Living openness: Black boys and toy guns


Charlotte Taylor
Focus on Adoption magazine
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Not so pacifist play

If parenting teaches us anything, it’s that our noble intentions have little bearing on reality. Before Victor arrived in our lives like a whirling dervish almost six years ago, I was adamant that we would be a No Toy Guns Household. I also secretly believed he would grow up in a post-racial “fusion” society. These pipe dreams ranked up there with fantasies like, “My son won’t watch TV, eat sugar, or play video games.” When he was around three-years-old, Victor first experienced the pop of his friend’s Nerf gun releasing its foamy orange bullet. The rest is history.

Toy weapons opened up a rich world of imaginative outdoor play. We quickly changed our minds. If toy guns meant fresh air, friendships, and free ranging in our friendly Vancouver neighbourhood, well, that sure beat TV or the iPad. The choice was easy. Victor now spends hours racing up and down our sidewalks, hiding behind the giant silver maples that line our streets, and blasting bad guys and monsters with his gun-toting buddies. An arsenal of plastic cross bows, machine guns, light sabers, swords, and super soakers litters the house. We have a few rules: Don’t point or shoot at anyone unless they’re part of the game, and no guns allowed in the car, crossing the border, or on planes because people might think they’re real.

What I don’t say is “... and you’re a black male.”

Reflecting on loss

In the last year, several horrific incidents highlighted the reality that black men and youth face. In Ferguson, Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American 18-year-old, was killed by a white police officer in Cleveland. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot when an officer saw him in a park, waving around a replica gun that shot plastic pellets. Before that, hoodie-wearing Trayvon Martin, 17, was visiting his father in a gated community when he was gunned down by a neighbourhood watch coordinator. The list goes on. No charges were laid against any of the shooters. I feel sick for the parents of the slain. I can’t fathom the depths of their horrifying losses.

The reaction to Ferguson was swift and divisive. Protests, riots, marches, and prayer vigils erupted across the U.S. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter came to life; Twitter and Facebook exploded. Racial lines were drawn. Friendships were ripped apart. It’s really hard to square these incidents with what I see: our ebullient son with his burgeoning afro, 100-watt smile and coffee-coloured skin, whose joy and humour make our hearts burst daily, who dances to the glow of his light saber and runs around ridding the neighbourhood of zombies. My son, whose closest experience with death is the crunch of a snail underfoot. It’s even harder to square my view with what a police officer might see in five years: a young black man with a gun.

No more rosy glasses

My rosy vision for Victor and his peers is of a future where colours meld and shift, where ethnicity is fluid, where no one is really one thing but many, where children don’t look like their parents, where parents don’t look like each other, where race and biology no longer matter but can be drawn upon when needed. In the wake of Ferguson, this seems naïve and foolish. Race matters. People notice racial difference. It colours their thoughts. Black boys are cute but black men are threatening. I hear this in some of the comments we get about Victor. He’s “going to be a great football player or an Olympic track star.” “He’s so cool.” “He’s going be trouble when he’s a teen; I don’t envy you.”

Talking it out

When he was a boy, my brown-skinned husband’s mom gave him a talk about race that he’s never forgotten. She told him point blank that he had to be cleaner, smarter, and more polite than all the other kids – and that even then, people would treat him differently because of his brown skin. We feel that Victor is too young for this kind of talk, so we haven’t discussed racism yet (we’re still sorting out ethnicity and adoption). But it’s a wake-up call.

We are talking to him more seriously about what guns can actually do. We dig deeper into what people say to him and how that makes him feel, and we coach him on how to behave around police (we even took a trip to meet some). We discuss what it means to be a compassionate, caring member of a civil society. But before we lay out his reality for him like my husband’s mom did, we will keep working to dispel racial stereotypes and injustice where we see it. And we will let him continue to roam the neighbourhood with his diverse group of friends, innocently slaying zombies and bad guys with his toy weapons. For now.

Charlotte Taylor is a Vancouver mother in an open adoption with her son’s birth parents.