'I Am A Black Father, It's Impossible to Prepare Your Kids For Racism'

I'm living in Australia, in a suburb of Sydney called Bondi. I live with my wife, Alise, and my six-year-old daughter, Willow.

Life has been challenging because of COVID-19. It's the first time in our lives that we've had to get help from the government. But the stock for my business Undivided was delayed and shipping prices doubled. I do a bit of acting, modelling and DJing, but of course they are things I couldn't do during the lockdown period here.

It's also challenging to see everything that's happened since George Floyd's death. Truthfully, I first saw the video on Facebook and thought, "here we go, another case of police brutality against a Black person." I just didn't want to watch it, and within about 30 seconds, I scrolled past it and went to bed.

I woke up in the morning to find out that the guy had died. Firstly, I felt angry at myself for becoming desensitized and switching it off. But I was also so angry that this could happen even when the cop knows he's being filmed.

It all culminated in me sharing a post on social media, saying that I shouldn't be a grown man bursting into tears when seeing this. So many of my friends, including white friends, contacted me showing support and sending me love. I got to see how many people really love me for me. It was like they felt I was in pain and wanted to show me that not everyone is like those police officers or people who try to excuse that type of behavior.

But I had a Black friend here who was beside herself, in tears, because she has a little boy who is about a year younger than Willow. She was asking me how she was going to protect him and prepare him for this world. And I told her that you can't prepare them, you just have to bring your kids up to know that they have the same rights as anyone else, teach them to arm themselves with the law, stand their ground and hold their heads up high.

Skin "the color of poo"

We have the same issue with Willow. It's difficult as she doesn't know that at some point people are going to start singling her out because of her color.

Willow is the only Black kid in her class. We tell her that she's very beautiful, with beautiful hair and skin—because she has asked why she is a different color to her friends, and she has wanted to wear her hair straight. Alise wore her own hair curly for a little while to make Willow understand that her hair wasn't unusual.

A child recently told her that her skin was "the colour of poo." Alise dealt with that immediately after and reaffirmed to Willow how beautiful her skin is, but I'm always astounded when kids come out with statements like that. I wonder what they are exposed to at home. It was upsetting to hear, but I accept it might not be that his parents are racist, it could just be that kid drawing comparisons.

Australia is not like the U.K. or the U.S., where you turn on the TV and Black people are quite well represented. Although the absence of Black people in the media is not as extreme in Australia as it was when I was growing up in England, I think Willow's journey to adulthood is going to be similar to what mine was.

I didn't really have to have that conversation about race with my son Czare, because he's older and grew up in inner city London. It was difficult to make him understand because he has lots of friends from different backgrounds. He's 25 now and fortunately he's not really experienced much racism.

Father's Day, Racism, Family, London, Australia
Toks James (right) with his son Czare and his daughter Willow. TOKS JAMES

But I'm pretty sure Willow will face racism. Our neighbor's kids who are older had started a new school when COVID-19 hit, and a bunch of older kids told her to go back to China because of the virus.

So I'm concerned about what she's going to experience growing up in a country where people don't look like her. When I was at school, we were told by our parents that we had to work four times as hard as our white counterparts to even get a look in for the same job. That's the kind of thing I'm scared for Willow to have to go through.

Receiving a racist "compliment"

I don't want her to experience what I went through in the UK when I was looking for a flat aged 21. I'd see an ad in the paper and I would have to phone up and say that I wanted to come and see it, and tell them that I was a Black person. A lot of times people were indignant, but I had to explain the many times I'd turned up and been told the flat was gone.

In my elementary school in England, I was labelled as disruptive and put in a special class, but I was just trying to find out more by asking questions. Up until the age of 11, I didn't use exercise book for work because I believed what the school system was telling me, which was that I was stupid.

Once, the best looking girl in school came up to me and said, "If you weren't Black I would go out with you." I was confused because on the one hand it was a compliment, but on the other it definitely wasn't. It really stuck with me.

And then I went to Nigeria for high school, where the schools were stricter. It helped me realize I wasn't stupid. I went from being the bottom of my class in England to being at the top of my school in Nigeria. Which may not sound like much, but we were largely studying the same syllabus as in England. I did my mock exams using English papers. By the time I finished high school I was the second highest achiever in the school. In fact, at 16 I took an exam that allows you skip the next two years of school and go straight to college.

White privilege can be tough to grasp

When I was in school in Nigeria, there were two white kids in that school and no one ever picked on them for any reason. There was a year when my sister and I went to elementary school in Hampstead in London—we were the only Black kids and every day the other kids made our lives hell.

If you look at any white culture there are tons of derogatory terms for Black people. In the language I speak in Nigeria, Yoruba, we don't have a derogatory term for white people, it doesn't exist.

But I understand that it's very difficult for some guy in the U.S. who has grown up in a trailer park, whose family has joined the armed forces to get an education and may have been killed, to hear the phrase, "white privilege."

Because they're thinking, "how the f*** am I privileged?"— they may be living below the poverty line, and crime is abundant in their area. They feel they are treated like trash too. They don't understand that that is not what white privilege means.

White privilege does not mean that you have more money than a Black person. It means that if you go to a shop you won't automatically have someone following you around, it means that if you're booking a holiday you don't first Google search what racism is like in that country. It means that you don't feel ill at ease going through customs because you think you're going to be pulled over and searched. White people don't have that, and that's what we mean by privilege.

Black people did not create this system

I could come from the same area as a white person, have the same education and wear the same suit to an interview. But the minute I walk into that interview, the first thing they are going to see is the color of my skin. Straight away, there is some bias there, and it's not always intentional.

I know things are not as bad for Willow, but it's relative. Our experiences of growing up will likely be similar because she doesn't have many Black people around her.

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Willow does a little bit of modelling and when she goes to castings sometimes we turn up and there's another mixed-race kid there. The job will be asking for several kids, but we always joke with the family of the other mixed race kid, that only one of us will get the job because we're not white. And that's what happens, every time.

When it comes to racism, I tell white people that they have a choice. They can turn around, turn off from it and go home. Black people can't, we have to live that.

People call me an activist because I speak out on social media, but that's really the last thing I want to be, I have plenty of other things I want to be doing with my time. The fact is, how am I supposed to escape racism?

The truth of the matter is that racism is not Black people's problem to solve, we did not create the system. The people who can change racism, and change things for Willow and other Black and mixed-race children, are white people. And the only way they can change things is to speak out.

Toks James lives in Sydney, Australia and is the founder of UndividedInc.com, a fashion company through which he expresses his everyday activism. He wants to create a community, a conversation, and hope in a divided world. Toks also acts, models and loves nothing better than being at home with his wife and daughter Willow. His grown up son Czare lives in London. You can follow him on Instagram on @toksjames and @wetheundivided.

All views expressed in this piece are the writer's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.

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