If Ro Russell were white, he wouldn’t have to think twice about walking out of Crestwood Preparatory College at night. He wouldn’t have to worry about the hood he wears or the hat he dons to keep the rain out of his eyes.
But Russell is a middle-aged black man, and it doesn’t matter that he’s the coach of one of the most successful prep basketball teams in the country, when he walks out of Crestwood and sees police standing casually, he tenses up.
“You’re kind of on edge about what potentially could happen in a private place,” Russell said. “I found myself sort of checking myself.”
The past week has once again been a reminder of what it is like to live as a black person in Canada and the United States. Protests have sprung up all over the world demanding justice for the death of George Floyd, the black man who was killed in Minneapolis police custody last Monday. In Toronto, thousands of protesters took to the streets Saturday after the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, an Indigenous, black woman who died while in the presence of police last Wednesday.
Russell’s experience walking out of Crestwood is the kind of interaction he says black people deal with on a regular basis. It’s why he and basketball coaches across the country have conversations with their black boys about growing up in a society with systemic racial issues.
“In order to grow and be successful you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable and not be afraid to have some of these deep discussions,” said Dwayne Ramage, a basketball coach for the Bounce Elite AAU team (formerly CIA Bounce) and a Toronto middle school and high school basketball coach who attended Saturday’s anti-Black, Indigenous racism rally in Toronto.
Ramage said he talks to his black players about how to behave in public to avoid potentially dangerous situations. He tells them to travel in groups after games and practices, not to go into stores if they aren’t planning on buying anything or don’t have enough money. He says he uses team travel time to discuss various issues and team conduct.
“Prevention is better than cure,” he tells his players. “You have to do everything possible to not have an excuse for things to happen later.”
That’s why Vidal Massiah pauses for a moment before he enters the grocery store these days. He’s a 6-foot-7 black man who describes himself as the kind of person some people are afraid of.
“I know I look like a suspect,” said Massiah, the Executive Director of King Nation Basketball said. “I know there may be people who look at me like that, who are conditioned to think that and I’m not OK with that, but you live through that, there’s not much you can do with that.”
He’s afraid of what he looks like when he wears his handkerchief around his face to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“In that moment, I realized I can’t look like I’m going to rob the place because then I’m a target,” he said. “I’m not extremely cautious, I’d be lying if I said that, but I’m conditioned to where at every stop light I am checking for the cops, I am looking to see if it’s safe all the time.”
Canada is hardly different from the United States in this respect. Every day Canadian black men and women have to deal with the realities of their blackness.
“To deny racism in Canada in 2020 is to be ignorant,” Massiah said. “Black racism isn’t an American issue only.”
Ramage said he has been pleased by the support he’s seen from the Toronto District School Board and he hopes the past week has been a wakeup call for people around the world to better understand what black communities have been dealing with for centuries.
“Many of us are traumatized by a lot of the recent events,” he said. “I think it has opened the eyes of many to see that this is a reality and it’s been a reality for hundreds of years now.”