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Black History Month: An Interview with Perdita Felicien

Friday, February 26, 2016

Perdita Felicien was born in Oshawa, Ontario and largely grew up in neighbouring Pickering. Teachers noticed her athletic ability at an early age. By the time she was 19 her considerable skills in track and field had won her a full scholarship to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a Bachelor of Science-Kinesiology with honours. Ms. Felicien is a two-time Olympian, a two-time world champion and a two-time world silver medalist. She also is the Canadian record holder for both the 100 and 60-metre hurdles. In addition to her athletic career, Ms. Felicien also works as a sports broadcaster and motivational speaker and is writing a book about her life as a first generation Canadian and Olympic athlete.1 She recently took the time to answer our questions and talk to us about Black History Month, the power of sports to promote human rights and how it feels to be the only Black person in the room.

Perdita Felicien stands in front a white background with her hands on her hips. She has her head turned to the left but is looking directly at the photographer and smiling. She is wearing a red and white track top and a pair of red track pants.
Perdita Felicien with her awards. Photo courtesy of Perdita Felicien.

 

Is Black History Month important to you?

Black History Month is important to me because it’s an opportunity to reflect on the achievements made by people in my community. Personally, it’s a time of pride and inspiration. There are those who don’t believe it’s necessary, but I think every culture should celebrate what makes them unique. And when a group of people decide to embrace who they are that doesn’t take away from anybody else.

Did you face any challenges as a Black woman in Canada and the United States?

When I first went to the University of Illinois in 2000 on a track scholarship, I was surprised to see segregation: Whites, Blacks, Asians, etc., kept mainly in clusters to themselves. There were amicable interactions between groups, but it wasn’t the easy melting pot of cultures and people I experienced growing up in Canada. It was jarring at first.

Sixteen years later I spend a lot of time between the two countries, and while Canada is not a post racial society, I haven’t felt the sting of discrimination at home, while I have felt it while living in the USA, especially in the form of classism.

Do you see a role for sports in promoting racial inclusion and human rights?

Sport is a powerful vehicle and so are sports figures. No example is more searing to me than John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists on the podium at the 1968 Olympics.

In 2014 when Cleveland Cavaliers players LeBron James and Kyrie Irving wore T-shirts with “I Can’t Breathe” on them while warming up for a game the world took notice. “I can’t breathe” were the last words Eric Garner said during a deadly confrontation with a New York police officer. It was pivotal to see basketball stars take a stand on the epidemic of unarmed black men dying every day in America at the hands of police.

The athlete voice and platform is key, because it can raise a nation’s social consciousness and focus attention on problems that matter. It’s not easy to rock the boat; being quiet is easier, but it’s a reminder that sports celebrities are a part of society too.

Do you have any advice for young Black Canadians today?

My advice is to be yourself and don’t compromise or dilute who you are as an individual. There are times where I go into meetings, events, or galas and I am the only woman of colour in that space. Sometimes I find myself trying to figure out why, which can be distracting.

Now I focus on what my role is and choose to rise to its highest standard. That is, if I’m a sports broadcaster, I’m going to be the best sports broadcaster. Not the best Black female sports broadcaster.

However, the uneasy feeling of being the only one like me, too many times, still lingers. Which leads me to my next piece of advice: Mentor within our community. It’s important for the ones doing well to show our children what is possible, to help them strive towards satisfying, non-traditional jobs, and out-of-the-ordinary lives.

 

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1 All biographical information about Ms. Felicien comes from www.perditafelicien.com.