Unlike white children, racism threatens the childhood of countless Black youth in the U.S. Photo by: frank mckenna on Unsplash

Childhood is typically characterized by absurd amounts of fun, impromptu adventures, and living a carefree and blissful existence. However, for many Black children, childhood is not so joyous or innocent. This harsh truth is a direct result of living in a society in which little Black boys and girls experience bullying, racism and trauma because of the color of their skin. They are taught early on that they are different from white and non-black children. Worse, rather than being allowed to celebrate this difference, they quickly learn that their perceived otherness puts them at a disadvantage. 

Once a Black child realizes the negative implications of being black in the United States, they lose a key aspect of their youth. Suddenly, these children are thrust into a cruel and unjust world, realizing the peril of growing up in a racist country. On Wednesday, June 17, People Magazine published a heartbreaking personal essay by Lonnie Chavis, a twelve year old actor, who described the difficulty of being a young Black boy in Hollywood. Chavis plays the younger version of Sterling K. Brown’s character Randall on NBC’s  Emmy nominated show This Is Us

In the American family comedy-drama television series, Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca Pearson (Mandy Moore) adopt young Randall into their predominantly white family where he is raised alongside the Pearson’s two children Kevin (Parker Bates) and Kate (Mackenzie Hancsicsak). In his essay, Chavis briefly discussed a key moment in the show when his adopted mother Rebecca confronts her own mother about race. In Episode 4 of Season 2, Rebecca unpacks her mom’s (Elizabeth Perkins) racist behavior toward Randall because her mom treats Randall differently from her other two grand-kids. Prior to this conversation, Grandma Pearson repeatedly gifts young Randall with basketballs although he prefers books to sports. She also makes racialized comments about his intelligence, such as “Who would have thought that Randall would be the one to get into private school?” Her question suggests that the “smart kid” should have been Kate or Kevin instead of Randall. In response to the aforementioned comment, Rebecca advocates on behalf of her son and calls out her mother’s microaggressions, stating, “You’re racist, mom.” Rebecca then asks her mother to leave her house. The most heartbreaking part of this scene is not Grandma Pearson’s problematic comments. What makes this scene all the more upsetting happens when Rebecca turns around and finds young Randall standing in the doorway. Although he does not say anything about what has just transpired, it is clear from his face that he has heard most of the heated conversation. 

In his essay, Chavis writes about this pivotal moment in the show, stating that “the director and writers told me that they didn’t need me to cry for the scene. However, it was hard for me not to cry as I witnessed what I had just learned was my reality. I wasn’t acting, I was crying for me.” 

How could Chavis not be moved to tears? He may have been acting within a fictional world, but he was also reconciling with a harsh truth about his Blackness outside of that fantasy. This is a truth he will most likely shoulder throughout his life––this notion is all the more tragic considering Chavis is only twelve. However, this reality is not new to Chavis. 

“America paints a very clear picture of how I should view myself,” Chavis wrote. “America shows me that my Blackness is a threat, and I am treated as such. I actually didn’t learn about being Black and what that would mean for me until I was 7 years old. I thought I was a peach man, so my parents educated me on being a Black man really quick with long talks, books and movies like Amistad and Malcolm X.”

Seven. That is how old Chavis was when he arguably lost his boyhood. Seven. That is how old he was when he realized that the color of his skin, a physical characteristic he has absolutely no control of, would be perceived as dangerous. Granted, Chavis has been black since birth. However, it is the realization of his Blackness that shifts his perspective of self. Up until the age of seven, Chavis lived in peace inside his skin but once he witnessed what it meant to be Black in America, he was robbed of that serenity. His white counterparts cannot begin to fathom the gravity of this and thus likely did not realize how incredibly burdensome it was for Chavis not to cry during this scene. As Chavis stated in his essay, he has to cry for himself too. He had to mourn the harsh reality of Black boyhood.  

“Can you imagine having to explain to a room full of white people why I couldn’t hold back my real tears while experiencing the pain of racism?” Chavis wrote, drawing attention to the disconnect between himself and his white counterparts. For the white people in the room, this scene is just a moment in the show, heartbreaking in that it depicts a discussion about racism from a family member. But for Chavis, this scene is upsetting because it reflects something deeper than a hard conversation. This scene reflects a moment in his lived experience that has shaped him and will continue to shape him as he navigates this country. 

Throughout his essay, Chavis detailed his experiences as a young Black boy from watching his father being mistreated by the police to being mistaken for other Black actors to questioning what the future may hold for him.

 “Change has got to happen for unarmed Black citizens to not live in fear of being murdered,” Chavis wrote, as protests continue for the murders of unarmed Black people such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’Mie” Fells, Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, and Rayshard Brooks.

Chavis’ essay began with a simple but powerful question: “My life matters, but does it?”  This question has been asked by countless Black individuals across the nation but there is something painful and telling about a child asking. Hopefully, we will be able to give Black children like Lonnie Chavis a positive answer before they officially reach adulthood and what was left of their childhood is gone.

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