I wrote a letter to my son about what it means to be Black in the UK

I felt distrust for the statements that were coming out from businesses around the UK in the wake of George Floyd’s senseless death (Picture: Cephas Williams)

My wife Deborah had chosen my son’s name, Zion, before he was born; meaning ‘the Promised Land’, it’s synonymous with destiny. 

Together we were busy preparing for Zion’s due date, 26 May 2020 – I had suspended all meetings and had saved enough money to spend the next few months off work. 

But the day before he was due, on 25 May last year, George Floyd was needlessly killed by US police officers.

Personally, it was a difficult time for me. On one hand, I witnessed the murder of a Black man due to police brutality while at the same time I was expecting the birth of my son; a Black boy.

In that period I wrote ‘Letter to Zion’ as a catalyst for change, to encourage leaders to commit for the long run.

George Floyd’s murder caused many to take to the streets in protest. People of all colours and creeds came together and said enough – Black Lives Matter.

In truth, immediately following the news of George Floyd’s killing, I felt tired, but I received hundreds of messages from people asking for my thoughts and guidance.

In December 2018, to challenge the negative portrayal of Black men in the media, I had set up 56 Black Men to put a positive spotlight on Black men in the community – the campaign challenged the stereotypical preconceptions of ‘the Black man’ and the negative connotations often attached.

Clearly, those stigmas were going nowhere anytime soon – I knew I had to take real action. I felt distrust for the statements that were coming out from businesses around the UK in the wake of George Floyd’s senseless murder.

Organisations were so quick to come up with a ‘solution’. Systemic racism existed for hundreds of years, how could it be solved within weeks? 

Lots of letters and manifestos were making promises for change, but I noticed that many were not written by Black people.

In my view, the Black Renaissance needs to be led by Black people – supported by our non-Black allies. After speaking to a number of business leaders, I knew I had to do something to make sure Black voices were not just heard in the UK, but that our request for change was sat next to legacy – something that would last.

Amidst the world’s chaos, Zion didn’t arrive until 8 June. For the first few months he was constantly raising his hand into the ‘Black power’ symbol; the clenched fist, with his arm up in the air. He’s also a really happy baby, always smiling – a true blessing. 

As I gazed at Zion – a Black boy who’s going to become a Black man, of course I felt concerned for his future.

Cephas Williams pictured from behind cradling his son Zion

I want Zion to be seen as a human first – to live on a planet where he’s not just ‘tolerated’ but included (Picture: Cephas Williams)

Growing up, I saw the good, the bad and ugly – in the playground people called me a monkey and the N word. I’ve also experienced racism in my adult life, too. For instance, a few years ago, when I was trying to get into my business premises, the police were called to a report of ‘two Black boys breaking into a block of flats’.

When I think of how the situation may have turned out if I had responded in a way they didn’t like, or if I expressed my frustration. I could have left that day in handcuffs or worse. 

The reality is that we are not treated with the same dignity as others in the community – you don’t know what you are going to get when you encounter the police as a Black person. Not just in the USA, over here in the UK, you can be bullied and baited; made out to be a criminal, physically abused and in some cases killed.

I had to find a way to articulate my concerns and hopes for Zion while at the same time making a personal effort to bring about change. 

So, I wrote my open letter to him for all to read: ‘It’s a sad fact that in some places, people with skin like yours and mine are not treated the same as others or with the respect they deserve. I knew that for the sake of your future, I had to take a stand.’

​In order to centralise Black voices and the support of our non-Black allies, the letter also gave birth to my personal commitment to Zion and his generation’s future. The Black British Network is an organisation that will focus on working together so that by the time Zion is 20, he will not be fighting the same battles we have had to but rather enjoying the manifestation of our efforts.

For businesses to join, CEOs or company founders must read and sign my Letter To Zion – our pledge includes a promise that people will no longer be afraid to listen to the Black community, accept the inequalities we experience and genuinely work with us to usher in long lasting, tangible change.

I’m interested in real relationships and an enduring approach to ending systemic racism. It’s encouraging that already 45 business leaders have signed it and 18 businesses, including Tesco, Ernst & Young, O2, Unilever, Facebook have too.

I want Zion to be seen as a human first – to live on a planet where he’s not just ‘tolerated’ but included.

I don’t know if things will change in my lifetime but if we don’t do anything now then by the time Zion and his generation are my age they will be having the same conversations.

My son should be free to achieve and do whatever he wants to do – I do not want him to be held back based on the colour of his skin.

At some point his happiness is out of my control; from a young age he will be engaging with social media and the wider society.

I recently released a project entitled ‘The World I Want To See’, run in collaboration with MIND HFEH – working with a handful of Black boys aged nine to 16 to write letters to their older selves.

One boy shared that he wanted to go to the shops without worrying ‘about taking a receipt just in case they accuse me of stealing’ while another wrote that teachers ‘make us feel unwanted or lower standard than everyone else’.

It was sad to hear, and I was shocked that even in Gen Z – in which I have often been led to believe that racism will not exist – the kids said they had experienced negative, racist comments at school, on TikTok and other platforms from their peers.

As much as there has been some progression we still have a long way to go.

Letter to Zion is just the beginning – my hope is that by the time my boy is old enough to read it, we will be one step closer to the world I want to see.

To find out more about the Black British Network and read ‘Letter to Zion’ in full click here.


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