Konata Lake is a Partner at Torys LLP and member of the York University Board of Governors.
As I reflect on what is unfolding around us, my thoughts are focused on my two-year-old son. At night when I put him to bed, I hug him tightly.
I hug him tightly because I am thinking of the day when I will have to explain to him why he is not allowed to wear a hoodie, why he should be mindful of the distance between him and others when he walks on the street (particularly at night), why if a friend invites him over and says just go straight to the backyard, his friend must come out to meet him so they can walk to the backyard together.
I’m also thinking that despite the fact that we will teach him to be strong, speak his mind and never back down, he will need to moderate these important traits when dealing with the police. Because the consequence of not doing so could mean being intimidated and surrounded by what feels more like a gang than those sworn to protect him (as I have experienced) or worst, the end of his life. And despite the above, we and society will tell him that he is equal with his peers and can be anything he wants to be.
To top it off, he will be told he is lucky to be in Canada because this country is not as racist as the U.S. – a statement that will reflect the speaker’s reality, but will ultimately suppress and confuse his.
I am a partner at a corporate law firm and my wife is a surgeon. Our degrees will likely provide our son with a comfortable life. However, we won’t be able to stop him from being followed when he walks through a department store, and we won’t be able to stop him from being labelled as aggressive when he, as a normal teenager can be expected to do, speaks loudly.
His first name is my late mother’s surname – it happens to be of Scottish background. But how will his life experiences change if he decides that he prefers to go by his middle name, which is Nigerian after his maternal grandfather? How many résumé submissions of his will be overlooked?
These thoughts are but a small glimpse into the insidious, evil and dehumanizing effects that anti-Black racism can have on Black Canadians. There are many paths one can take when trying to explain the effects of anti-Black racism and what should be done to address it. But after the recent killing of George Floyd, the only perspective I have been able to view it through is that of a parent. The parent of a Black male. Today, he is cute and adorable. The life of the party. How will you view him when he is 16?
I believe true dialogue and progress toward stopping anti-Black racism requires a level of introspection and honesty that most people (Black and non-Black) were simply not willing to do. I, and many other Black Canadians, have therefore only discussed race in circles where we could be comfortable openly expressing our vulnerabilities and fears for ourselves and our children, like those I mention above.
Since the video of Mr. Floyd’s killing and the resulting protests, I watched white colleagues and friends consciously choose to lift the veil of willful ignorance and express vulnerabilities and a desire to learn and teach their children in a volume and with a sincerity I have not seen before.
Perhaps it is because I am surrounded by people with young kids, but it is this willingness to engage on anti-Black racism, with the goal of being able to speak to and educate children, that makes me begin to hope that this time is different.
Two of the rallying cries in the various press releases, tweets and other social-media posts that have followed Mr. Floyd’s killing have been “silent no more” and “we must do better.” I leave broad policy proposals to those who are experts, but as for a step that each of us can take as part of being “silent no more” and “doing better,” I implore all Canadians to be thoughtfully and thoroughly honest about what we see, experience and do. This includes being mindful of overlooked jokes, feelings of fear when teenage Black males approach you, assumptions about education and intellect because of someone’s name or how someone speaks, etc.
Work done internally in one’s own thoughts will naturally flow to external actions. Small, purposeful and persistent incremental steps, not grand gestures that fade when the spotlight fades, are what will make a difference.