from the railing. Of course, Subban, winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defensive player in 2012, is black, so this made for terrible optics. Predictably, the reactions ranged from amusement to disgust. A university professor told Rob that he should read a history book some time. Conversely, a Leaf fan wearing a Doug Gimour jersey who was sitting one row below us with his girlfriend, was so entertained by the Subban doll as it hung from the railing that he took a photo of it with his phone. (The girlfriend, wearing a Canadiens Carey Price jersey, seemed embarrassed). With the increasing attention, Rob became more belligerent. As the game wound down with the Habs leading 4-2, Rob began shouting, "F-U-P-K!" along with the somewhat contradictory, "P.K. should be playing for Toronto!" When an older man sitting behind us put his hand on Rob's shoulder and told him to sit down, Rob whirled around, eyes bloodshot, and threatened, "don't fucking touch me! I didn't touch you!" A female security guard came over and asked him to sit down, and after a few tense moments, he did. But as we exited the Bell Centre and spilled onto the street, Rob seemed quite pleased with himself as he walked with the Subban doll slung over his shoulder from the noose.

Racism is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another; that a person's social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. 

One definition of racism is "the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another; that a person's social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics." There is some debate over whether or not racism always involves hatred, but there shouldn't be; any attempt to belittle, discriminate against, or oppress another person based on their skin colour is an act of hate.

I know Rob enough to know he is not a racist. But I also know that had he not been drinking, the chances of him doing what he did would've been highly unlikely. Alcohol clouds people's judgment and awareness; as a result, they tend to make poor decisions. Rob didn't tie a noose around the Subban doll because he thought it would be funny to evoke an image from the days of Southern slavery. He did it because as a Leaf fan, he wanted to get under the skin of Habs fans, and what better way than to poke fun at their best player? Still, it is hard to fathom that he was not cognizant of the fact that the image of a black man hanging from a noose would be incendiary. It is hard to believe that, as he tied the noose around the doll's neck, the thought that what he was doing might be offensive to some never crossed his mind. And even if he had a temporary lapse in memory about the horrors of slavery, it was quickly made apparent to him by people's shocked reactions. At that point he had several options. He could have exchanged the doll for another high-profile player who isn't black (say, Carey Price) and tied the noose around its neck (not that that would've been much better). Or he could have simply taken the noose off of it. The fact that he continued to taunt Habs fans with the doll, and even got enjoyment out of it, was an act not of racism, but of racial insensitivity. The Gospel Coalition defines racial insensitivity as "being unresponsive or lacking in feeling or tact toward people of different races or issues associated with race." There were many black people at the game. But even if every single person at the Bell Centre that night was white, the act was no less insensitive. 

Racial insensitivity: being unresponsive or lacking in feeling or tact toward people of different races or issues associated with race.

Rob's friend kept defending him by saying that Subban is Montreal's best player and no harm was meant. But this is a poor excuse that ignores the socio-historical context surrounding the act. You do not have to have read James Baldwin's "Going to Meet the Man," or have seen the recent film 12 Years A Slave, to know that blacks in the Deep South were hung from trees well into the 20th century, or to understand that the image of a black person hanging from a noose might be a painful image for many blacks. To ignore this very basic fact for the sake of making a cheap joke involves a lack of tact, class, decorum, and moral decency. Alcohol and sports fandom go hand-in-hand, but there's a line between team colours and skin colour that should never be crossed.


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