Former Pro Rugby Player Ali McKenzie Wants to Talk About Racism

Ali McKenzie
·7-min read

From Men's Health

My name is Ali McKenzie. I'm a Jamaican former professional rugby player for Wasps who now works as a personal trainer. I mention Jamaica because it’s not only a huge part of who I am, but because it’s also played a significant role in how I have been treated throughout my life.

At the time of writing this piece for Men’s Health UK, the world is in a precarious position. The coronavirus pandemic has caused devastation to our health, freedom and the economy. But there’s another virus ravaging society that doesn’t seem to by dying down: racism.

The murder of George Floyd made me sick, upset and angry. The video of him pleading for his life sent shockwaves around the globe. It was also the catalyst for Black people to stand up and say, enough is enough.

George Floyd’s death caused a wave of memories to wash over me. I feel like I’m ready to share my story to help shine a light on some of the barriers, injustices and prejudices that I, a normal bloke from a normal background, had to face simply because of the colour of my skin. I tell these stories to show that no matter how big or how tough you are, racism, this virus, has the power to bring anyone down. But, more importantly, I want you to know that you should never let the racists win.

I was born in 1981, the son of Errol McKenzie, a competitive boxer who put himself through the Open University to become a highly respected chemical engineer, and Lurline McKenzie, who ran track in 1500m and served as an NHS Nurse for 20 years.

I was only a baby when we moved to South London. We were the first black family in the area, and we knew about it. I was one when my family were attacked by members of the National Front and British National Party. My home and garage defaced, bricks thrown through our windows – even threats of violence and rape against my mother. My father pleaded to the police for help – they fell on deaf ears. Most nights he would arm himself and wait in the garage while we slept upstairs, waiting for the next attack.

I experienced racism at school, too. I was one of five black kids, spread throughout the year groups. At times it was lonely and confusing. I’ve always blamed the ill-education of kids on their parents. I truly believe you’re not born racist – it’s a type of behaviour that’s taught.

As I began to grow up, I started to get stronger. I felt like I was big enough to fight back, but, if anything, my size made me more of a target. I was 13 when I was attacked by three neo-Nazis who must have been at least 30. I managed to walk away from that situation. Them, not so much, more of a crawl.

It’s odd, I wouldn’t change these moments in my life. Without them, I wouldn’t be the man I am today. I wouldn’t be as aware of the world and be able to educate my kids. But that doesn’t stop me from crying when I tell these stories to my children – recapping my past and how lucky I’ve been, but also hoping for something better for them.

For me, racism is what drove me when I started playing rugby. I used it to fuel my rage and protect myself. Playing rugby for my school made me realise what real teamwork was – that band of brothers’ mentality – and taught me respect, empathy, humility and honour. It helped me become a professional athlete, and I’ve carried these characteristics with me all my life.

I played for Wasps for 10 years, winning every piece of silverware possible. My ex-teammates were some of the best players in world and we have a bond that’s unbreakable. I never once encountered racism from my teammates or my coaches during that decade.

But it was never far away.

I moved to Italy to play for Calvisano. I loved it. The country and my teammates were fantastic, but the racism I experienced – both on and off the field – transported me back 20 years.

This is the first time I am publicly telling this story. We were playing Rovigo when I was called the N-word by one of my opponents. At first, I was shocked, I couldn’t believe what I heard – the field was supposed to be a safe space.

Red mist came over me, I reacted, badly, and was sent off. I don’t regret my actions.

But that wasn’t the end of it. As I walked off, I could hear chanting, the fans were shouting the same word I had just been called. I was absolutely gutted. In the changing rooms after, a lot of the players didn’t seem to get it – even some of the English players were bemused with how I reacted. They didn’t understand how it felt to be labelled with a word that I’ve been called my entire life, a word that’s filled with such hate and anger. A word that I thought had disappeared from life. I tried to report the incident but, as with so many similar incidents, it was dusted under the carpet.

Why am I telling this story? To give an insight into what it’s like being a Black man in the world of professional sport, and now as a PT working in the health and fitness industry. To show that everyone has a story, and that you may see this big guy who looks strong and tough, but behind it all has weaknesses and scars just like everyone else.

At Wasps, there was no talk of race or creed because we didn’t see things like that. And if anything ever did happen, you’d be sure to turn around and see a whole squad of players who have your back. When you play a sport like rugby you have no time for things like racism, it’s just you versus the opposition. When you cross the white line it’s your band of brothers or sisters against theirs. It’s business as usual: come home with the win.

Now, as a trainer, I do everything I can to reach out and help people – with everything from their training plans to their mental health. I encourage people to come out of themselves and openly communicate because it can be hard to do that sometimes. I pride myself on including everyone in the gyms I work, irrespective of colour, creed or sexual orientation.

One day, I hope we can create real change and start to heal each other through education. I hope we can learn to stand up for one another and protect each other from the hatred and bigotry in the world. I hope that when my children sit down to speak about racism, they’re talking about something that used to exist, something that belongs to the past. That’s where I want us to be, but we’re not there yet.

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