At six foot three and 345 pounds, Derek Dennis is an imposing figure. But he’s not immune to feeling the wrath of racism.
The hulking CFL free-agent offensive lineman says he’s been challenged physically on both sides of the border because he’s black. And usually, it’s been up to him to turn the other cheek and walk away from potential confrontation.
“My parents did a wonderful job of teaching me how to survive as a young black man in America,” Dennis, the CFL’s most outstanding lineman in 2016 as a member of the Calgary Stampeders, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “It’s sad you have to teach young black kids that . . . it’s even harder when you’re a physically imposing individual because people try to find ways to provoke you and want to put you in a bad situation.
“I’ve had people try me all the time. I’ve always had to learn how to be a big individual and get myself out of those situations so I didn’t do something I’d regret.”
The native of Queen’s, N.Y., said it’s a lesson he’ll one day have to pass on to his young son, who is two years old.
“I’m going to have to teach him how to survive in the world and understand that people are going to judge him before they get to know him,” Dennis said.
Dennis, 31, said he was introduced to racism as a nine- or 10-year-old while attending a family barbecue. A group of white men in a pickup truck sporting the confederate flag stopped in front of the function and began throwing items at the gathering while uttering racial slurs.
“I remember seeing the anger it brought to my father and mother, aunts, uncles and cousins,” Dennis said. “It just kind of ruined the whole day.
“As a 10-year-old you don’t really understand it. I went to a lot of all-white schools growing up and I never realized the racism that surrounded me because it was everyday life. When you’re the only black kid in an all-white school, you kind of assimilate yourself so you can get along with your peers.”
The tragic death of George Floyd last week in Minneapolis has ignited protests in both the U.S. and Canada.
On Tuesday, head coach Khari Jones of the Montreal Alouettes divulged he received death threats while playing quarterback with the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers because of his interracial marriage. Jones is black and his wife, Justine, is white.
Dennis has played five CFL seasons with the Stampeders (2015-16, 2018-19) and Saskatchewan Roughriders (2017). He helped the Stamps win the ’18 Grey Cup. Dennis most recently played for the XFL’s New York Guardians and remains a CFL free agent.
He said he’s experienced racism in Canada, most notably in Montreal.
“I don’t know what it is about that area, there was always an underlying racist tone,” Dennis said. “I’ve been denied entry into clubs and bars sometimes just based on the way I look.
“I’m a guy who wears jewelry, I’m a guy who wears designer clothes and for some reason when you wear certain stuff or dress a certain way people just associate your mentality and demeanour with that and that’s not all the case.
“If you talked to me, you’d understand that. I’m a well-spoken individual. I know how to articulate my thoughts, I know how to speak to people in a certain way where they understand it.”
Dennis said he felt more comfortable in Regina.
“With the Riders, everyone there pretty much knows who you are,” Dennis said. “They just love the team there.
“In Calgary, sometimes I had moments where I could tell people would kind of judge me . . . and there’ve been plenty of times when I had to talk to people and tell them, ‘I’m not here to cause trouble.’ I’ve grown so accustomed to it and this is how life has been for me always that I’ve never really batted an eye to it.”
Dennis said some of the racism he’s experienced in Canada has appeared deliberate and with malice. However, he said there’s been occasions where it was unintentional and came from overall ignorance.
“I’ve had conversations with teammates before in the past, like my white Canada teammates, who’re just not accustomed to what American life is,” Dennis said. “I’ve known guys to say or do racist things they had no clue were racist.
“It wasn’t until you take the time (to fully explain meaning) and they’re like, ‘Hey, I had no clue.’ You’ve got to understand that where we come from, that happens to us on purpose.
“If you’ve never spent a lot of time in certain places of the country or different places and you’re in your own bubble, it’s hard to understand what goes on in the world around you. As a black man, it’s hard to feel safe anywhere.”
Dennis said the world would be well served to look at how football teams tackle the subject of diversity. The game routinely pits players of different backgrounds, nationalities and religious beliefs together to work together for the achievement of a common goal.
“I think that’s something the world has lost sight of and needs to regain,” Dennis said. “We need to figure out a common goal that everybody can achieve and get to that will force all of us to work together, learn about and understand each other to be successful.”