When I was pregnant with my first child, I was obsessed with reading about what fruit size he was on a weekly basis. I was fixated on what stroller and car seat to buy. I devoured books to find the perfect name. I deliberated over which outfit he’d wear on his way home from the hospital. But I never read anything on how I could protect my son from bigotry, prejudice and racism.
Looking back, I realize how naïve I’d been about becoming a parent.
I never thought that I’d need an emergency c-section to deliver my child whose umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around his neck nor did I think that my son’s skin colour would dictate how he was treated by other parents at the park. I was just another first-time mom who devoured pregnancy books and obsessed about her growing belly.
As a former refugee and proud Canadian, I was excited about what the future would have in store for my kids, and optimistic that they might be able to avoid the ignorance and outright prejudice I experienced. The world, unfortunately, has not changed that much since I was a child. Now that I’m a parent of two young kids, I’ve had to learn how to teach my children about bigotry while teaching them how to tie their shoes. This is just part of life as we know it.
When I was around 10 years old, my family settled in southwestern Ontario as refugees. We had fled a civil war in Uganda and a woman from a church in London, Ont., sponsored us. I can still feel the relief I had just knowing that my dad would come home that day, that he wouldn’t go missing. To be away from the refugee camps and the loud sounds of guns and fighting, to be safe felt incredible.
Even though the town was homogenous and mostly white, I was already used to not looking like everyone else. Growing up mixed race in East Africa, I was ridiculed for having light skin and blue eyes. Kids used to run behind me and yell out “mzungu” (meaning white in Swahili) and adults would throw stones at me. A stranger once threw a shoe at me as if I was a stray dog.
Talking about race: You know we're black, right? Once we were in Canada, my afro, skin-colour and multi-syllabic name announced my otherness.
We lived in government housing and at one point there were six of us in a two-bedroom apartment. One morning I was super proud to find a matching outfit in the pile of clothes that the church had donated to us. When I got to school, I heard a couple of kids laughing and I saw them pointing. I thought they were as impressed with my outfit as I had been that morning. But this laughter wasn’t of appreciation. One of the kids blurted out, “Why are you wearing pajamas?” I had no idea what he was talking about until another kid explained to me that it was something you wore to bed and not to school. I broke out into tears and endured stares and giggles for the rest of the day.
Probably the most defining moment of prejudice I experienced growing up in Canada happened when I was 14 years old. A professor at Western, the local university one of the country’s most prestigious post-secondary schools, had published an academic paper that concluded that black people were less intelligent and more sexual than their white and Asian counterparts.
At the time, I was in high school and a new Canadian citizen. So, when the professor’s paper came out, it further isolated my brothers and sisters from the rest of our classmates—it felt like it validated some of the beliefs that our teachers had. A guidance counsellor suggested I give up my dreams of going to university. Even though my grades were mostly 80s and 90s, this guidance counsellor suggested that I should pursue courses geared to the trades and not academics. While my siblings went to different schools, they were also told the same thing. (We didn’t listen to them. My older sister is now an engineer, my younger sister is a registered nurse and my brother works in finance.)
While some defended the professor’s right to say what he wanted because of free speech, I suddenly felt scared to exist in the skin I was born in because of what he said and believed. My family’s new life now felt precarious; we no longer felt safe. I was afraid of taking the city bus to school. I’d walk with my head hung as if to shrink myself into nothingness. I wanted to apologize for my existence because I didn’t know how to fix what was broken.
Thankfully my grandmother—the white woman who had sponsored my family—loved us as fiercely as if we were her own. And she helped me understand that one person’s bigoted rhetoric didn’t define who I was or who I could become. What’s important is how we see ourselves and not how others see us. It’s something I now teach my kids.
But as I followed the tragedy that unfolded in Charlottesville with the death of Heather Heyer who was killed by a white supremacist when he drove his car into a crowd of those protesting hate, I felt that old fear again. No matter how much society progresses, there are still people out there who can enact unspeakable cruelty, simply based on the colour of someone’s skin.
It’s sad how familiar this fear is. I’ve felt it when my son was three and a parent of one of his classmates in junior kindergarten insisted that he not be allowed to play with her son and the teachers complied. I felt it when I realized he would always be seen as the aggressor and not the victim when he would come home with bite marks and scratches and his teacher wouldn’t know how he got those marks.
Late last year, he was play-fighting with two other boys—one was black and the other white—during recess and the yard monitor stopped them and sent two of the three boys to the principal’s office. My son asked why it was only him and his friend who got into trouble when the other boy was doing the same thing. He said it wasn’t fair that the third boy, the white one, didn’t get into trouble. After calling the school and asking many questions, the school eventually apologized for not treating the three boys the same.
We’ve struggled to find a school environment where he wouldn’t be judged for the colour of his skin. This summer, we moved to a more diverse neighbourhood and this fall, my son started at yet another school, his third in four years. The night before the first day at his new school, he was very nervous but he told me that he would “be brave one more time.”
And as I watched him walk into his new school, I whispered to myself, “Be brave momma. One more time, be brave.”