A physician and father asks if things will be different for his boys

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng grew up being called the n-word. He's been stopped by police and followed in stores. He's had to work harder to prove himself, all because of the colour of his skin. He desperately hopes things will be different by the time his three sons grow up, but he's not hopeful.

'You do your best to protect them, but you know this is inevitable'

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng and his wife, Dr. Catherine Kyeremanteng, with their sons (left to right) Teddy, Zeke and Marlow, on holiday in Mexico. (Submitted by Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng)

He grew up being called "N--ger" and "monkey," and being told to go back to Africa. Now, Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is worried his three young sons will experience a similar struggle.

Kyeremanteng, 42, is an intensive and palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals in Ottawa, but he grew up in Edmonton after his parents immigrated from Ghana. 

He has not talked about George Floyd with even his eldest son, Teddy, 7. The other boys are just five and nearly two.

"I have been trying to maintain their innocence as long as possible," Kyeremanteng said. "It's just a gift to not have to go there yet."

And yet he knows he will have to go there soon enough. "[Teddy]'s going to experience it. He's going to experience being discriminated against," Kyeremanteng said.

He knows they'll also have to watch themselves around police.

"All my boys are going to know how to carry themselves with law enforcement," Kyeremanteng said. That means two hands on the wheel and making sure their paperwork is up to date. "Be polite. If they start giving you attitude, just eat it. Don't fight it."

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng is an intensive and palliative care physician at the Ottawa and Montfort hospitals. (Kwadwo Kyeremanteng)

Kyeremanteng has been pulled over by police late at night for some minor infraction. He remembers pulling out his phone, his hand shaking.

"I had my cell phone out and I was on the phone, I woke my [then girlfriend] and I said, 'Just listen, OK? Just be [at] the ready. I don't like this. This doesn't feel right.'"

There are other kinds of situations you don't ask for, but have forced upon you.

It wasn't just potentially dangerous encounters with police. Kyeremanteng has encountered moments of casual racism throughout his academic and professional life.

"You just always have these moments," Kyeremanteng said. "People don't realize the pressure in those circumstances. There's this huge pressure to save face. [People say], 'What are you going to do? He just called you a n--ger or a j---boo. What are you going to do?'"

It takes so much more effort to love yourself when you've got all these messages saying you're not worthy. You just don't forget about that.- Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng


He was one of just two Black students in the class of 2005 at the University of Alberta's medical school.

He recalls one professor who was discussing vitamin D and people living near the equator, and asked if anyone would really want to live in Africa. "My whole class knows I have African roots. All eyes go on you. What are you going to say to this guy that has a potential stake in your career? Are you going to defend yourself? Joke it off?"

So what did he do in that situation? "I called it out."

Saying nothing was never an option for Kyeremanteng. "If I don't say anything, I can't look at myself in the mirror."

As a trainee, Kyeremanteng would walk in and the patient would ask to see the doctor. "Yo, you're looking at him," he'd  answer.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, right, takes a much-needed break from the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic with sons Marlow, left, and Teddy, centre. (Submitted by Kwadwo Kyeremanteng)

The slow trickle of racist slights built up. "Everything stacks up," Kyeremanteng said. "I remember thinking my skin's too dark, or I wish my name was different, I wish my lips weren't as big. We've been being mocked for all these things. It takes so much more effort to love yourself when you've got all these messages saying you're not worthy. You just don't forget about that."

Fast-forward to 2020, when University of Toronto medical school valedictorian Chika Oriuwa was the only Black student in a class of 259. "That's insane," Kyeremanteng said.

And yet that demographic imbalance has become so ingrained, it places an inordinate burden on the Black student struggling to overcome it.

"If you have a Mike Johnson trying to be an MD or you have this Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, who do you think people are going to lean on?" Kyeremanteng asked. "I'm always having to prove I belong."

Today at The Ottawa Hospital, Kyeremanteng sees only a handful of Black physicians. "I guarantee it's not because we're not as talented or don't have the intellectual capacity. It's opportunity," he said.

The Ottawa Hospital could not provide CBC with a racial breakdown of its staff physicians. 

"These roots are deep," Kyeremanteng said. "A lot of people don't see you as an equal. They just don't."

Kyeremanteng remembers one troubling incident in the ICU. A Black patient saw him walk by and asked the nurse if he was a doctor. Told yes, the patient replied, "Wow, that's awesome."

"I heard that and [thought], why the f--k should that be awesome? It's great that I could be a role model for that youth, but it shouldn't cause awe," Kyeremanteng said.

Outside the hospital, "you have to have that heightened situational awareness as a Black man," Kyeremanteng said. On a weekend getaway to Florida, he and four white friends were about to cross a deserted street against the light. "I'm not crossing the street until it's OK," Kyeremanteng told his friends. "I'm in Florida. You don't do that."

In Ottawa, he's been followed in stores. "I don't walk into any convenience store with my hood up," he said. "Don't give them an excuse." 

Now, Kyeremanteng is worried nothing will improve for his boys.

"Our three sons, these happy-go-lucky kids who see the world as a good place? They're going to be 'woke' to this reality," he said. "You do your best to protect them, but you know this is inevitable. It weighs on you."

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