In this moment, many are choosing to speak and share about their experiences. For some, it is recounting a lifetime of experiencing racism. For others, it began on May 25th, the day that George Floyd was murdered by the very police officers meant to serve and protect him.
This post has taken me several years to write. My journey into understanding what it means to be Black began in earnest several years ago when Nadine and I realized that our children would be Ugandan. In order to safeguard our future children, we embarked on a journey to confront our own ignorance, and learn more about the battle that is being waged for justice and peace in North America. I know that we will be on this journey for the rest of our lives.
Let me tell you about our boys.
Oliver is our eldest. His skin colour is a deep, reddish brown. His lips have a bit more red in them, while his palms and the bottom of his beautiful feet look are a pale terra-cotta. Like fresh clay. Oliver looks like he was born from the incredible deep-red soil that you can find everywhere in Uganda.
Finn comes next. He has dark skin, in a singular shade across his entire body. From his head to his toes, he is covered in rich umber tones, which make him darker than the average Ugandan. His skin pales a little bit in his palms and on the pads of his feet, but otherwise he is as dark as night. He’s gorgeous.
As their parents, our boys could not look more different from one another. From the texture of their hair, to the tone of their skin. Yet in a North American context, they are Black. That’s it.
Approaching transracial adoption presents two massive considerations: First, we must understand what it means for our boys to be Ugandan. How can we do our best to raise our boys to understand their heritage, culture, and homeland? Second, we must prepare our boys to be Black. Outside of the African continent, our boys won’t be perceived as Ugandan. They will be Black.
My biggest fear as a father is that I will fail my boys in preparing them to be Black men. I am constantly learning and unlearning, revising, listening, reading, discussing, and sharing – to counteract this fear and do the best job that I can.
I love history, and always have. So I was shocked, at 31 years old, to discover how my understanding of Black slavery and bondage in Canada had been whitewashed and sanitized. The narrative that I was taught of Canada being a beacon of light and a sanctuary for enslaved American Blacks throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s is a falsehood. A version of history compiled by white men and women to omit our guilt and complicity.
In reality, thousands and thousands of Black Americans were joined by thousands more of imported African slaves in Eastern Canada. In the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War, the practice of slavery in pre-Confederation Canada exploded. The horrors of this state of bondage meant that Canadian slaves would escape into northern States, in a migration that would come to be known as the “reverse underground railroad.”
This enslavement, as it did in the United States, led to a devaluation of Black life politically, socially and economically that was never corrected. Canada was founded with the fundamental understanding that Black lives were inferior to white ones. After Confederation, and even the abolition of slavery in Canada, in the time leading up to the American Civil War, it was still legal for American slave hunters to enter Canada to retrieve their “fugitive property.” The earliest stages of Black resistance in Canada can be found here, as free Black men and women worked to protect formerly enslaved men, women and children from capture and deportation. Canada went on to have the same legacy of racial segregation in our churches and schools as our American neighbours. Blackness was criminalized and vilified, and forced into poverty. This history set forth a roadmap into the rest of the 1800s and 1900s, leading to the gaps and the challenges that inform the Black experience in Canada even now.
Fast forward to today. I want to reflect on Amy Cooper for a moment. Her encounter with a black man in Central Park is a powerful example that exposes the inherent understanding we all have of structural racism that exists within our culture. Amy chose to weaponize her whiteness, with lethal force, in an attempt to bully a Black man. As you watch the video, you can clearly recognize exactly what she is doing. Before she calls the police, she lets this man know what she is about to do. “I’m going to call them, and tell them that an African-American man is threatening me.”
We want to pretend that racism is only a feeling that a person of colour experiences when things don’t go their way, or when someone is mean or cruel to them. I’ve been told a number of times that we should not educate Oliver and Finn about racism, because then they will never know what it is.
But Amy Cooper never took a class on racism. I’m sure her parents never sat her down and told her “now sweetie, this is how the world works, and how you fit into it.” Yet instinctively, she knew exactly what to say to strike fear into the heart of an innocent Black man. We all know, by instinct, how racism works even as we refuse to acknowledge its existence.
So my question is, if racism is only a perception by people of colour, how on Earth are we as white people able to navigate its system so effectively?
Ta-Nehisi Coates once defined racism as “not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” Even in its blandest form, racism is found within our natural tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to the familiar, and remain skeptical of the unknown. In my experience, this commonly leads to a disbelief, a comfortable ignorance of, the effects of racism, while our tendencies and thoughts allow us to dispute or diminish the very testimonies of those crying out as they fall victim to these effects.
George Floyd cried out, “I can’t breath.” He is not the first Black man to say that sentence and lose his life. Eric Garner said the exact same thing in New York, 2014, before his life was stolen from him. Their cries were ignored, diminished, and invalidated by the officers who killed them, as well as by the complicit officers who stood by and did nothing.
My parents never sat me down in order to prepare me for encountering the police. It never crossed their mind. I can tell you that nearly every single parent of colour in Canada has to sit their children down, and tell them how they need to carefully act if they ever encounter, or are stopped by, a police officer. Nadine and I will one day have to have that conversation with our boys.
These discrepancies are clearly presented to us. Recently, masked, heavily armed white militia members, who forcefully entered a state capitol building to protest COVID-19 protections were called “very good people” by President Trump. This same president then referred to the majority-Black crowds protesting George Floyd’s murder as “THUGS.” This is weaponized language, designed to stoke fears and tensions, and promote division and hostility.
News reports of property destruction have become the dominant headline across a variety of outlets. There are also many Facebook posts stating that the violence associated with this growing protest movement somehow invalidates the cause of those fighting for justice and equality. That is a LIE we tell ourselves so that we can remain distracted and ignorant. Let’s first acknowledge that the vast majority of these protests are occurring peacefully. Nearly 4,000 people gathered in Toronto recently with no incident. Police have marched alongside protestors in the US.
We must meditate further on the issue of peaceful, non-violent protest. During the original Civil Rights movement, activists were criticized for marching. Colin Kaepernick singlehandedly divided the sporting world by quietly kneeling during the national anthem. NHL athletes have raised their fist during pre-game to protest police brutality. They were all told, “not that way!” Mike Pence, a man who has crafted his entire persona around his conservative Christianity, was so offended by seeing NFL players kneel during the anthem that he left the game. Jesus Christ himself broke the law to protest injustice, and yet so many believers have expressed outrage at the simple bowing of a knee, or the raising of an arm. It is clear that there is no form of protest, including peaceful protest, that is acceptable or appropriate for those who wish to hold onto their apathy and ignorance. There is no acceptable way to disrupt the system that has been built to suppress and contain people of colour.
When those who are meant to serve and protect are instead the instruments of your subjugation and death, what does it mean to obey law and order? What social contract of peace and law-abiding should be upheld when we see agents of the law instigate brutality and violence?
Canadians are NOT immune to these dangers. Black people are disproportionately stopped by police, arrested, and even killed. The average Black family holds 10% of the net worth of the average white family. They are less likely to attend a University, and are less likely to be employed.
And so, I humbly attempt to write down some of what I have learned.
I write in the hope that these words can spur someone to action. Perh aps these words motivate you to pick up a book. To ask a friend of colour about their experience. To remove your apathy, step out of ignorance and into knowledge. To let that knowledge motivate you to change – to act.
The truth of Black Lives Matter extends to the African continent as well. In 2011, I so clearly remember a conversation I had with a friend, who asked me, “if you go over there, and make things better for them, and they stop dying, won’t that just make things worse for the rest of us?” That was truly my first reckoning with the fact that so many of us think our lives are worth more than those who are different than us.
Learning about racism goes hand in hand with learning about privilege. Initially as a white, straight, Christian man, I felt like my voice was less important. I felt like I had little to offer, and that I should never seek out a spotlight. Looking back, this is a natural reaction when coming to understand white privilege. The other common reaction is anger and to take offence. It is not something I experienced, but have heard others share; that they did not want their achievements and hardships to be diminished because of their inherent advantages.
There’s another aspect of privilege that Nadine and I had to talk through before we could start our journey towards parenting Black children. We had to first acknowledge the privilege of silence. A privilege of apathy and ignorance that we could hold onto as a white family. We knew that being parents to Ugandan boys meant that we could never again be ignorant. We could never again stand idle.
We will never be able to forget what happened this week and just move on. George Floyd is one of many who have unjustly died as Black people have struggled against a system of oppression that has lasted for hundreds of years. I have committed as many of these men, women and children as I can to memory, because they are precious to me. I cannot forget – I gave up that privilege years ago when I decided to become a father.
Giving up that privilege of ignorance must go hand in hand with embracing the privileges as a white man that I do have:
I have white skin – I am protected.
I have skills – I will use them.
I have resources – I will share them.
I have eyes – I can see you.
I have tears – I will shed them.
I have ears – I will listen.
I have feet – I will walk and protest.
I have God – I will pray, unpersecuted.
I have children – I will raise them to be good, kind, and free of bigotry.
I have a vote – I will use it to support those who care for and protect people equally.
I have a voice – People will listen.
This is a call to action. Jesus instructed us that the love of our neighbour is the greatest commandment He could give. To have them treated equally as we would want for ourselves, to love them as God loved us – sacrificially. We can no longer hold onto our faith while permitting injustice to destroy lives around us. Our Black brothers and sisters have suffered defeat after defeat, while we stand idle.
Our God requires us to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly – Micah 6:8
What does this mean?
Act Justly – do our actions support the equal application and pursuit of justice in the lives of those around us?
Love Mercy – do we actively seek out forgiveness and reconciliation?
Walk Humbly – do we seek to learn, to change, to grow?
We all have a clear calling and responsibility to act. What will you choose to do?
Here are a few resources to get you started:
Read The Skin We’re In, by Desmond Cole – an examination of racism in Canada and how it impacts the daily lives of people of colour.
Read Policing Black Lives, by Robyn Maynard – an in-depth look at Canada’s past, present and future for Black life.
Here are some examples of Black Life in Canada, via the BBC.
Finally here is a comprehensive list of resources compiled to further your journey towards understanding Black life and the struggle for equality.
If you ever want to talk, just let me know.