P.K. Subban: race, the “invisible man,” and the elephant in the studio


Living and working in the GTA as I do, one of the most common inquiries I get from non-Habs fans around these parts has to do with our already famous rookie D-man, P.K. Subban, native of Rexdale and a regular topic of discussion on various sports broadcasts.  To the high-school students I teach, most of whom know little about hockey and care even less for a sport that employs no round ball in any configuration whatsoever (hockey is just a “white man’s sport,” they assert), P.K. Subban is a recognizable name and a familiar face.  They may never have seen him play, and have no idea what a penalty-kill unit is, but they immediately praise his name when talk turns to hockey.  I really began to ponder the symbolic appeal of Subban when a colleague from Cameroun, whose entire life of sports allegiance has only ever encompassed soccer, and who had never once discussed hockey with me, one day asked me pointedly before a staff meeting: “What is going on with P.K. Subban? Why is the coach always punishing him?”

Hockey is indeed, statistically, a “white man’s sport.”  While the racial diversity of the NHL has been slowly changing away from European blondness and towards urban North American cross-racial realities, it increasingly seems as though the whiteness of hockey resides above all in its unspoken “codes” of behaviour.

As we all know, P.K. Subban has already been chided quite noisily and self-righteously by fellow players (veteran keepers of the “codes”), by the self-proclaimed patron saint of “beautiful Canadian boys” himself, the hysterio-weepy Don Cherry, and by various other sports hasbeentators and experts.  What ‘s wrong with our PK?  Well, word in the HNIC and TSN studios is that he’s just too loud, too brash, too cocky, too flashy (imagine being judged “too flashy” by Don Cherry!).

Sound familiar?

When I hear such comments, always from the hardline, stoic white backbone of our sport, I am uncomfortably reminded of a quote I read long ago by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates (he who was so grotesquely arrested a few years ago for allegedly breaking into his own home by a white cop who found he was being “too loud” and disruptive).  In his childhood, recounts Gates, he and his friends were often told by Black elders not to “act black” as they played and carried on in typical childish ways: don’t be so loud, they said, don’t shout and laugh and make spectacles of yourselves.  Be invisible.

P.K. Subban, it seems to me, is being told exactly the same thing: don’t be so loud, don’t celebrate so extravagantly (his first OT winning goal, no less), don’t be all up in our faces so much….he is being told, it seems to me, the classic racist message of our sad, sad culture: know your place….(usually followed, in the best Southern tradition, by the N -word).

Other NHLers of multiracial or Black lineage have, until now, abided by this “code.”  Jarome Iginla, soft-spoken, self-effacing with the media, and universally described by fans and commentators as “classy,” is what Bill Cosby would gladly recognize as a “race man,” or as they used to say in the pre-civil rights days, a “credit to his race.”

Yet when Subban comes along, fast-talking and witty in the dressing-room, intense and creative on the ice, proud to have helped, as a last-minute untested call-up, carry his team all the way to the conference finals, hockey culture suddenly shows an ugly subtext of vaguely menacing judgement.  Mike Richards, for example, insulted by what he perceived to be the “lack of respect” shown by P.K., made this 1950s Alabama-worthy threat: “Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.”

Nice.  But as long as we don’t name the elephant standing right in the middle of all the ugly talk that has surrounded P.K. Subban’s amazing arrival in the big league, we can all pretend that it’s about arrogant rookie behaviour and not about race.  There have been chippy, fast-talking and risk-taking rookies before.  In fact, Dion Phaneuf, back when he was a fired-up difference-maker, was one of the most disrespectful players ever to debut in the league, taking running hits at every veteran he encountered.  Yet I don’t remember white-bread Dion ever being threatened, condemned or solemnly tisk-tisked by hockey know-it-alls.  Cherry had one of his huge man-crushes on Phaneuf, and wouldn’t stop praising that good Canadian boy’s guts.

Yet the hockey Gods are wise, and they seem to agree with me that the racist elephant that is following our P.K. needs to be exposed.  In their great and playful awesomeness, they made sure that the truth would be blurted out, in an absolutely priceless moment of text-book perfect Freudian  parapraxis (or Freudian slip), when Darren Pang, comparing Subban to another rookie, announced that P.K. needed to start doing things “the white way.”

I don’t think it’s an accident that not a single one of the panelists who heard this so-called tongue-twisted “honest mistake” reacted.  During the second intermission, James Duthie and Darren Pang apologized for it, but in fact it seems to me that Pang had finally nailed it and named the unnameable subtext that has been there all along.

It’s clear that Pang isn’t himself a racist person, and that he felt terrible about suddenly leaking out the repressed contents of hockey’s unconscious collective mind.   Accidently, he had voiced the very malaise that has been ruling the unspoken judgemental take of so many of hockey’s veterans and arbiters of “proper” hockeyness: P.K. should stop acting so “black” and should start doing things “the white way.”  Of course, when a rookie Phaneuf got all up in a veteran’s grill or sent him head first into his bench, that was gutsy “Canadian” hockey.  Subban is being chided not for his behaviour, but because of a profoundly racist understanding of his behaviour.

And I have a feeling Ray Emery would agree with me.



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14 responses to “P.K. Subban: race, the “invisible man,” and the elephant in the studio

  1. My first reaction is to say, “Surely it’s not so.”
    But then I stop and think for a minute and realize that that’s just my opinion, which stems from how I feel and how I don’t believe there should be any “white code” or whatever.
    I start to realize that just because I would never entertain the thought of having one has nothing to do with it and wouldn’t guarantee that there isn’t one.
    Is there really such a code?
    I don’t know.
    But I DO know that I would never support or even tolerate one.

    • Princess Mononoke

      I think for most people, the “code” isn’t even a conscious thing. They feel judgemental about certain behaviours, and they rationalize it (as Don Cherry and other have, by talking about notions of “respect” and “proper behaviour”) but they do not explore the fact that they react very differently to this hockey player’s personality. What is judged desirable in a white rookie’s behaviour (grit, courage, refusal to be intimidated by millionaire star players, passionate involvement in the game, remarkable speed and skill on the ice), is reinterpreted as somehow agressive, offensive in this particular rookie. Most people assert that they are not racist. Yet when they talk about Subban, commentators sound more like the people who say “I’m not racist, BUT…..”

  2. Geoff Read

    Great piece princess. I think you’re bang on. Great blog by the way! I’m going to have to browse around over the summer and read some of your other pieces.

  3. Thetis-Dimitra Kotitsa

    Oh come on!!
    Ovechkin has also been “accused” for celebrating his goals too much and he isn’t black.
    Avery has been “accused” for being too cocky and a pest and one of the most hated hockey players and he also isn’t black..

  4. Pingback: Liveblog: Game 8: Nashville at Canadiens | Montreal Canadians Fan BlogMontreal Canadians Fan Blog

  5. John

    As a devout Montreal Canadiens fan it could be said that I am not objective .
    It is important to note that growing up in Canada and playing hockey it was always recognized as a white mans sport.During my playing days I had the pleasure of playing with one of the leagues best defencemen who also happened to be black .
    I have followed PK’S career since his Team Canada days .I could not wait for him to become a Canadien and he has not disappointed.
    We live in a highly sensitive pc world ,that said ,without question Subban has been subjected to cloaked,and in some cases blatant racism .
    Yes there are other players who have been taken to task for their aggressiveness but not with the ire that Subban has suffered ,
    much of this vitriol is coming from HNIC Commentators such as the embarrassingly ignorant Don Cherry . Subban has faced this his whole life and handles it incredibly well .He exacts his revenge by playing exceptional hockey,which infuriates those pin heads in Toronto even more .Remember,he plays for those”francos” and that itself makes him a target for the Anglo media .Just in case you are wondering,I am an Anglo expat living in NYC .

    • Jerry

      The more things change, the more ….. I played soccer in Sudbury with Carl and Rex Subban, this being pre high school years. It was my first exposure to racist remarks, and a lot of them by parents. I recall just coming to a stop, watch and listen to an opposing player’s parent shouting all kinds of “n” words and ape remarks. I remember looking at Carl and Rex, just continue playing, having no visible reaction to the taunts. It hit me hard. I recall our coach, going over and physically threaten the parent, asking for him to apologize, and watch as the parent just left the complex. I didn’t know if he was coming back with support or not…scary time. Nothing came of it..just my realization of what a world for some people to be in. I’m all with you PK, and a salute to your dad for the career he took, and all he has done to make this world more positive.

      • Carlson

        I’m hardly surprised by your anecdote, Jerry.

        My nephew is mixed race and played hockey when he was in high school (he’s a recent grad). During one game that I attended, some of the players on the other team were yelling the N-word at him. Funny thing is, that’s not part of his mixed race heritage. It stings just the same, though. I guess I was naive in believing that today’s generation of kids would be more enlightened than we were.

        It’s entirely credible that some of the criticism directed towards PK is racially motivated and is mostly an ingrained reflexive reaction that’s not conscious–similar to how we Canadians (yes, all of us) react towards First Nations people, which is mostly subtle but for some people it’s quite obvious. The sad truth is, racism is a fact of life and we all have it to varying degrees. What we decide to do (or not do) about it is what matters the most.

    • Paul

      Just a reminder John that those ” francos ” have quite the racist tilt themselves.

  6. I have thought that PK is the newest version of Jackie Robinson based on many of the examples you have written here. 76=42.Thanks for your thoughts on PK Subban and the culture of hockey. I am a huge PK fan and I live in Toronto. I saw Jordan play too and he is a wonderfully gifted player as well. Great family in my opinion.

  7. Tuffguy69

    Are you really serious with your amateur psychologist Freudian slip nonsense? Or maybe you’re just being provocative for the sake of being provocative. Probably more hits on your blog after this than ever before.

    • Princess Mononoke

      Take it as seriously as you wish! I don’t think it’s irrelevant that Pang and Duthie apologized for the “Freudian slip” themselves, so I can’t be the only one who found it awfully unfortunate. Culture, including sports culture, isn’t devoid of meaning, and I’m not sure why it should be wrong or “provocative” to analyze it, albeit with a tongue-in-cheek outlook on the great hidden psyche of the sports fan. We could also just repeat the usual sports site cliches, but if you want to read that, you have hundreds of other sites and blogs to choose from.

      • redbird

        You’re doing a fantastic job Princess! Don’t let the ignoramusses get away with their nonsense. I’m a Subban supporter; appreciate all they’ve had to endure as a hockey family to get to where they are; it’s not an easy thing to overcome challenges and then the racist, ignorant, self-centered opinions of thoughtless individuals to rise to be the cream of the crop. I challenge every hater to get some balls and do the work and get yourself to the point where you’re an NHL/ Olympian hockey phenom, Norris Trophy Winner as the best of the best! Go ‘head on, do it! Let’s see if you have enough moxy to leave your Layspotatochip couch, get off your assinine and make a difference in the world.

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