Over the last two weeks, much of the world’s attention has been focused on the Black Lives Matter protests, ignited by the death of George Floyd. I can only hope that you have read, seen, and shared the stories, opinions, and experiences of black people in the United States and Canada. I also hope you’ve reflected on how you can change your perspectives and take some small steps towards creating an even more inclusive community for all Canadians. Over these few weeks, I’ve generally said little in person and over social media about these matters. To be honest, I felt like I didn’t have something new to share, or a particularly enlightening experience worth distracting from some of the more powerful and educational voices and videos available. At the same time I was torn – as a black man with a platform, I felt obligated to say something meaningful.
After some soul searching and reading an incredibly illuminating newsletter from my mom, I finally figured it out. A better understanding of the world comes from collecting perspectives and stories from different people with a different set of experiences. As as black man, my story is worth sharing and learning about regardless of how I feel about it. And as I think about it, my story is extremely unique.
I was adopted from birth by two white parents. My dad (I’ve never referred to them as adoptive parents) was in the process of finishing his PhD in nuclear engineering, while my mom had just founded a small nursery school that would grow into a highly regarded private school. They didn’t care what colour their baby was, they just wanted one desperately. The government facilitated the adoption process from a teenage black couple who they would never meet. Two years later they would adopt my brother who is of Jamaican descent and, 7 years after that, my sister who is of Indian descent.
As we were growing up, my parents would often get confused looks from others as they tried to make the connection from parent to child. My brother and I were pretty rambunctious so on occasion my mom would end up letting us play around in stores while she shopped, as nearby customers looked around for our presumably-black parents. One time another parent said something mean (non-racial) about my brother at a sporting event, not realizing who his mom was. My mom responded the way any mother would.
We moved to Leaside in the mid 90’s. I only remember one other black family in the neighbourhood throughout my childhood. In school – from Junior Academy to Sterling Hall, and later Crescent School from grades 7 to 12 – I was one of the few black kids and usually the only one in my grade. I grew up playing hockey and soccer and was typically the only black kid. When I graduated high school I went to Western University, which was predominantly white. In my physiotherapy program at the University of Toronto, I was the only black kid in my class, with one black kid each in the classes ahead of and behind mine.
My parents always built us up, telling us we could be anything and do anything we wanted. They gave us plenty of opportunities to explore different activities, sports, and hobbies. They provided us with some outstanding opportunities but always instilled a sense of gratitude for where we were and what we had. We were taught to be empathetic, forgiving, and respectful. We were made aware of people less fortunate than ourselves, locally and globally. I knew about slavery, wrote a speech about Martin Luther King, and read about the Underground Railroad and the wrongful convictions of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
But I didn’t know about systemic racism. I didn’t know that the Civil Rights movement didn’t solve all the problems. I wasn’t aware that people were being harassed, arrested, and murdered for walking or driving “while black”. When I listened to 90’s rap that referenced racist cops, I blamed the rappers’ aggressive activities and personas for the increased attention. When I saw the cases that hit the news, I was sad but attributed them to mistakes by a few bad apples that were inevitable in any society. When I heard about police takedowns at Jane and Finch or Regent Park, I assumed they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing or hanging out where they shouldn’t be hanging out. But there was an inherent flaw in those perspectives. I knew that black people could vote, be in the government, and lead companies, people, and countries. And I had never had an experience where I felt like I wasn’t being treated equally. So I was stuck in a feedback loop where I was told I could do anything and the world seemingly never told me otherwise.
As far as I knew, when I didn’t make a hockey team, it was because of a lack of skill not because I was black. When I wasn’t selected for a school award that I thought I deserved, it wasn’t because I was black. When a movie theatre attendant paid us more attention, it was because we were making noise, not because I was black. Conversely, I never felt that I had received any accolades just because I was black. Race was something I was aware of, but I never felt that it was impacting my life trajectory. The first time I truly started to understand the potential impact on a black man’s life was in 2017 when I was 29 years old. I was invited to a special meeting on diversity at Crescent School. A black high school student had organized the meeting to discuss some of his concerns about the experiences of kids of colour in the school. He told stories about bus drivers leaving without him and kids looking at him a certain way, all because he was black. He spoke about being offended when grade 5 boys would ask to touch his hair. His mom had given him strict orders to behave because his leash would be considerably shorter than the white kids’.
At the time I really struggled to see where he was coming from. Plenty of buses had left me behind over the years, but not because I was black, right? Kids had looked at me and others in weird ways all the time, but it wasn’t race-related, right? When I had an afro in high school, I reveled at kids asking to touch it. How could that be offensive? I knew for a fact (from my own missteps) that the leash for black kids at Crescent was the same for white kids. Why would his mom think otherwise?
Back to that systemic racism. The experiences of this boy, his family, and his community were drastically different than mine. And they were heavily influenced by the way society consistently overlooked and dismissed the needs of the black community. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, he often saw and heard stories about shootings, heavy drug use, and regular police patrols. Perhaps someone his mom knew had been fired for a minor offense for which white people would never be. Maybe getting a cab or a bus from his home was more challenging than mine in Leaside. To what degree did he have to excel at everything just to get the opportunity to go to an exclusive school like Crescent in the first place? All of those real-life experiences led him to be more cautious and defensive around white people and superiors, something I had never even had to consider.
I soon realized that my family, community, and circumstances created a set of experiences that were extremely different from his. Two young black boys in the same predominantly white school had two vastly different backgrounds and therefore perspectives on that environment. In essence, even I had many privileges that he never had.