When I heard the news that George Floyd had been murdered in broad daylight by a police officer in America, my first reaction was a non-reaction. A quick shake of my head before I snapped out of it and focused my attention on something else.
"Have you seen the video?" my husband asked, knowing the answer before he’d even finished the question. I hadn’t seen it because I stopped watching videos of Black people being killed by law enforcement a long time ago. Call me crazy but something about repeatedly exposing myself to footage of people who look like me casually being executed by police officers, people whose punishments almost never fit their crimes, has gotten really old.
What happened to Floyd is in no way surprising, especially following the murders of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery in the months prior. And let's not forget the countless other racist killings we’ve been able to witness in this age of camera phones and social media. These kinds of incidents have become so normalised that for Black people they’re what we’ve come to expect. Am I angry? Of course. Am I hurt? Without question. But I’m at a place where I’ve chosen to forgo the difficulty of really processing those emotions.
As a mum, putting something to one side is a coping mechanism that I imagine lots of parents consider at some point. A sort of 'ignore it and it’ll go away' approach. But it’s one thing to avoid the birds and the bees talk and something completely different to know that one day you’ll have to try and explain to your child that they’ve been operating from a disadvantaged position since the moment they took their first breath.
For many Black British parents, particularly those with sons, it’s a conversation that has to be had before a child even hits double digits. It’s been proven that Black men are disproportionately targeted by the police compared to other races. "A white woman would never have to have this conversation with her child, but I have to have that discussion with my son every time something like this happens," says Valery Kareem, 37, who has two sons aged 9 and 3. The first time she had to talk to her oldest son about racism and the consequences for Black men was when he witnessed his dad get stopped by the police and threatened with an arrest. He was 4 years old.
"For weeks my son was talking about it so we had to explain to him that in this life there’s a thing called racism. We broke it down to him that there are minorities and that some people discriminate against you because of your skin colour," she explains. "Can you imagine at that age? And as a mum I wasn’t even prepared for that."
I explained to my son what happened to George Floyd and he was really shocked but I think it's my duty to let him know about these things.
Another mum to two boys and member of the Dope Black Mums network, Cheleeze Corlis, 33, has been trying to prepare her son for the prejudice he may encounter since he was around 8 years old. She says: "I tell him all the stuff that Black parents tell their kids, like you have to work 10 times harder and I’m very strict with his work." But it was Floyd’s murder shortly before her son’s 13th birthday that led to their first real conversation about racism.
"I did feel it was really necessary to sit down and actually tell him what was going on out there. So I explained what happened [to Floyd] and he was really shocked but I think it’s my duty to let him know about these things."
There are so many different layers, nuances and other complexities that are byproducts of discrimination. Being on the receiving end of racism is something you can sometimes sense without a word being spoken: an undercurrent of tension which forces you to become hyperaware of your own being. It’s why, when you have a name that’s representative of your ethnicity and you’re constantly being passed over for job interviews, you start to question whether prejudice is a factor. Unsurprisingly, research confirms that your suspicions are probably right, which, for a lot of Black parents, makes the already tricky task of choosing names for their babies even harder.
It’s something Kirsty Newman-Smart, 30, struggled with when deciding on a name for her 3-year-old son. "I’d always liked the name Kian, and he could have been Kian with K-E-A-N, he could have been K-E-O-N. But sadly Keon, it sounded like Leon, and it also sounded very ethnic. I liked the name but I was quite wary that with what name I choose [I have to think about] what looks better on a CV. What spelling looks better on a CV," she explains.
After picking him up from nursery she was approached by two members of staff who labelled her son's behaviour as 'aggressive' before asking if he is ever smacked at home.
"So when choosing his name I was looking at all the different variations of spelling it and I just thought the more I do [vary] it, the more exotic the name looks, the more people will know straightaway [that he’s Black]. And I shouldn’t have to worry about that but I don’t want him to ever be judged by his name."
Much of the fear that Black mums with young children carry is based on the belief that one day society will stop seeing their son as an innocent child and instead start to view him as a criminal or someone who’s done something deserving of punishment. When staff at Tia Stevenson’s* son’s nursery started to express concerns about one of his non-verbal signals, the 31-year-old suspected his race was a factor. "They would mention to me in passing that he would clap really hard and get very serious," she says. One day after picking him up she was approached by two members of staff who labelled her son’s behaviour as "aggressive" before asking if he is ever smacked at home. "He’s never been hit or smacked."
"It was spoken about again at his parent conference and that’s when I pulled them up on it. Again, another member of staff said, 'You know he always looks so angry when...' and I said, 'Can I stop you there? The language that you’re using is actually really damaging. He’s 18 months old, I don’t understand how you’re saying it’s aggressive and it’s angry for him to be clapping. He is a child. He’s non-verbal and he’s not hitting or hurting anyone.'"
At just 3 years old, it’s narratives like this that Tia fears could mar her son’s life experiences as he gets older. "I feel like I have to fiercely protect him and I feel like I’ve always prepared myself for when he’s at nursery or when he goes to school that there will probably be instances where I’m going to have to fight for him."
It’s this fight which has led to the climate we find ourselves in today. The fervour with which the world is currently speaking out against the atrocities perpetrated against Black people is impossible to ignore, yet it’s uncertain if we’ll see any lasting change once the dust settles. Even if we do, it will be years – possibly generations – before the extent of that change is clear. The cynic in me is definitely sceptical but as a mum I’m hopeful that my children will get to experience a kinder version of humanity.
*Name has been changed