BURNABY (NEWS 1130) — When Othniel Spence attended his first pep rally as a member of SFU’s basketball team, he stayed silent while chants of ‘Go Clan’ echoed through the gym.
“I don’t associate with the name ‘Clan.’ I didn’t speak it out, I didn’t chant it. I remember everybody else chanting it and it was really confusing for me. It was really hard for me to feel the same way that everybody felt in the community. That started to actually linger in my mind going through my first year,” he tells NEWS 1130.
Spence is in his last semester now, and is hoping the team’s name will be changed before he graduates.
The drive to change the name has picked up momentum amid widespread protests against racism and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and student athletes held a virtual town hall to talk about the issue Thursday evening.
“The time is now. With the social climate that we’re in today I feel like a lot of people are starting to educate themselves as well as understand another person’s perspective. There’s been an extreme amount of support,” Spence says.
“Starting this out in my first and second year and talking about a potential name change and trying to express myself, I wasn’t receiving as much support as I am receiving now. I believe that this name is going to be changed within the shortcoming future.”
Still, playing for a team whose name he never felt comfortable speaking out loud, and whose origins he always has to explain has been onerous for Spence.
“There’s a lot of criticism we receive from random people, whether it’s in the airport or its fans of the other team. That’s a whole different burden that student athletes at SFU have to take on. It’s very hard for us, and it can be very traumatizing for people of colour. I have extreme pride in playing for Simon Fraser, I have extreme embarrassment when the name comes up,” he says.
“There was a lot of ridicule regarding this name, there was a lot of embarrassment. Even when I go home for Christmas, my extended family starts to bring up ‘I can’t believe you guys play for the Clan,’ or a friend says ‘How are you Black and you play for the Clan?’ That rocks you to the inside of who you are.”
Spence understands the name was chosen as a nod to Scottish heritage — not to reference the Ku Klux Klan — but he thinks that association is inescapable.
“There should be no name of ‘the Clan’ in North America,” he says.
For Spence, the struggle to change the team’s name is intertwined with the larger struggle against racism.
“If you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, we’re looking for equity — equality as well as justice — so that we can live in a world where we aren’t disadvantaged. That message is still the same even with something as ‘small’ as this name change,” he explains.
“For folks that are defending the name I think people need to consider other perspectives, and I don’t think that has been done before at SFU regarding this name. Outside of that, I think it’s another aspect of the racist undertones of society today. Even in Vancouver we see that there is a very small representation of Black people. Sometimes these people don’t get heard. I’ve experienced that. People of colour have not been respected or listened to.”
In February, Spence’s car was vandalized — a misspelled but unmistakeable racial slur keyed onto the side door.
“Although it didn’t spell the N-word explicitly, we understood the intention,” he says, adding he didn’t think the police took the incident seriously until the mayor of Burnaby intervened.
“Things such as those show that there’s still racism in our backyard. As much as everyone wants to look at the States in this time and looks at the Black Lives Matter movement within the States. I think we have to take a good look in the mirror at ourselves.”
Spence has launched a petition to change the name, which has gathered thousands of signatures and he has written an essay describing his experiences.