To the young black people and allies out there, I sincerely apologize.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to the realization that I’ve let you down. After George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests, I’ve had friends reach out to me to check in, to see how I’m dealing with all of this. They’ve been concerned about the outpouring of anger, frustration and pain they see on TV and want to hear about my experience with racism. They didn’t realize it was this bad.
I was confused at first. I thought we all knew how bad it was. How could someone who knows me, not know? But then I realized, that’s where I let you down young people. I’ve never shared my story with the people around me.
I’ve battled racism all my life. I’ve fought against the stereotypes all my life. From the subtle, everyday acts, to the traumatic overt events. I’ve battled them all, but I’ve never talked about them.
I’ve always kept my head down and kept moving forward.
My example was my parents. I saw how hard they worked and how they took it in stride. Both of them are university educated. Life long learners who continued to take courses to better their skills and advance in their careers. Both of them were always more qualified and more educated than their colleagues. Yet time after time, I saw them being passed over for promotions. Still, they persevered. They kept moving forward. If you look at their career progressions, and where they retired from their careers, it’s quite impressive. However, there was a fight at every step, for every promotion. I shake my head at the potential wasted though. Their employers squandered great resources by holding them back and they both ended up using their skills to lead in organizations outside of the workplace.
My brother and I watched and we learned.
My personal experience with racism began early. Almost as soon as we moved to Cambridge from Toronto. Cambridge doesn’t have many black people, and there were even fewer black people at that time. My first memory of Cambridge was of the big kids pushing me into a pond because I looked different. From that point forward, I started to fight back. I’d fight and fight and fight. If anyone hurled a slur at me, I would fight. The more I’d fight, the more I’d get in trouble. I became known as the troublemaker, but oddly, not the kids calling me the N-word in the first place. I soon realized that the teachers weren’t going to do anything. Me, as a troublemaker just perpetuated their own stereotypes of black kids. So, I stopped fighting and I stopped talking about it. There was no point in fighting and there was no point in telling. I kept my head down and I worked.
And so, I kept moving forward despite being taught in Sunday School that black was bad. I kept moving forward after a sermon at a church basketball tournament where the pastor referred to us as N-words.
I’ll admit it has been tough to stay positive in the face of it. I played sports and had fun with my friends. Overall, I was a good kid. So, it always confused me, why I was singled out. Especially from the teachers in school. I think from day one, I was a curiosity to them. Despite being a smart kid – a learner, my parents tell stories of the extensive testing the school board put me through. I guess I didn’t quite fit in their box of potential for a black kid.
I remember becoming aware of the low expectations schools had for me. In Grade 8, I told the guidance counsellor that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. He told me what a wonderful career I could have as a Law Clerk. I remember submitting my course selection for Grade 9 and choosing all advanced courses, because there was never a question that I was going to university. After all, I wore a University of Waterloo t-shirt to my first day of kindergarten. The guidance counselor at the high school tried to change my selections to all general and basic courses. My parents had to come to the school and fight the guidance counselor’s changes. That same guidance counselor would continue to steer me away from university the entire time I attended that school. My parents would continue coming to the school and fighting him. I kept moving forward.
Yes, I grew up privileged. I know it. Growing up, our home was an insulated, protective bubble. As low as the expectations were for me outside, at home, the expectations were sky high. My parents were encouraging and had unlimited confidence in us. We have an educated family, filled with professionals, business owners and academics. Highly educated black people were in our home for dinner all the time. There were no shortages of role models and mentors. Our family doctor at the time was black, successful and unapologetic about either one. He drove a Ferrari, played tennis, skied and traveled the world. I wanted to be like him, and I knew I could achieve it, because despite what the world was telling me outside, within that family bubble, I was taught a very different message.
That, I’m afraid, is a privilege that not many black kids have.
These mixed messages made me distrustful of the outside world. People outside of my bubble let me down all the time. On multiple occasions I have been called the N-word by police officers. On multiple occasions, I’ve been called the N-word by people I thought were my friends and as I said earlier, I’ve been referred to as an N-word by a pastor. Let that sink in. A man of God referred to a group of kids as N-words.
It’s no wonder I have low expectations when I meet new people. Not because of stereotypes. Because of my lived experiences.
I’ve been around enough racist drunk bankers and lawyers to know that it’s best just to quickly show my face and make an early exit at corporate events. Their words don’t hurt me, but they’re disappointing and it makes me wonder. How many people have those feelings that only come out when they’re drinking? How many careers have been affected by those same people?
You never know who has those feelings. Sometimes they come out in the strangest ways. I remember coming into work one day and seeing my black colleague visibly upset at her desk. We talked and she told me that a Director had said something racist to her in the kitchen. He was upset at the outcome of the Oscars the night before and said to her that she must be happy that the two N-words won. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington made Academy Award history becoming the first black actors to be named Best Actor and Best Actress on the same night. I guess that was too much for him.
He was fired over those comments. I still see him every once and a while on Bay Street. I’m sure now his racism only comes out over drinks.
I’m jaded now. The armour I’ve built around myself is bullet proof. I saw from my parents’ experience that work would be a struggle. School was always a struggle. But looking back, it’s the everyday random incidents that I wasn’t expecting, that have had the most profound impact.
Like the time I was at a basketball camp on the campus of Purdue University in Indiana. One very hot evening, myself and another camper went for a walk around the campus. We ended up walking off campus to see the town. When we got back to the dorms, we decided to sit outside for a while.
The dorm rooms weren’t air conditioned so we wanted to hang out as long as possible before going in for the night. As we sat on the bench talking and enjoying the breeze, we noticed a police officer at the end of the street. Then a few more gathered. A couple police cars stopped behind them. Then, from behind us, a police officer came out of the bushes. He was angry. In a few minutes we were surrounded by police. One was yelling at me. He kept on asking me where my bike was. What did I do with the bike? Where is my bike? In shock I couldn’t answer. Sixteen years old, I was outside of my country and far away from my parents. I didn’t have my ID on me – everything was in the room. I couldn’t prove who I was, or what I was doing there. Other than the other camper, no one knew where we’d gone after leaving the dorm for a walk.
One of the police officers told me I was a suspect in an attempted rape that happened that night. I was going to jail. I fit the description. Young black male on a bike. Yup, that’s it. That was the description. Young black male on a bike. That’s why it was so important that they knew where my bike was, because other than that, I fit the description perfectly. Case closed. I was young and black. Now where was that bike?
Luckily for me, the victim of the crime was in one of the police cars down the street. She recognized that I wasn’t the young black male they were looking for. So, the 40 or more cops that came to take a skinny 16-year-old me away to jail, left. In that moment, after they had gone, I realized how quickly everything can be taken away. Like Trayvon Martin. Some vague description of a suspect, no one knowing my whereabouts or what I was doing. That could have been it for me. Just like it has been for so many other black men in that same position.
Those are the moments when you are left feeling like nothing. Helpless.
Like when I was walking down the street on my way to a school dance in grade 9. All dressed up and feeling good about myself. As I approached the bus stop, a pick-up truck slowed down. The driver hung his head out the window, yelled the N-word, and drove off. Unprovoked. No reason for doing it other than to show me what he thought of me and my people.
I haven’t thought about these things in a long time. But the story of Ahmaud Arbery, shot while jogging, has me thinking about all the unprovoked racist incidents I’ve encountered, that could have gone in completely different directions.
I don’t really talk about these stories, so you wouldn’t know.
When you look at me you see the man I am today. The education, the career progression and the accomplishments. You don’t see how I got here. Some may even look at me as an example that racism isn’t holding black people back from achieving, or that systemic racism doesn’t actually exist. That’s why I need to apologize to the black youth. My silence about my own struggles made others not believe you when you spoke up about your struggles. I apologize. I thought I could work behind the scenes. Donate and fundraise for black political candidates, volunteer for organizations that help black youth and mentor black kids. But you needed more from me. You needed me to be outspoken. You needed me to share my story.
I am sorry to my friends and allies who are genuinely concerned, but really didn’t know what was going on before now.
I see it now.
I see it as people try to draw me into debates on whether racism exists, or whether it is as bad as the media makes it out to be… I see it. I was wrong. You didn’t need me to just be an example. You needed me to speak out.
As I move forward and push for economic empowerment and the creation of intergenerational wealth, I will speak out. I will share my story. Because your struggles are my struggles and we move forward together.
So, I’m happy to talk about my experience with you. Happy to share my stories. But the starting point for those conversations will not be whether racism still exists or how bad it really is. The starting point will be where we go from here. Because I am moving forward.