Canada·Point of View

Raising a young Black man in North America today means fear, faith and hope that change will come

Raising a young Black man today brings with it fear of the burden he will carry when he comes of age, but also the hope he'll have the tools to help effect change, the CBC's Asha Tomlinson writes.

Events of the past week have been all-consuming and overwhelming, Asha Tomlinson writes

Asha Tomlinson is envious of the stage of life her son Isaiah Henry is at, but she is also nervous about his future. (Submitted by Asha Tomlinson)

I waited to find out the sex of my baby. I wanted it to be a surprise. Then the day finally came, and my husband Ryan said, "It's a boy!" I was both overjoyed and terrified.

Overjoyed because he was healthy and I had heard wonderful stories about "mama's boys." I was so looking forward to creating that nurturing, loving bond with my little man.

Terrified because I completely understand the kind of burden he'll have to carry when he comes of age as a young Black man in this world. 

I heard these stories from my father, and I've seen it first hand with my brother, Imamu. 

When my brother was a teenager in the early 1990s, living in Toronto's eastern suburb of Scarborough, he would drive to our corner store to get candy and pop all the time. That is until he started to get stopped by police. They would question him, asking where he was going, why he was out at night. 

It happened so much that he told my mother. She went with him one night and sat in the back seat.

September Brown and her son, Jay'mar Broom, 4, protest along High Street in Columbus, Ohio, as protests continue following the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd on Monday. Floyd was killed while in police custody on May 25. (Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch/The Associated Press)

An officer pulled him over, and my mom proceeded to wind down the back window and ask, "What's the problem here, officer?" He fumbled and mumbled and said something about my brother's tail light and gave him a ticket. My mom took the car to a mechanic. There was nothing wrong with the tail light.

I have never forgotten that incident. Neither has my mom.  

My brother is now living in California and has had several interactions with police there, too. He's an emergency physician and was on his way home from a night shift in the ER.

He was followed for 20 minutes by a police cruiser and stopped at gunpoint inside his gated community. He was forced onto the ground and searched. After finding his lab coat and stethoscope, the officer released him. He said, "Oh, you're a doctor." My brother said, "Yes." The officer said, "Sorry." 

That happened more than a decade ago, but for our family, it feels like yesterday. 

Case after case

Hearing and seeing case after case, year after year, of anti-Black brutality has chipped away at my heart and my hope that change is coming.

Numerous Black men and women have been killed, many in senseless encounters with police. Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Andrew Loku, D'Andre Campbell. The list goes on, and it's staggering.

This past week has been all-consuming and overwhelming. But I must admit, I have a heightened sensitivity knowing that I am raising a Black boy. 

WATCH | Parents talk about how they prepare their sons for interactions with police:

Three black parents share their fears and anxieties after the death of George Floyd and the difficult conversations they’re having with their children. 3:43

It started on May 25, with Amy Cooper, a white woman who called police on a Black man over a dog leash dispute in New York City's Central Park. Since then, it has felt like non-stop turbulence.  

From the questions surrounding the death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in Toronto to the stunning video from Minneapolis showing the final horrific moments of George Floyd's life.  

It took me a long time to watch that video. It was incredibly heartbreaking and infuriating to see Floyd begging for his life while a white police officer kept his knee on his neck until he died. His calls for "mama" haunt me. 

I wept for Floyd's family. For Black men like my husband, brother and father. For Black children. And especially for Black boys like my nephew and my two-year-old son.

Sheer happiness

I look at Isaiah's sweet, smiling face every day. His life is filled with good energy, love, laughter and sheer happiness. 

I am envious of that stage of life. It's so innocent and pure. I'm also nervous about his future. 

He can't comprehend what's happening around him. How do I explain this underbelly? The ugly side of society where a Black man can be seen as a threat, his life dehumanized and disposable. 

Tomlinson looks at her son Isaiah's sweet, smiling face every day and sees a life filled with energy, love, laughter and happiness. (Submitted by Asha Tomlinson)

How do I explain that he'll be seen as different because of the colour of his skin, that before he even speaks, he could be judged based on his race?

He'll have to watch his every move, every word and action to ensure it's not misconstrued or misinterpreted. He'll have to overcorrect himself to ward off trouble. And even if he does all of that, it's still no guarantee.

Preparing for the moment

It's a daunting conversation, I know, one that I think about more often than I'd like. He's only a toddler, but I'm already preparing for that moment. 

Yes, I've heard the argument that Canada is not like the United States. But racism exists here, too. 

It may not be in your face all the time, although it lurks in the streets, in boardrooms, behind closed doors and online. It can get vitriolic on social media. 

WATCH | Shannon Clark, a young protester in Washington, D.C., explains why some African Americans identify with George Floyd and fear for their own lives:

Shannon Clark tells CBC's Katie Simpson why the stakes are so high for those demonstrating on the streets of Washington, D.C., and other U.S. cities. 2:03

I've had people troll me about my big nose, fat lips, how I look like a monkey. I've had a former co-worker make a joke about Black people being lazy and another who suggested that back in the day, I would have been "the help."

I experience these racist comments and microaggressions too often. I've sadly also learned that I have to choose my battles. I try to find ways to shut it down.

What do I say?

Sometimes, I do nothing at all. It's taxing and often results in a lot of words being thrown around with little action to follow. 

So, what do I tell my son when he's old enough to understand the burden of being a Black man? What do I say? How will he react? What age do I take away his innocence? Introduce him to the cold, hard truth?  

I haven't quite figured it out yet. I am just trying to absorb and embrace this phase, wanting it to last forever.

A protester holds a sign during a protest over the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor on Monday in Louisville, Ky. Taylor, a Black woman, was fatally shot by police in her home in Louisville in March. (Darron Cummings/The Associated Press)
 

What keeps me going and takes me out of the slump is the twinkle in his eye. It gives me hope. It gives me faith that things might be different with his generation. 

If we can raise him to be Black conscious but inclusive, strong yet empathetic, gentle, patient and kind, and to stand up against injustice, he'll have a lot of the tools needed to effect change.

It may take decades to happen but without faith, there is only fear, and I'm tired of living in fear. 

WATCH | Brother of George Floyd visits the site of his death:

Friends, supporters gather to mark the site where George Floyd was killed in police custody. 2:56

About the Author

Asha Tomlinson is an investigative reporter with CBC Marketplace.

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