A reflection on how being a Black man has impacted my life
Historically, racism has been a pretty taboo topic to talk about—but thankfully, in the last several years, it’s become more frequently and more easily talked about in everyday conversations. Being from Africa, skin color was never an identifier for us. Everyone was black, so we identified people by their language and tribe. The way I experience life changed dramatically between my childhood and teen years in Africa, to my later adulthood years in America when I came to know what it meant to be seen as a black man. Racism—people noticing one another’s skin color and reacting accordingly—is something I never experienced until I came to America.
One of the things that stuck out to me the most when I first got to California for college was how I was described by my friends. As a student, people would introduce me, saying, “Oh, this is Peter, the black guy.” In their defense, I was one of five black guys at this university and three of those guys were involved in basketball. But it was comments like those that made me feel like a china plate or a trophy people wanted to show off. People would say, “Meet this guy! Listen to his cool accent.” People would stare in curiosity while I spoke and comment on me speaking, “so proper,”—as though it was strange for a black guy to have a good vocabulary and use diction.
As a black man you see people react to you, and each person has to observe and learn as they go how being black may affect them within different spaces. I noticed as a young adult people in parking lots would lock their cars or reach for their keys to double check that their cars were locked when they saw me. I had to observe and learn that being black meant that people might see me as dangerous. I learned not to stay out late for fear of being involved in something inappropriate or potentially dangerous.
I think the worst experience I can remember, I was actually targeted because I am a black person. I was as a dog walker in Los Angeles. I was in a nice neighborhood working for a famous celebrity in the area, and nearly every time I walked this person‘s dog, people stopped me in the neighborhood to ask me questions. They wanted to know where I lived, if I lived there, why I was there. People would say, “We don’t usually see people like you around here, you don’t fit, you don’t belong here.“
Perhaps understandably, by the time I started taking foster care classes to become certified as a parent, I expected to encounter some questions or strange reactions from people. Little did I know how quickly those reactions would start! I was the only single person in the class with five other couples, and when we first started classes, people were staring at me, smiling and friendly, but still staring and whispering. Once they got a little more comfortable over the next few weeks, they began to ask me about my wife. “Is your wife taking care of the other kids?” Other kids..? They were always surprised, even shocked to learn that a single guy would opt to train as a foster care parent. “Oh, this is so different!” I quickly realized that my color and marital status made my decision to care for children seem like a unique one in today’s culture.
Then working with social workers for my foster care children, I fielded a lot of questions about my marital status and if I had interest in building a family “of my own,” as though somehow fostering these children wasn’t a family. It makes me the most sad that the people who ask those questions don’t realize that these children are my family.
I remember when I began the adoption process with my son Anthony, he was my 11th foster kid. When I would take him to school, with my last name on his forms, his administrators would always look for someone else coming in behind me! I would actually see people look behind me, look around the door to see if someone else is coming and then inevitably ask about a mom—“Where is your wife? Where is his mom? How did you meet his mom?”
Even at hospitals—yes, an emergent medical situation where I’m caretaking for my child—people would ask why I brought him in. “Are you his babysitter or a friend? Is his guardian or parent coming?” It’s interesting to me the assumptions people make when they see a black man with children without a woman—let alone a black man with children who are not also black.
One afternoon in a store in Oklahoma, a woman called the police while I was in the store shopping with my children. When we came out to the parking lot after shopping, the police were waiting for us at our car, and the woman was pointing at us asking, “Whose kids are they?” The police looked up my license and foster parent registration, and the situation was quickly resolved. Though that day remains a reminder in the back of my head that people may not always assume the best when they see me, a single black dad, with children in public. Ever since that experience, I’ve always traveled with all the documents proving my guardianship for the children that I foster and my son.
For a lot of my life, I have felt like no one saw me for who I was or valued me for who I am as a person. As a street kid, no one knew me. As a black American man, people assume that I should fill a certain bachelor role—and foster parent is not one of those. People have this attitude that “White people do good, and Black people receive.” I’m not going to let anyone’s thoughts about me or what black men should or shouldn’t do discourage me from doing the work to change lives like mine was changed.
As we celebrate Black History Month this February, a distinct quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to mind: “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
When I was homeless and starving, living on the streets in Africa—a man had compassion on me, saw past my circumstances, and changed the trajectory of my entire life. I should’ve been a statistic, a starved African orphan. I probably should be a statistic today—single black bachelor living for the night life (the night life of diaper changes, that is!). Changing stereotypes of black men in this world motivates me to keep moving forward. Getting to answer questions, no matter how awkward, means I get to see people’s minds change in real-time. I have seen people’s perceptions of what a single parent or a foster parent can look like shift before my eyes. The work I’m doing today is making the world a more accepting place. Creating tolerance, compassion, and accepting eyes for foster families of all colors, shapes, and sizes—that’s the goals of what I do to serve children like me.
Talk about “Black History”—I’m getting to be part of rewriting history and how people see Black men like me. What an honor.