On February 23 of this year, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in Satilla Shores, a neighborhood in the City of Brunswick, Georgia. He was hunted down and shot dead by Travis and Greg McMichael, a white father and son. A video of the slaying eventually surfaced, drawing broad condemnation and calls for justice for Ahmaud Arbery. As a result of mounting public pressure, the father and son were arrested more than two months after the fact. Recently, on the way to our neighborhood park to kick around the soccer ball, I asked Sébastien if he had heard of Ahmaud Arbery.
I was surprised to learn that he knew all about the story. I told him I wanted to talk about how to stay safe when he was by himself. I pointed out that although the social and historical context in the U.S. is different than in Canada, anti-black racism is alive and well in this country. “I know,” he said. I wish you didn’t, I thought. I wish all Sébastien had to think about was just being a twelve-year-old boy. That day, on our way to the park, my son and I talked about avoiding dangerous situations, calling out or walking away from friends who engage in bad behavior and about remaining calm and respectful if stopped or questioned by police.
My husband is white. Our children are fair-skinned, curly-haired and identify as Black. I grew up in a public housing project in Ottawa. By contrast, my kids have had an incredibly privileged and sheltered existence, complete with a spacious comfortable home, a nanny, Caribbean vacations and private schools. I’ve had many conversations with Sébastien’s older sister about race. However, when the latest headline about the victimization of a Black man hits the news, it’s my son’s physical safety that I worry about.
Before Sébastien could change the topic, I asked him how our conversation made him feel. His answer disabused me, it also made me infinitely sad. “It’s sucks but I’m not going to start acting like an activist because I’m not trying to end up in jail or dead.”
When I first heard about Ahmaud Arbery, I secretly prayed that he had no criminal record that could muddy the waters. Then I chided myself for thinking this way. In an ideal world, we should be able to recognize that Arbery had a criminal record and that he was pursued and gunned down in broad daylight while out for a run. What rationalizations will be used to justify the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police? In a video filmed by a bystander, a police officer, Derek Chauvin is seen kneeling on Floyd’s neck for almost 8 minutes during an arrest, while the handcuffed African American man begs for air. Floyd later died in hospital. The four police officers involved were fired, Chauvin has been charged with 3rd degree murder, while anger-fueled riots currently threaten to destabilize the City of Minneapolis.
As I write this article, yet another racially charged video has gone viral. In the video, Amy Cooper weaponizes her white privilege by threatening to call the police on Christian Cooper (no relation) to report that an African American man is threatening her life. Amy Cooper then makes good on her threat and calls the police, secure in the assumption that police intervention will work in her favor. Christian Cooper, a Harvard graduate and self-described birder, had admonished Amy Cooper for not leashing her dog in the Central Park Bramble, contrary to posted signage. The fallout for Amy Cooper was swift and unforgiving. She was fired from her job. Her dog was repossessed by the shelter where she adopted it. Worst, Amy Cooper joins the pantheon of Internet-famous racist pariahs.
We Canadians tend to view these outrageous American headlines from the moral high ground of our righteous indignation. We cling to the delusion that such things never happen in Canada. Yet, isn’t the most chilling part of this latest outrage that Amy Cooper is Ms. Everybody? She studied at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She’s a random woman walking her dog in a park. She’s a mother demanding to see a white doctor who speaks English to treat her son. She’s a nosy neighbor who spots a suspicious-looking Black kid in a hoodie. She’s Justin Trudeau in blackface. What is so unsettling about the Christian Cooper story is that it is a reminder of how easy it is for white people to exercise their power to hurt or dehumanize Black people in 2020, whether they are wielding a gun, institutional privilege or their higher status in society. These incidents are all manifestations of racism, part of a continuum of white privilege, entitlement and violence against Black people.
I hated every minute of the talk with Sébastien, this necessary rite of passage for a Black boy. I’m still unpacking his answer to my question. In Toronto, we may not have shotgun waiving morons in pick-up trucks trolling for Black men, but we do have Amy Coopers. How do I protect my son against the Amy Coopers of the world?
Sandra Rosier is a lawyer licensed to practice in Ontario and Massachusetts. Although she is proud of her long career as a Tax professional, writing is her true calling. Sandra has published several articles focussed on race and career development and is currently working on her first novel. She is a mom of two who lives with her family in Toronto.