When Pascal Siakam grew up in Cameroon he wasn’t a minority, he didn’t have to fear for his safety because of his skin or worry about being singled out by the police or wonder if race was a factor in anything, really.
Everywhere the Toronto Raptors star forward looked, he was surrounded by people who looked like him.
It was the other races and cultures he would encounter in Douala that were the minorities, that stood out, that didn’t have black skin.
But as an 18-year-old Siakam took the plunge and travelled to the United States to pursue his dream of earning a college education through basketball and ultimately a professional career as his late father, Tchamo, always envisioned for him.
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He was a minority for the first time when he finished high school in the Dallas area and played three seasons at the University of New Mexico.
And while he says he has luckily avoided the overt racism that so many other African Americans have experienced, being aware that he was an ‘other’ was a new feeling, and not a welcomed one.
“Back home, any other race is the minority. And for me, I’m used to being the majority of the population and seeing people that look like me,” he said on a conference call on Wednesday. “I think for me, I was well-educated about other people existing, other races, and I knew what was coming.
“But going into it, it was all so strange, just seeing different people, how people act in different cultures, and obviously it’s a different culture than my culture where I’m from, and it’s something totally different. Just seeing that was a shock. It was definitely a shock. But I think I’ve learned, and also being in basketball communities most of the time in the U.S., you have mostly more black people around you, and obviously I’ve learned to see different races for who they are and accepting every other race. But it was definitely a shock, a shock at the beginning.”
What is most disturbing in retrospect for Siakam is how quickly he became accustomed to being looked at differently and often with suspicion for his mere presence, for his skin, an experience that was foreign to him in Cameroon.
“I don’t have a particular story in terms of this happened and it was blatant racism,” he said. “But I just feel like the profiling, you know? Maybe going to a store and people are looking at you a little different and wondering if you’re gonna buy something or they’re watching you a little bit. I think that was different, because that definitely wouldn’t happen where I’m from.
“Just seeing that, and for me, the sad part for me is beginning to normalize it,” he says. “Like, I felt like that was, ‘Okay, that’s just what happens when you’re that colour and you go into [a place] that seems to be fancy … I have to just accept the fact that people are going to look at me a little weird, and they’re gonna watch me a little bit.’
“Which is sad. You know, it’s sad that I have to program my mind to be able to think like that and know that, ‘Okay, like, it’s okay, don’t freak out, it’s okay, they’re doing that because it’s supposed to be normal’ … and man, that’s sad.”
He’s lived in North America for nearly a decade now, the past five years in Toronto, long enough to see multiple examples of police brutality against black men play out on the news. But the events of the past 10 days sparked by the nearly nine-minute video of George Floyd dying under the knee of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin while three fellow officers looked on was too much.
“It defied explanation or rationalization and requires change,” Siakam said.
His advice to those who haven’t walked in his shoes?
“I think obviously the first thing is obviously acknowledging it’s [racism is] there. I think a lot of people don’t do that and we tend to act like it’s not happening or ‘I’m not seeing it where I’m from or where I live’ but I feel like the way the world is now it’s impossible not to see it,” he says. “This is something that exists and I’m sorry to say it but if you don’t see it then you must be blind or something. You gotta be able to see that and you gotta be able to acknowledge that. That’s the first step, knowing that it exists and accepting that it exists.
“And then for us just learning about each other,” he says. “We got to learn about everyone – not just white and black – but every race. We got to learn about each other, be able to love one another and obviously it’s beyond racism because when you look at the issues it’s about police brutality and just watching that video, it really … it hurts. I’m speechless just thinking about it.
“Seeing someone take someone else’s life just like that, that’s heartbreaking. I think about the families and the people – you know he was crying out for him Mom. I know how big I am on family. I can just connect to that and I’m a black man. It hurts, like it hurts.”
Siakam’s not a politician or a social worker or a lawyer. He’s an elite athlete who has helped inspire a country with his play along with his passion and determination to drain every ounce out of his potential. He’ll get back to that soon enough. The NBA looks poised to return to play in July, the Raptors will have a chance to defend the championship he was so instrumental in bringing to Canada. In addition to trying to learn the piano, he’s been diving into video studies since the NBA season was put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, worked to keep up his fitness and recently has been in regular attendance at the Raptors practice facility. As the plans for returning to play firm up, he’s getting more excited to return to play and finish what the Raptors started this season, as they accumulated the NBA’s third-best record even after losing championship starters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
“You don’t want your season to just go to waste,” he says. “There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears go into the whole season, working hard, I think particularly for us with injuries and everything that we’ve been through, trying to get healthy all season, and working really hard as a team, and beating the odds each and every game. Obviously, we don’t want to see it end like that, so we want to be able to play and continue to move forward and hopefully, that can happen, and we’re excited about attacking that other title.”
But like almost everyone he’s been deeply moved by the events in the U.S. and convinced that change must come. As a caring citizen with deep ties in three countries on two continents, his life so far has proven to him that how he was raised was the right way: race can’t be the first thing people see when they look on another and when things go wrong, we can’t look the other way.
The George Floyd protests have sparked dialogue that he never had in the past.
“I didn’t really have these conversations with my brothers and my siblings,” he said. “Just the other day, my brother told me – and it’s one of the first times he and I had a conversation about it — he worked at [a car rental agency] and some lady came in and was like ‘Oh, I want to talk to an American.’
“I don’t know what that means. Maybe because he as African or maybe his accent or maybe because he was black. Like, what was it? Just things like that … it just shows you the true colors and how deep this runs. I think everyone is tired of it and everyone feels like it’s time that it stops.
It can’t be done by one person or one race or once culture.
“…Moving forward we have to learn about each other, communicate, learn about different races and different places and things that you are not used to learning about,” he says. “Talk. Talk about it. If you see it, say it and don’t be scared to say it and find ways to do that.
“I don’t have the answers but as long as we admit that it is there, because I feel like most of the time we don’t. And when people act like they are not seeing it, I think that is what hurts the most for me because it’s there. There’s no way you don’t see it. We should be able to see it and admit that it is there and take steps forward. …
“I’m not from the U.S. but anywhere in the world when you see injustice, it needs to be called out.”