Personal Essay

How long will Canada keep adoring my cute black boy?

Lise Watson, the white adoptive mother of an eight-year-old black boy, reflects on her gnawing fears as her young son begins to ask hard questions.

"Is he already being singled out in the schoolyard?"

Lise Watson, the white adoptive mother of an eight-year-old black boy, reflects on her gnawing fears as her young son begins to ask hard questions. (Lise Watson)

It was an ordinary night. My son Adama* was preparing for sleep.

We'd read a book, told one another a make-believe story and turned the lights out. My son asked for one last hug but then said, "Mom, I want to tell you something. Today at school I tried to show my friends that the inside of my hands and feet are white. They told me there is no white on me, I'm all black." He choked on the words.

I felt nauseated for the first time since he and his father had arrived here in Canada, a feeling that threatened to remain in place for many years.

I am a white English-Canadian woman. I imagine that this feeling is a small taste of what black Canadian mothers and fathers have experienced, with even greater intensity and significance, since the first black settlers came to this land.

I mulled over my son's words for weeks. I had so many questions. Was this a child's innocent observation? Does he wish to be white? Or is he already being singled out in the schoolyard?

'A dream come true'

It had been a magical moment, indeed, when my beautiful eight-year-old son and my husband walked through the doors at Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

It marked the beginning of a tremendous new adventure for us as a family.

Adama's father and Lise married in 2013. The pair came to Canada to live with her in 2016. (Lise Watson)

I'd sponsored them to come and live with me in Canada after having spent 11 years making an annual pilgrimage to The Gambia — the official name of the tiny West African nation surrounded by Senegal.

I first travelled there in 2005 as a single 40-something woman in search of a Gambian musician. I met my future husband on my second day in the country and he kindly offered to take me to the jaliba (kora master) and his family.  

Eight exhilarating years later we married in the capital, Banjul, surrounded by family and friends, including my mother and a dear friend of mine. Our son was at the centre of this joyous event, and our happiness was very nearly complete.

When it came time to move, my husband proclaimed it "a dream come true." He sees Canada as a beautiful land of opportunity, cultural celebration and diversity.

I just hoped the honeymoon would last.

'Make no mistakes'

During the first seven months of life in Canada I saw only warmth and immediate acceptance from family, friends and my fellow Canadians toward our son.  

I was a mother bursting with pride, warming my hands over the kindness of strangers.

Adama has a sunny and friendly disposition. He walks about most days with a song on his lips and a dance in his step. His smile, words, humour and physicality draw attention from people of all stripes wherever we go on public transit.

On the way to our barber in a Toronto neighbourhood dubbed "Little Jamaica," older women smile approvingly at mother and son. The boys at the shop tease Adama relentlessly about his charming good looks. He laughs so hard he comes close to tears.

I was a mother bursting with pride, warming my hands over the kindness of strangers.

But since that heart-wrenching bedtime moment I have adopted a vigilance which I hadn't anticipated needing at Adama's young age.

Questions from her son has Lise Watson worried that he's already being singled out in the schoolyard. (Lise Watson)

I think about Desmond Cole's message in his film The Skin I'm In. I think about police carding and the racializing of black Canadians. I think about whether I'm naïve to think I might shelter my son under my cozy cloak of white privilege, for just a little longer.

Over the next few months, my spidey senses began to tingle.

Subtle and not-so-subtle messages from his school suggest that Adama is expected to remain calm and rational at all times, "using his words" only, in moments of frustration and anger. Wise advice for anyone, no doubt — but it also calls to mind the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

In his book Between the World and Me, addressed to his black son, the celebrated essayist writes: "One must be without error out here. Walk in single file. Work quietly. Pack an extra number 2 pencil. Make no mistakes."

Since that heart-wrenching bedtime moment I have adopted a vigilance which I hadn't anticipated needing at Adama's young age.

And although there's talk of teaching about diverse cultures, and providing immigrant children ample time to adjust to their new environments, this appears to be little more than lipservice in actual practice, with a few exceptions.

In February I made the disturbing realization that Groundhog Day and Valentine's Day are given top billing at Adama's school, but signs of African Heritage Month were relegated to occasional tweets from individual teachers who chose to acknowledge the Underground Railroad.

Better than nothing? That's debatable.

A shared responsibility

I gaze at my boy as he plays soccer, quietly sleeps and races on his scooter with his white pals. I am frightened for him.

I wonder at what age he will no longer feel welcome, when strangers will begin to fear and avoid him and when the police may begin to target him.

And I wonder, when is the right time to start consciousness-raising and having the "talk" about Walking While Black, Trayvon Martin and whether things are really that different in Canada?

Lise Watson's son plays with a soccer ball. (Lise Watson)

As Adama grows into a young man, I hope he will discover a Canada where he can have access to everything his heart desires; where he can find and express his passions; where he won't be streamed into a path below his potential; where his decision to wear a hoodie or not will be based on the weather and his mood, not on the fear of being carded. 

This Canada would give him all that he needs to make a good life for himself in this place he now calls home.

I urge my fellow Canadians to keep encouraging Adama and other boys as they build their self-esteem and youthful confidence. This is a responsibility we must share as Canadians.

I wonder at what age he will no longer feel welcome, when strangers will begin to fear and avoid him and when the police may begin to target him.

Despite the fears, I still believe in the possibility of positive change in this country. I am blessed to work at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) where so much important social justice research is being done. Conversations with friends and colleagues convince me that our little family is in good hands as we make our way on this journey.

A few weeks ago, Adama and I went to a theatre to see the new Power Rangers movie. I chose a seat near the front for us.

As we settled in with our popcorn, Adama said "Mom, I'm glad we are sitting here. Remember in the old days blacks had to sit in the back? We would have been separated!"

I hugged my child in the dark tightly.


*Adama's name has been changed to protect his privacy

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About the Author

Lise Watson

Lise Watson has been a member of the Toronto African music community for over twenty years. She is the publisher/editor of Toronto World Arts Scene (TWAS). She has studied and currently works at OISE at the University of Toronto.

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