I am Senegalese. I was born and raised in West Africa. I am also a proud American since 2004.
What I am about to share may damage all the work I have done for the past several years to build my personal brand as an author, a motivational speaker and an entrepreneur.
I normally never post anything potentially controversial or anything that reflects my views on faith, politics and other sensitive social matters. But in light of the recent police shootings, I am breaking my silence of nearly 20 years.
I have 3 reasons to do so: a 6-year-old son, a 14-year-old son and a 16-year-old son. They are everything to me and they happen to have inherited the darker pigmentation of my skin which was passed on to me by my West African ancestors.
My religion teaches me to take action against injustice, of any kind, committed against any human being, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Blue Skinned or Albino. If I can’t take action, my belief obligates me to speak out against it. If I can’t speak out against it, my belief obligates me to feel bad about the injustice internally. Thus, I write this post.
I met a white woman in 1996 and fell in love. 20 years later, we have 3 beautiful, healthy, polite, respectful, smart and well raised children.
The first time I walked into a clothing store, my first experience in a store, the very first month I landed in Minnesota, I was followed by the store attendant. I was very flattered, thinking “Oh. She must be curious meeting a Senegalese man. How nice of her to be curious!” I am a positive man and always see the bright side of things in everything. It’s just who I am. Though I am not naïve as I survived unspeakable things in my youth.
Imagine my disbelief when my wife (who is white, by the way) told me that I was being followed because they thought I was going to steal something from the store. I still stayed positive and thought that my wife could be wrong. I was then followed several more times as I visited other stores around the Twin Cities. It did not phase me as I attributed their suspicion to ignorance. But ignorance is no valid cause for justification of one’s inability to accept a person of a different race. The world would be a boring place if we all looked, acted and spoke the same way!
One of my favorite quotes is by Alvin Toffler, who states that “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
The environment in which we are raised will most often taint our views towards any given people. We all build up certain prejudices based solely on how we are raised, where we are raised, what we were taught and by whom.
Therefore, it is our responsibility to unlearn those biases so we may learn how to properly treat those who may look different from us. This goes both ways! If you choose your friends based on the color of their skin and not their character or actions, you may just be part of the problem, whether you are Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, Blue Skinned or Albino! Check yourself and be willing to truly RELEARN and change your mindset!
“If only she knew how honest, kindhearted, fair, intelligent, educated and pacific I am!”
My father is my role model. He was a self-taught, autodidact, successful mechanical engineer and entrepreneur. He was not rich but he worked hard and managed to put 3 meals on the table until his death. Growing up, I saw a daily parade of foreigners: French, Mauritanians, Pacific islanders, Italians, Malians, Moroccans, Senegalese, Brazilians, Saudis and many more nationalities with whom we often broke bread. In our household we spoke 4 languages (French, Wolof, Pular and Hassanya). I’ve learned more ever since, in my ever growing desire to understand other cultures and acquire meaningful connections and knowledge.
Our differences matter; they make us unique and original. We should not have to strip those differences away for fear of being judged.
I don’t see race. It has never been an issue for me. Race is part of who we are but it is only one of many characteristics that define who we are. When I look at you, when I meet you for the first time, I only see the character that you portray and only judge you by the measure of your actions. As it should be!
I give 100% of my trust to anyone I meet until they give me a reason not to. Even then, I don’t condemn and entire race for one person’s behavior. I tried hard to instill these very same values of tolerance, open mindedness, fairness and trust in my children. I believe it is my responsibility to make sure that my children go above and beyond what’s expected of them as human beings, men, future husbands and fathers.
Recently, my wife and I had to sit our 2 mixed race teenage boys down for a chat. This was a difficult conversation for me because I never thought I would have to have it with them. I see my kids as Senegalese-Americans, mixed race children who are the culmination of what is good about the United States, my adoptive country and Senegal, my country of Origin. But they are seen as black, period, with all the implications and repercussions and pre-conceived notions that come with it. We thought it was time to have “the talk.” Not the “birds-and-the-bees” kind of talk but the “your-survival-depends-on-it” kind of talk.
People in my family are tall and naturally muscular. At 14 and 16 years old, my boys are pushing 6 feet tall and will likely be as tall as 6 feet 5 inches. In my native Senegal, this is seen as a good thing. Here in the United States, many – not all, but many see it as a threat to the point that they would cross the street to avoid walking past them on the side walk.
“If a police officer pulls you over,” we said, “do what they say. Don’t make any sudden moves, don’t talk back, don’t say anything. Just comply. If you don’t, you could get shot.”
I believe in God. I am religious but not overzealous. I was taught by my parents to be honest. I make my wife and children return money to the store if the cashier accidentally gives them excessive change. I can thank my parents for “testing” my siblings and I when we were young, by purposely leaving change lying around the house to see if we would do the right thing. I was taught to follow the law, pray, do acts of kindness, see the good in people, respect my elders, work hard, help those in need and never give in to fear and hatred. I don’t drink, smoke, swear, do drugs and have no rap sheet and neither do my children.
These values, by themselves should be enough. But when your skin complexion, your blackness determines how some people judge you, I am afraid that nothing will be good enough.
I am concerned that someday, my sons will have to make a choice that could determine whether they live or die because they could be standing in front of someone who sees them as a threat, merely because of the color of their skin and not the content of their characters or the values I, as a father, spent decades teaching them.
If you take anything out of this one time only, soliloquy of mine, let it be this: challenge yourself to see people’s characters based on their actions and not the color of their skin.
We all have the same aspirations, hopes, dreams, heartaches. And we all love our children, our brothers and sisters just the same.
Every life is sacred and should be treated as such. If we don’t make an effort to understand one another, we are heading for a troubling future and will likely be doomed to repeat the past. I shiver at the thought that what we are seeing is a predilection of things to come. But I have faith that we will see common sense prevail.
Let’s work together, for the sake of our families and treat each other like dignified human beings.
I will end with this quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. – Martin Luther King Jr.”
How do you feel about what I shared in this post? Leave a comment below or reach out to me via email (info at oumardieng dot com)