Talking to my children about Black Lives Matter, and an 8 minutes and 46 seconds killing

By Liza Sekaggya, an international human rights lawyer

As an African woman, born and raised in the motherland, I had never experienced racism until I came to study at a European university. When I first encountered racism, I was naive and unable to identify a racist act immediately until a white student to whom I narrated my experience, confirmed that it was racist.

Initially, I had mixed feelings about the killing of George Floyd. I went from being passive to feeling numb, and then progressively sad. Gradually my feelings snowballed and evolved into anger and rage. How human beings could stand still and witness the killing of a fellow human being outrages me. At this point, race was not the issue, the right to life was, and the only thing I could think of was another human being losing his life in an undignified manner. I finally spent the greater part of the weekend with a heavy melancholic feeling, unable to pinpoint exactly what emotion I was feeling, and how I would discuss this with my children. Floyd was a son, a father, a brother, and a black man living in America.

As a mother of two black African boys (19 and 5 years respectively), I instinctively felt afraid and anxious after the murder of George Floyd. Although we live in Europe, my boys are black just like George Floyd was. I felt a responsibility to speak to them in ways that are age appropriate.

I telephoned my older son in the UK first to ask him how he felt about Floyd’s murder. At first, he remarked that the incident occurred in America, “Do not worry mom. It is not that bad here in the UK” where he is a university student. Then he hung up the phone.

I had developed a habit of calling him often to remind him to always dress decently, be respectful and cooperative with authorities, if stopped on the street in whatever country. I always reminded him that statistically, as a black boy, he is always susceptible to racial profiling, and should be careful and vigilant.

I had a flashback of a 2018 conversation when my son was selecting universities and insisted that he wanted to study in the US after attending a summer football (soccer) camp there. He was convinced that the universities were of a better quality. He opined that there were more career opportunities in America as well, and it was a place where one could fulfill one’s dreams. I could not agree more but was anxious to let him stay in America because of the frequent stories of racial profiling that often escalated to arbitrary killings of black men. His father suggested Canada as a compromise and a safer option. All my family members prayed incessantly that I would not submit to my son’s wishes to live in the United States. Even though he was awarded a partial sports scholarship, we reluctantly told him to give up his dream of studying in America and go to the UK instead. Today after seeing what happened to George Floyd and others, I have no regrets.

A few days after my first discussion with my son, we both had a dramatic change of perspectives after deep contemplation and reflection in our separate locations, he in the UK and I in Switzerland, where demonstrations were rapidly unravelling and in other large cities around the world. My son sent me footage of a couple of demonstrations in which he participated in the UK. My heart leaped, worried that he could get hurt, or targeted, as he was holding a black lives matter banner, high up in the air, among a large group of students of all races.

I called him again, this time with an open mind, and he sounded enthusiastic, but tired from a demonstration and said “Mom it is wrong, 8 minutes and 46 seconds and someone is dead, because of being black, what the policeman did was wrong”. He was angry. We spoke at length and analyzed the human rights and criminal dimensions of the act. I told him I was proud of him and realized that he was no longer my baby but a young man with a conscience. I therefore could not reprimand him, but only cautioned him to take care.

Sharing my anxiety with a couple of friends with children of the same age brought me to a surprising realization that their kids, too, attended demonstrations around the world and I was not the only one with that sentiment. One of the children, as young as 13 years old, a Kenyan/Ugandan American child, led a peaceful demonstration in his hometown in the US and even made a speech in front of an audience of more than 5,000 people.

I calmed down and put on the television, and with a sense of pride, being a human rights lawyer, I hoped that my work and activism had seeded a future human rights activist. I later saw my son feature some interviews on his Instagram of African American kids in the US discussing their views on the killings of African American men. I was proud of him taking an activist approach, but afraid at the same time, because he is still a black man, who is vulnerable to racial profiling, being stopped and queried by the police without probable cause. No one would be able to tell whether he is African, Afro Swiss or African American, a student with a purpose or a thug, privileged or not.

I then turn to my 5-year old who on the other hand was chanting “black lives matter '' the whole week, without totally understanding it, obviously affected by me watching protests around the world. For him, I explained it quite simply, “a police officer killed a black man, and that is wrong. I want you to know that the color of your skin is beautiful. Be proud of who you are and your heritage.