August 15, 2014

The Hockey Mom: Don't raise your players to be colorblind

By April Bowling

We hate the Montreal Canadiens in our house. As diehard Bruins fans, there is no other team we so despise — not even the Blackhawks or the Penguins. So when the Bruins played and lost to the Habs this year in the playoffs, I was even more depressed than I would normally be after playoff elimination.

Sadly, losing wasn’t even the worst part. The worst part was that my little boy didn’t just have to watch his team lose to a bitter rival; he also learned firsthand about the ugly specter of racism that haunts our sport, just like it does in many other aspects of American society.

Sam was probably about 7 or 8 when he first brought up the issue of race in hockey. We were watching a Calgary Flames game on the NHL Network when the network showed a close-up of Jarome Iginla on the bench.  A light bulb went off in Sam’s head. 

“Hey, Mom … how come almost all the guys who play hockey are white, but almost all the guys who play basketball are black?”

Um. Yeah. Who ever said parenting would be easy?

Honestly, though, it was a great question, and it led us to a good if messy family discussion about the complicated ways we choose (and don’t choose) not only the sports we play, but ultimately who we become as adults. A discussion about the fact that what we do is shaped by where we grow up, what our parents know, what our family can afford, what we like, what we are good at, and what our friends do. That who we are is shaped by all kinds of social and biological factors including race, culture, socioeconomic status, genetics, parenting and geography.

We talked specifically about the geography of hockey, the geography of race in North America, and what it might be like for any person who was a very tiny minority in their sport. I think a lot of things were over Sam’s head at that age, but one thing he really latched on to was that it was his job as a teammate was to make it easy for any of his future roster buddies to fit in and feel comfortable sitting and playing next to him.

By the time Iginla came to the Bruins and we were playing PK Subban in the playoffs, that conversation was long in the past. And I honestly don’t even think Subban’s race even registered with Sam — he knew we respected his skills as a player, disliked some of his tactics (just as we dislike Brad Marchand’s at times), and downright despised his team.

That’s why it was so sad to me when Sam brought me the sports section of the Boston Globe one morning during the playoff series. He pointed to an article, “Bruins Condemn Racist Comments Directed at PK Subban.” He was really upset and ashamed that Boston Bruins fans had called Subban awful names just because of the color of his skin. 

It’s amazing that in 2014, my son and I would be discussing a headline like that. Amazing and devastating. But also eye-opening, and frankly probably one of the more important teachable moments we’ve gotten out of hockey (and there have been many). The reality is that as much as we may want to believe that racism is a thing of the past, that competitive sports are a level playing field, and that as a society we’ve moved beyond judging people by the color of their skin, it just isn’t so. Not yet, anyway. So we need to have conversations with our kids, not just about racism in the past, but about how it manifests itself today, and even in the sport that we love. Such conversations can be uncomfortable for both parents and kids. But they are also incredibly necessary. Research has shown that pretending our kids are color blind forces them to rely solely on their natural instincts to categorize and generalize about people. If we don’t teach them to do better, they won’t.

Dr. Beverly Tatum is president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race” a great book that has helped me have meaningful (and less scary) conversations with my kids about race. Her advice and quotes regarding talking to your kids about race can be summarized as follows (quotes are from her Parenting Magazine interview in April 2014):

1. Don’t be afraid to talk proactively about race. “There are concerns about saying the wrong thing and sounding racist, even if that is not the intent,” says Dr. Tatum. “Sometimes parents naively believe that if they talk about issues of race with their children, they will cause them to notice race in a way that they did not before.” But that isn’t the case. Kids instinctually notice race and other differences. Without parental guidance, they don’t know how to understand what to do with their observations.

2. Use teaching moments. “I was cooking with my 3-year-old,” says Dr. Tatum. “We used the last white egg in the carton, and then took out another carton of eggs, this time brown eggs.  My son noted that the eggs were different in color. ‘Yes,’ I said, as we cracked both eggs open, ‘But look — they are the same inside. Just like people, they come in different shades, but they are the same on the inside.’ ” Sam and I don’t like eggs, but we talked about how great hockey skills have nothing to do with skin color.

3. Let the conversation evolve with age. Realize that little ones might not grasp complexities, so it’s better to keep it simple and concrete. This has to be an ongoing conversation, and one that changes as your kids get older.

4. Don’t scold children for prejudiced comments. Instead, use them as a conversation starter and use them to engender empathy. According to Dr. Tatum, you should ask, “‘What made you say … ?’ Gently dispute the stereotype or prejudiced attitudes. ‘I’ve heard people say X about Y, but my experience with Y people is ...’ and give an example to dispute the stereotype.”

5. Give them role models. The racist comments from a small number of fans were horrifying, but I directed Sam to Patrice Bergeron’s response in that same Globe article. “There’s absolutely no room for (comments like) that,” he said. “It’s classless. It goes beyond being a fan in hockey. There’s really no room for this in 2014 — at all. It’s really ignorant.”

Well said, Patrice. Well said.

April Bowling is a mother of two, including one avid little hockey player named Sam. Owner of TriLife Coaching, a multisport training firm in Essex, Mass., April also co-founded the TriROK Foundation.        

This article originally appeared in the August edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to read the digital edition for free.