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We Shouldn’t Need Success Like Masai Ujiri's To Be Above Suspicion In White Spaces

Power and wealth shouldn't be prerequisites for Black existence.

You can see the exact moment that Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s elation drains away into an expression of shock and embarrassment.

You know the video. Last summer, Ujiri was involved in an on-court altercation with California police officer Alan Strickland, moments after his basketball team secured its first championship in franchise history. According to the accusing officer, who shoved Ujiri twice as he attempted to join his team on court, the Raptors president appeared “menacing.” When Ujiri pushed back, the officer alleged he suffered injuries that rendered him unable to work.

The Alameda County deputy’s assertion that he was the victim had, even then, all the appearance of a classic grift. Any of the 20,000 NBA fans in the stands that night could see through the department’s claim of “taking the high road.”

But it’s that look of disbelief on Ujiri’s face, immediately after the fact, that sticks with me.

Up until a few days ago, the only publicly available footage of the incident captured the immediate aftermath — tenured Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry inquisitively making his way through the courtside crowd with an entourage of major network camera operators trailing him, game ball in hand, and bringing Ujiri in close for a celebratory embrace.

In June 2019, I had concluded that Ujiri’s expression at that iconic moment was due to the dizzying glory of the situation. The architect of Canada’s first major championship team in over a quarter century had spent a half decade shaping the Raptors’ 905 team with his innovative culture creation methods and European, fútbol-style developmental system. He infused the group with underdog grit and the overwhelming talent to back it up.

With the release of body camera footage proving the deputy was undeniably the aggressor, I now know that this was the face of a man robbed of not only his celebration, years in the making, but his humanity.

Masai Ujiri's expression says it all: his moment was stolen.
Masai Ujiri's expression says it all: his moment was stolen.

In a recent response, Ujiri acknowledged that his privilege as a man of plentiful resources helped him clear his name. At the same time, he lamented, “So many of my brothers and sisters haven’t had, don’t have, and won’t have the same access to resources that assured my justice.”

For many working-class people of African descent, including me, Ujiri’s is not a new story. To be Black in white spaces is to be continuously held in suspicion. No matter the suit, or the gold trophy, or the privilege you have access to as the only Black team president in the NBA, you must state your purpose.

More often than not, you do not have the benefit of the doubt on your side. We apparently must earn what should be afforded to all people at no cost — humanity.

As a West Toronto girl, I regularly saw this happen on our blue-collar streets. It happens when Black Canadians find themselves stopped and questioned by police at a significantly higher rate compared to white people, despite the lack of evidence that the practice of carding reduces crime. It happens when cops tell groups of Black people to disperse for fear of looking intimidating.

“Many Black Americans and Canadians imagine escaping the scrutiny of simply existing.”

The feelings of being watched and surveilled are commonplace, and they start young. I have endless memories of being stopped by strangers asking where I was headed, my innocence ruling that they were simply overzealously cautious adults. Memories of 21-year-old me being followed closely at the local Shoppers Drug Mart that I’d frequented since I was 11, or being aggressively asked which floor I lived on as I sat in the lobby of an apartment building I had called home for over a decade, by strangers who moved in after me. When you constantly feel othered, no place ever really feels like home.

This entitlement to information and authority I’d witnessed all my life was compressed into that 11-second encounter between Ujiri and Strickland, and a video that was somehow worse than anything I had imagined.

Strickland possessed the audacity, shamelessness and unearned power to physically challenge a Black man who had every right to be right where he was — who, in fact, had worked years and years to step onto that very court to celebrate his greatest professional achievement.

All over again, we witnessed how those tasked with protecting a society that does not believe in Black individualism flex their power. If it’s not through violence, then through lies. Handing a badge to a person like Strickland within a society as prejudicial as our own sets the table for the regular, dangerous interactions between police and racialized folks we see in our newsfeeds each day, and “headlines pulled verbatim from officer’s mouths.”

Many Black Americans and Canadians imagine escaping the scrutiny of simply existing, often through career success and monetary riches, to enter a world where class mobility eliminates the contextual and historical DNA of our oppression.

The fact of the matter is, as long as issues of prejudice remains systemic, not even a suit and trophy will be proof enough that we belong.

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