Raising A Black Boy In America When You're Neither Black Nor American
Listen to the radio version of this essay:
Looking to escape the monotony of "safer at home" a few weeks ago, my family packed up the Volvo station wagon for a long-needed beach trip to Ventura County, where we found the perfect combination of sand, surf, dog-friendly rules, and readily available parking. Being an hour away, the whole family was treated to the radio highlight reel on KPCC from the previous evening's Black Lives Matter protests, and the unrest that was gripping the city.
Shortly into it, our curious and precocious 6-year-old son, Andrew, asked a question. "What's a protest?"
My wife, Gifty, and I looked at each other. We still had another 50 minutes to get to the beach. The time had come for "the talk."
When Gifty and I were expecting Andrew, the U.S. and the world was watching the trial and eventual acquittal of Trayvon Martin's killer. Coming home from dinner one night, Gifty told me, "One day, you're going to have to tell your son what it means to be a Black man in America."
It dumbfounded me, because I'm neither Black, nor American, but Gifty was right.
I'm Chinese Canadian, raised in suburban Edmonton. Gifty was born and raised in Ghana. We met and fell in love when we were students at McGill University in Montreal. Years later, we made our way to Los Angeles and now we're here raising Andrew, one of the most confident boys you will ever meet. His sister, Sophia, assures us, that even at the tender age of 23 months, she will not take guff from anybody, especially Andrew.
We worry for both of them.
As a proud Canadian kid, I had that youthful naivete that piously led me to believe that our generous social programs meant that systemic racism did not exist like it did in the U.S. Growing up in an affluent and liberal suburban enclave further insulated me from many of the harsh realities that many American non-White kids encounter.
I always thought that the best way to raise my kids was to teach them to be kind, empathetic, and hard working. To fight for justice, to learn right from wrong -- essentially, to be a good person. But the past few weeks have me asking myself: Is that truly enough? Am I doing enough to prepare my son for the way the world sees him?
When I look at my two kids I don't see color; I see two little human beings that I would do anything to protect. But Andrew colored his school self-portrait with brown crayon. Andrew sees himself as Black. The world sees him as Black. And it was naïve of me to think otherwise.
In February, I was in Berlin taking an "off-the-beaten-track" tour with a work friend. As we left the U-Bahn station, an inebriated man and his entourage accosted and attacked me. Shoving him away with my hotel umbrella and a loud, "Get the f**k away from me!" I walked away shaken. For the first time since elementary school, I heard the clear sounds of racial degradation, "ching-chong" and fake kung-fu battle cries, directed at me by the drunk man and his delegation, for what I can only assume was COVID-19 anti-Asian sentiment.
That sort of overt racism isn't what I worry about when I think about my kids. It's easy to dismiss racism as ignorance when it's as overt as name-calling or physical bullying. Instead, I worry about my kids facing a police officer who perceives them to be a more serious threat because of the color of their skin. I don't worry so much about someone calling Andrew the n-word, but I do worry that one day he'll be left out of a birthday party, or that he'll have his first date canceled on him, because someone, or someone's parent, doesn't like the fact that he's Black. The million dollar question remains: How do I prepare a 6-year-old for the way the world sees him?
I don't have the answer. But Gifty and I told Andrew what we do know.
We explained to him why there were helicopters flying over our L.A. home, why tanks were on our streets, and why people were lighting police cars on fire.
We told him a man died because the police treated him differently because he was Black. When Andrew said it wasn't fair that White people got treated differently than Black people, we explained to him that's why people were upset and that's why people were protesting. We said that police officers sometimes do bad things. When Andrew asked how the police could go to jail, we had to explain that everybody has to follow the same rules, and even the police were not above the law. And that while stealing and vandalizing, no matter how upset you were, was wrong, sometimes you have to make some noise in order to be heard. And that's what a protest was.
Andrew looked pensive for a second, nodded, then went back to playing his Nintendo Switch in the back seat. Gifty and I looked at each other, with a cautious sense of optimism. Andrew understood at a basic level the difference between fair and unfair, the difference between right and wrong. These lessons transcend race and color.
There will be many more talks in the years ahead when Andrew and his sister get their driver's licenses, when they go on their first dates, and when they go to a bar for the first time. But if more 6-year-olds understand what it means to be a good person today, it gives us hope that tomorrow, these talks will get easier.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Darren Fung is a two-time Canadian Screen Award winning composer based in Los Angeles. His scores have been heard at prestigious film festivals including Toronto, Cannes, and Sundance. He has conducted his music live to picture in concert with orchestras across Canada. Darren serves on the board of directors of the Screen Composers Guild of Canada and the public policy leadership development program Action Canada, of which he is a proud alum. In lieu of his early morning rowing with the Los Angeles Rowing Club and his late-night hockey playing, he recently adopted a road bike in an attempt to keep his COVID-lockdown sanity.