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BLACK LIVES MATTER: A CONVERSATION WITH MARVIN OKELLO

Updated: Jul 31

Marvin Okello works in sales, retail, and ticketing for HFX Wanderers. A few days ago he reached out to me regarding a collaborative blog post. After the fallout from George Floyd's murder, he felt it was important for as many voices as possible to join the conversation to keep the #BLM movement going.


Marvin is a black man, and one who has experienced everything that this entails in Canada, even in 2020.


His idea for this was for it to be a conversation. He believes it's important that dialogue takes place and that people from all ethnic groups are heard, because that's the only way real change can happen.


So, last night we talked - and this is what we talked about...



(Gary) I’d like to start with a quote I’ve encountered frequently over the past few days, and that’s “I understand that I will never understand” – and it lends itself to this idea that as white people it’s impossible for us to fully comprehend what it’s like as a black person. To understand the layers of injustice that exist. But while this is a nice sentiment, I do think we have a responsibility to try to understand. So is there anything you can tell me about your day-to-day life that can speak to the negative experiences you might have as black man, to give a deeper understanding of these challenges?


(Marvin) I think it's just a combination of the little things that people take for granted. For example, I have this friend - Tyler Simmons - who’s also very vocal about anti-racism, and recently he was talking about how tough it is to even get a cab sometimes. Like, for instance, his girlfriend posted earlier about how she didn’t realize how tough it was until they started dating. This guy has had to hide in an alley before so his girlfriend can wave a cab down because if it was just him they’d often drive past. And I’ve been in that situation too, multiple times in fact. It’s the same in restaurants or bars sometimes too, when people blatantly ignore you but everyone else is getting treated differently.


I guess the question then is how much of this kind of racism is conscious and how much of it is unconscious. Because obviously we have these different levels racism, and in some ways unconscious racism is worse. I say that because with people who are overtly, unashamedly racist, you can just put it down to them being complete fucking idiots who are uneducated and ignorant. But when it’s unconscious racism it tends to come from people who should really know better and -


Exactly, and this causes a kind of racism PTSD for black people which settles in your own subconscious. And it becomes this ailment, but it’s not like an obvious one like someone who is suffering from alcoholism. It’s not in your face like that. It’s PTSD, so it’s deeper than that. And that’s the nature of racism because one type is very in the news with social media and people talking about it. But then there’s this other side of it in certain workplaces or business where policies are built against visible minorities. It’s tough because what do you normally do when there’s something you have an issue with?


Like with racism?


No, let’s just take it out of the context of racism for a moment. Like if you have depression, for instance. What are the steps you take?


Well, you go to a doctor. You find a professional who can help you, you…


Exactly, you seek help from a professional. Depending on what it is it could be a doctor, or sometimes it could even lead to therapy. And therapy is an interesting one because that’s something that is often seen in a negative light in Canada. As in people thinking you’re crazy or need help. And you feel, like, really? That’s why you do go therapy because there is something you need help with. So to bring it back to the context of racism – who do you go to for help with the effects of this? Who do you talk to? How many black therapists even are there who can understand how it feels? Someone who can empathise with your experiences?


It’s interesting, that analogy about seeing a therapist if you have depression, because in most cases of mental health issues – whether it’s depression, or alcoholism – if you do go to see a medical profession there are steps in place of how to deal with the problem. For instance, abstinence based recovery, or the 10 steps alcoholics must take. But with something like racism, even if you were to seek professional help – what actually exists in terms of a process of recovery? Nothing, I’d assume.


Yeah, exactly, usually when you go for another problem there’s a diagnosis or prognosis. But right now with this issue it’s still the elephant in the room. And that’s why it’s important to now be having this dialogue around it, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Because it is uncomfortable for black people to live through it. And by white people choosing to speak up and admitting it’s uncomfortable to talk about, that really does help your black friends because it creates this conversation.


That’s the thing I’ve learnt most over the past few days, really. Because if I’m being completely honest, I think I was one of the worst types of white people with regards to this, because when it comes to this idea of ‘not being racist’ and ‘being anti-racist’ existing as two distinct things… I think I’ve always just assumed because I don’t consider myself to be at all racist, my work is done. Good for me etc. And I hate to admit that, but it’s probably true. And because of this – because the only internal dialogue I had with myself about this was ‘Okay, I know I feel no prejudice towards someone because of their skin colour’, it meant that I thought I could just carry on with my life without actively trying to be anti-racist. So realizing this over the past week or so has obviously caused a lot of guilt, but it’s necessary guilt.


Yeah, but as they say – better late than never! And to re-state Derico Symonds point: history only repeats itself because the present doesn’t listen. So I think where everyone has to start is by looking at themselves and then looking at their communities; by asking what can I do locally? And there have been petitions in Halifax for example about body cams on police officers. And the statement they put out last year was really unacceptable because they said they don’t really see a need for it. And I’m like ‘what do you mean?!’


I gave an example recently of something that happened to me in Halifax after Trump’s inauguration when I got jumped and the only steps I got told by the police were ‘okay, here’s a number to call to talk about it’. And that was it, there was no other type of follow up. So instead I went to therapy. But yeah, it wasn’t like a year and a half later when I even heard something back from the police. I had a similar to the CSA (Canada Soccer Association) incident where a year later they called me about their final decision…


What was the incident with the CSA? I didn’t get to that part of the Down at the Pub podcast yet!


Oh, so I was at the soccer club nationals in Cape Breton with Halifax Dunbrack, and we’d started really well. So we had this game against a team from Ontario and if we won we were guaranteed to finish top 4 in the tournament. It was an awesome game, really competitive… and you know games get chippy, people are competitive. But I had a 50/50 tackle with this guy and I won the foul, and obviously this guy disagreed with the ref. Anyway, as I get up to walk away this guy follows me and drops the N-bomb. He said: ‘You f*cking n*gger’. And I just stopped in shock and looked around and noticed one of my teammates had also heard it.


So I went and told the ref because I didn’t want it to be something I waited ages to mention. And the ref was like ‘oh my god, he did what?’ because it was such a shocking thing to hear in Nova Scotia. So we both got subbed off and then there was this hearing that had to happen.


Anyway, it happened the next day and the guy that’s holding the hearing, on his jacket was the same crest of the club we’d played against, who that kid played for, so I was like ‘Okay, I know what’s going on here’. Anyway, this kid was allowed to play the rest o the tournament with no immediate punishment. And then about a year later I got a phone call from a guy in the CSA saying the kid was banned for 10 months or something.


How does that take a year though? How was it not a priority case? That must have been incredibly frustrating.


It was, yeah, and that’s why there’s no department or business or fraction of society that’s free from being included in this conversation. Including soccer. Everyone has a responsibility to being part of this conversation.


I couldn’t agree more, and hopefully everything that’s happening right now is a catalyst for that.


Just to change the angle slightly, I want to touch on something that I started to reflect on a few years ago when similar incidences of racism happened, and it was whether or not I’ve ever witnessed - or inadvertently been complicit in - racism.


And I remember when I was a kid growing up in a very small town in the middle of England, there was only one black kid in my grade, who my classmates and I all worshipped. This was the era of Michael Jordan, Brazilian Ronaldo, Tiger Woods, hip-hop… we were all obsessed with black culture. So to have a black kid we could be friends with was a big deal and it was incredibly important to us that he liked us and we earned his respect.


At the time, of course, I thought this was a positive thing, but years later I reflected and realized that by behaving like that – no matter how good intentioned it was – that would have made him feel completely alienated and different from the rest of us. So that in itself was a form of racism. Is that kind of aggressive niceness from people something you were on the receiving end of as a young black kid in Canada?


Definitely, definitely! So I moved to Fredericton from Kenya, and the culture was just so different. I had these kids who within a few weeks were acting like my best friends. But those same kids who I was telling my parents were great… within 2 months they were convincing me to pull the fire alarm at school to be like this bad kid.


And at this point I still wasn’t familiar with the language so just went along with things. I was 8. At that time I assumed these kids wanted to be my friends so and had the best intentions, so I pulled the alarm and the kids disappeared and next thing I know I’m in the principle’s office and they’re telling me ‘Marvin, those kids aren’t your friends’… and I remember being so confused, like, ‘Huh? Why did those kids make me do that then? They said they liked me..’


But there were darker incidences too at high-school. For example, at Sackville High there was this exercise we did where we had these cue cards which we had to tape to our classmates’ backs, and you had to write something positive about them on it. Like ‘you’re pretty, you’re tall’ etc. So we’re doing this and after about 2 minutes into this exercise one of my friends was like ‘Yo, you need to go talk to the teacher’ and I was like ‘what?’ and he ripped the cue card off from my back, screwed it up, put it in my hand and then hugged me.


So I open up the cue card and see what was written, and it just says ‘c**n’. And this is like grade 10. Anyway, I just bawled, and I run out of the classroom crying because that’s something which was super hurtful. Worse, this was a kid I knew and had played with, so it was so shocking.


I remember thinking ‘how could someone write that about me?’.


Did they at least get in trouble for it?


They sat him down in a room and scolded him. But I wasn’t there for that, which was a mistake because I think it’s a really important part of the healing process, for both kids to see that so it’s clear that what he did was wrong.


I think as well that you need to see for yourself that the adults are on your side and understand that this is a really bad thing to do.


Exactly yeah, the process needs to include everyone. Anyway, I don’t know what was said but I get given this clearly forced apology from him.


Like one of those looking-at-the-desk kind of bullshit apologies…


That’s right yeah, and the teacher said that I could do what I wanted, like if I wanted to get the police involved etc.


Why should that shit be on you though? Why is a 15 year old being made to make those decisions?!


EXACTLY! Exactly… because it immediately made me feel like I’d be doing something wrong. And by just giving the kid that wrote it a scolding and nothing more almost makes it seem only as bad as coming home late for dinner or something – basically no big deal. But having it all on me – as a kid- to make that decision of whether to involve the police or not was really unfair, I think.


The worst part about that is from a young age it instills this idea in your head that to speak out, to look for appropriate punishment, is you taking things too far, or rocking the boat too much. By saying ‘do you want to..’ it creates this trigger in your head that makes you think ‘Okay, if I talk I’m making a big deal out of this and blowing things out of proportion’


Right, that decision should definitely be automatic. In society, by law… it should be automatic. The adults in the room have a responsibility to control this situation and police this situation in a way that protects the right people. But I guess there was no process or policy in place at all so no one really knew how to deal with it.


Okay – so the last thing for now I’d like to ask is what do you think comes next? And also, what do you hope comes next? Because obviously right now there’s this huge movement, but the worry is that over the following months and years that it gets forgotten about and things go back to how they were before.


You know honestly this is the first time I’ve looked up the exact definition of the word ‘movement’ and it means ‘a change and development’….so to answer what I hope comes next… I think it’s the development of policies. I hope every company is looking in the mirror and asking what they’re doing for their employees; how can they protect their employees?


But before we even get there, what do we have in place to stop racism from happening in the first place? What have we got in place to encourage diversity and inclusivity? What can we do to make everyone in our workforce feel involved, loved, and protected? We really need to create ideas and policies that benefit people in these ways, and for those ideas and policies to live on much longer than we do. So yeah, that’s what I hope comes next.


Marvin Okello

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