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Toronto’s Stephen Dorsey grew up as a Black child in a white family with a racist stepfather: here’s what he learned

His mother was white, his biological father Black, his stepfather a racist. In his new memoir Toronto writer Stephen Dorsey talks about growing up in 1970s Montreal and Victoria, with his brother, Chris, and his white half-sister, Elizabeth. In this excerpt from “Black & White: An Intimate, Multicultural Perspective on “White Advantage” & The Paths To Change,” Dorsey explains the moment his mother told him and his brother that they were not, in fact, adopted.

My brother and I, four and three at the time, were too young to form any real memories of first meeting our stepfather or of moving into the house as a family. My mother remembers move-in day because of how happy she felt, knowing all her children would be together under one roof, in a proper home, with all the middle-class comforts she had only ever dreamed of. As she tells it, there was little time to rejoice that day as my stepfather sat her down for an important conversation. He wanted to discuss the “story” my mother would share with their new neighbours. While he did not tell her outright what he wanted her to say, he made his intentions crystal clear: the neighbours were not to know that Chris and I were her biological children.

That day, the next-door neighbour, Lise, invited my mother over for coffee and a chat. They had an amicable conversation about their lives and their families. When she returned home, my stepfather was waiting, anxious to know what had been discussed. She simply told him she had made up a story on the spot — that in fact, they had adopted me and Chris to give us an opportunity at a better life.

With the deceitful deed done, she tried to put it out of her mind.

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From the day we moved into that house as a family, Chris and I just accepted that we were, in fact, adopted. This was the narrative shared by our parents with neighbours, friends, and anyone else who asked. My mother and stepfather never actually sat us down to tell us which orphanage we came from, who our birth parents were, or to offer any insights as to our ethnic background. Nothing.

When I was around five years old, I came across boxes of old photos stored away in our basement. I searched and searched but found no photos of myself or Chris as babies. It seemed our lives had only begun when we moved into our new home.

Over time, this adoption narrative became part of our realities. It was how we identified ourselves and how our neighbours and friends, all of them white, came to know us. In their eyes, I expect, my parents were amazing people who went against the norms of the time to open their home to two little Black orphans, and they were more than happy to accept the goodwill that came their way because of it.

In 1976 Montréal was set to host the Summer Olympics. I was ten years old, and the city felt alive with energy and possibility. One day that summer, a day like any other, my mother, Chris, Elizabeth, and I were chatting at the kitchen table. We were having a regular conversation when my mother just blurted it out.

“You’re not adopted. You’re my children. I’m your real mother.”

I can’t recall having much of an emotional reaction to the news, but my brain began working overtime to uncover the hints I had unconsciously ignored. Interestingly, it was just recently, in 2020, that my mother, at age eighty-four, shared the details as to how our origin story, the Big Lie, had gone down back in 1969. I asked her if she thought the neighbours had really bought her story. She had no idea. But I believe they knew the truth, because if anyone looked beyond our skin colour, it was obvious my brother and I were related to our mom.

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Back at the table in 1976, my mother also told us about our biological father — that he was alive and living on the island of Montréal, about a twenty-minute drive away. After the initial shock of learning that our mother was our real mother and that we had a biological father somewhere out there — somewhere nearby! — our identities were completely flipped upside down.

We needed to make sense of this monumental news and gain a better understanding of who we really were.

As you can imagine, Chris and I had a lot of questions. But that was the end of the discussion. My mother and stepfather never asked us if we were interested in connecting with our father or learning more about him or about our Black cultural roots. It was a dead end. The topic was closed.

My stepfather was angry that our mother had told us the truth, that she had broken the seal of the Big Lie. It was one of the few times I ever saw my mother defy my stepfather. It was a lot to process, but suddenly it explained many things for me — for one, how our stepfather had treated us over the years under “his” roof.

My brother Chris and I enjoyed playing sports with our friends in the neighbourhood. I particularly loved street hockey and seemed to have a natural talent. I was also a diehard Montréal Canadiens fan. I’d often imitate my favourite players, like Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur, and the legendary goalkeeper Ken Dryden. I was a very small child, but I was up for physical battles against kids of any size.

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When I expressed an interest in playing ice hockey, I remember my stepfather abruptly telling me it was a bad idea because Black people had weak ankles and were not suited for the sport. That was the end of the conversation. There was no room to question my stepfather on anything. I just had to accept his will as the way. It was a big blow for a kid in Montréal to not be allowed to play ice hockey, but my dream had ended before it even started.

In 2014 I had the opportunity to meet and chat with P.K. Subban, a Black hockey phenom from Toronto who had made it big, on and off the ice, with my Habs in Montréal. It was a thrill. I couldn’t help wondering at the time how things could have been different for me and other kids of colour if there had been more high-profile Black players like P. K. in the league back in the 1970s — people to look up to, who could inspire us and make hockey a seemingly accessible sport for Black youth.

Reprinted from “Black & White” with permission from Nimbus Publishing ©2024, Stephen Dorsey

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