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Black Lives Matter: Learning from a toddler

Photograph of an adult holding a toddler in a park

One of the things on a foster carer’s mind soon after a new child arrives is:  what will the future hold for this kid?

For our first three children, we had to work through the various physical, emotional and mental challenges they’d encountered in their early months to try and get them ready to face the lives ahead of them, under their own terms.

It never occurred to us that those lives might end being suffocated by a police officer watched over by his colleagues, who thought they looked so much more dangerous than other people.

Those children were white, like us. Our current boy is black, and at 18 months is getting on cheerfully with learning how to be a human being, like every other toddler.

He had love and care but not much interaction and education in his first year of life, due to his mum’s illness, which eventually became so severe he came to us.

So one of our jobs has been to help him find out about the world around him.

Race isn’t particularly relevant when learning to talk, to walk, to laugh, or to play, it seems to us, or to him at present.

Reading was a bit trickier: there are plenty of toddler books with a black child or two in every playground, or on every 2nd or 3rd page, but not so many where the book has a black child as the hero.

Foster carers come from all races and religions, and social workers try to ensure a good match for a new child with a new carer, which may include race and faith along with other factors. But there will be times, like ours, when we and our child are a different colour.

We took advice about hair and skin care from our social worker, and asked fellow customers at the international supermarket about cooking the yams and plantains he’d eaten with his mum.

And in our first weeks together, pre lockdown, I’d often notice the second glances from white folks passing by. They’d see the boy first (since he’s very good looking, as he’s beginning to understand full well) then look at me, and within a split second look at him again, back at his haggard white carer, visibly shake away the hint of puzzlement and replace it with an overenthusiastic smile at all concerned. And in one or two cases, we’d be looked up and down two or three times and then sneered at.

Black people never gave us a second glance.

Even that tiny measure of experienced difference on the behalf of our boy has helped us understand the current Black Lives Matter protests just a little bit better.

Our little boy is developing his own cheerful character with us. He likes jollof rice, and grapes and bananas, and fish and chips. He likes dancing, and books with boats, and farting noises. And before long, he’ll move on to begin the rest of his life.

And that life matters.

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