How I identify myself greatly influences how I accept myself. Much of the influence my parents exerted on me as a child took on a life of its own and eventually grew into my own identity. In our modern society, our identity is often challenged by how others accept us and by the level of privilege we have based on our ethnicity or the color of skin.
Society creates an artificial social norm of expectations. It places people in categories that determines who they should be and influences how and when they are accepted. Race and ethnicity play a big role in this classification, especially in regard to the skin color. This is not just an American issue. It happens all over the world. I experienced this struggle growing up in the Congo and also after resettling in the USA. Ironically, in America, the progressive mentality seems to hide the reality of self-worth of minorities and the poor.
In this article, I will discuss the roots of my identity and self-worth—from living in the Congo through my early experiences in America —and how they influence me today.
Growing up in the Congo, my identity was heavily influenced by my father and mother. My father was a very determined and confident. He instilled those values and principles in my family. His approach focused more on the external presentation. He believed character building needed to be enforced by discipline and obedience to have meaning. Good character was not real unless it was displayed through action. My mother, on the other hand, focused on self-empowerment. To her, a belief of self-worth and perseverance were essential. My mother’s relationship with my father faced many difficulties, largely because she was considered an outsider by her family and, therefore, not accepted. But regardless of the difficulties they had, I was the beneficiary of the strong values they each possessed and displayed. And these values, injected in me in a very young age, influenced my perception of identity and self-worth.
My father’s military background influenced the expectations he had for my family and me. He cared a lot about how we showed up and presented ourselves. In this regard, he was particularly strict with me. I was fine with that. I admired his discipline and how so many respected him and trusted his opinion. He was our family’s patriarch and decision-maker for any situation. And we all benefited greatly from his influence long after he was gone. His legacy provided security for us because people trusted him and valued his character.
After my father’s assassination and turbulence erupted in Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, people turned on each other to get by. But thanks to all the good deeds my father did for others, we were secure. No one ever ratted my family out. Seeing the impact my father’s strong character had after he was gone made a huge impression on me. My father did not compromise his personal identity, values or self-worth. He was authoritative but caring, and always had a sense of vision. He knew how to direct and to lead others. And he knew how to delegate. I admired those characteristics and because of the consistency with which he exhibited them, I later adopted them as part of my identity. Of course, consistently displayed values need not come from a parent to be adopted by others. People you are close in your community can have the same impact on you through consistent behavior. In that sense, your community and its consistent influences have a lot to do with your self-worth. As a young child, the complex environment in which I lived had a significant influence on my belief in myself.
After my father was assassinated, my mother stepped in as head of the family. It was a difficult time because my family was tested in every way. And the challenges we experienced determined our level of self worth and identity. My mother is half Burundian and half Congolese. My father’s family did not approve. And it became easier for them to resent my mother after my father was no longer around. At that time Burundians and Rwandans in the Congo were being massacred by the Congolese in a civil war that resulted from long standing ethnic divisions. In order for us to survive, my mother needed to rebuke her nationality and affiliation to my father. However, claiming her Burundian status kept my family together and helped get us out of the Congo.
When I arrived in the states, I was a 10-year-old boy trying to find my way. The American pace was very different. They were a lot of expectations I put on myself. My mother also had a lot of expectations for my family. Those were the only expectations that really mattered. My mother was still in her twenties at the time with four children and no relatives in the area. It was not unusual for others to view such a young woman with four children and no husband in a strange new country as being helpless. They meant well. They were just looking out for us. But the more people we welcomed into our life, the more pressure we felt by their expectations. Many of the other people we met when we settled in New Hampshire were other immigrants. They thought it was appropriate to impose their values on us. To their credit, most of their advice was aimed to ensure my family had the best chance to succeed. They were trying to help us fit in and play by the rules. The last thing you want to be as a new immigrant in a predominantly white community is unapproachable and to offend others by the way you present yourself. We were advised, among other things, never say no, or to disagree; to avoid being confrontational. All that sounds fine but when you look closer, you start to see how those other immigrants diminished their self-worth and character in order to gain favor with the native white community which then might be more inclined to help them. Not too long, we decided we were not going to take this approach. We were always appreciated what was given to us and grateful to those who wanted to help us, but we made sure we were honest about our feelings in order to maintain our dignity and self-worth.
I am not proud to share the next story because I do not support violence but in this case, it was needed in order to earn some respect.
I attended a local elementary school. I was in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class all day with other students who were new to the states as well. My clothes were probably not the hippest. At the time skinny jeans were not popular. Most of the donation pants I had were all skinny pants. Being so obviously different from other students, I was an easy target for them. There was this boy in the school who was a knucklehead. He used to call ESL students names and make fun of them. The kid was close to my height. I was not scared of him. One day I was walking home with my brother. The kid and his friend were also walking home. He decided to start making fun of my brother and me. I still remember this story as if it happened yesterday. I looked at my brother Vinny and told him to hold the dollar store sunglasses I was proudly wearing. I turned around and gave the kid a Jean-Claude Van Damme kick on the face and followed with a Bruce Lee punch to his chest. The boy was knocked out. Someone stopped their car and ended the fight. The next day at school the boy saw me. He said hello to me. Ever since that incident he never bothered my brother and I or anyone else that was in my class when I was around. Confronting prejudice and racism was nothing knew for me. I saw my mother do it multiple times in the Congo and in the U.S. She taught me to stand up for myself, be proud and not let anyone talk down to me.
It was very hard for my family to keep people close. Some African families that came into our lives wanted to take control and dictate how my mother disciplined my brothers and I. My mother was already very strict. She did not mess around. Since I was the oldest of four children, she often made an example of me to get my siblings to tow in line. Some of the families would tell my mother, please do this and do that, watch out for this and watch out for that. There were false expectations they wanted my mother to impose on us kids. These false expectations were the same ones they imposed on their own children. It was hard being a minority in a new country. You try to do whatever you can to make sure your family has an advantage or not experience the prejudice and racism you have. I get where they were coming from. But false expectations only make things worse because self-worth and identity suffers. False expectations would separate us from Black American lifestyle characteristics.
These “helpful” people were afraid that adopting these “negative” characteristics would minimize our chances of being accepted by the masses. They were the “Go Along to Get Along” people. The ones who thought it best to bend to the pressure of expectations. But it was hard for me to disassociate myself from Black American culture or minority groups. Black American culture was part of me. I loved rap music, dance, art and the lingo. Oh man, the grief my mother got when she started braiding my hair when I was in middle school! Shocked people would say, “What were you thinking braiding Deo’s hair?” Clearly, they thought my mother decreased my chance of being considered a good polite and respectful black male. My family lost a lot of friends as result of us taking ownership of our identity and self-worth. She told them to step aside and stop telling her how to raise her kids.
It did not affect us knowing we had to dissociate with some people in order to protect our identity and self-worth. My mother and I had several conversations during this time about the pressure she was getting from others. She knew it was not about how we looked and what we wore on our head or on body. What does a braided head or a Phat Farm, South Pole baggy shirt means about someone’s character? I saw so many families focus so much on the external that they forgot about the internal development. Some immigrant family’s children ended up going down the wrong path. They got caught up in street life, drugs and making quick money. But I would not blame the influence that lead to these failures solely on the parents of those kids. I would blame the immigration system that provides minimum funding to those resettling new immigrants. As it is, the system forces the resettlement agency to place new immigrants in low-income housing, which is often located in high crime neighborhoods. If you do not have enough self-discipline and if you are not exposed to examples of what success looks like for immigrants like you in a new territory, it is easier to accept the harsher way of life lived by those who share your skin color or income level. To confront combat the reality of an external environment, you need to have an internal power cultivated through positive self-identity and self-worth.
I grew my hair super long in middle school and in high school. I wore baggy clothes and was heavily influenced by the hip-hop culture. My character never drifted totally away from how I identified myself. I was influenced by others but always knew when to steer back to whom I was. The foundation of who I was drove my ambitious to dream big and not allow my income constraints to hold me back. I operated in a way that maximized how I positively viewed myself. I was respectful to others, inclusive and always gave everyone a fair chance. My faith also played an important role in reinforcing my identity.
The two self-identifications that took over everything for me were pride in myself and never being envious. My mother instilled in me to never be envious of others. When we were younger, if someone gave her food, she would never share it with us. She wanted to make sure we did not develop an expectation of having other stuff handed to us. We would get punished if we cried about something that belonged to someone else. If we were playing with other kids and they did not want to share their toys and we complained about it, we would get punished. It got so I would not even play with someone’s toys even if they were offered it to me. That became the norm. The feeling of envy was non-existent growing up. That was an important desire not to have. And that helped me a lot. I went to a private middle school. I had a full scholarship. I was very grateful. I needed to bring my own lunch everyday. Most of my friends bought the hot meal at school. I was completely content bringing my own lunch. I was proud of the food I brought. I never complained to my mother or asked her to give me money to buy lunch. I knew the reality and our limitations. I never pushed it too far. I rationalized everything based on the opportunity that was provided and not by what I did not have. I have noticed that in much of the work I do with different people, envy is always a big factor in what influences people to do certain things. They want to be viewed a certain way so they do whatever they can to depict that image so they can have the approval or acceptance of others. But once you compromised who you are in order to do that, you have left your true self behind.
Today as a father, husband and leader, I find what guides and keeps me focused, regardless of the challenges I face every day, is how I view myself. Access and privilege confronts me lot. I live in one of the richest countries in the world with basic amenities that 75% of the world does not have. This perspective along helps me to acknowledge my privilege and access. I also live in a community where I am connected by so many people who are ready to collaborate and support me on different things. I have trust and respect, which is something I cannot take for granted. Many minorities in America do not have the trust and respect of other cultures. Most maintain a respectful distance and do not want to cross-pollinate because of the preconceived notion of minority groups.
I identify challenges by those who accept and include me. Today the lifestyle of my personal environment, community and broader circle confronts my identity and definition of self worth. I tend to stay in the lane that represents me. Sometimes I take some detour. The reality of life for me today is very different than it was growing up. Today I have a little more access to become a little lenient in how I allow my identity to be defined. I am not saying the narrative has changed, although I admit that influences on me definitely change at times. But I am not concerned about that. What I am concerned about is not having the discipline in place to identify when I stray from my narrative.
I view wealth and access as a necessity but not necessarily the main focus. You can still make a big impact without being a millionaire. I find it that the more wealth you have, the more selfish you become. This selfishness comes from the obsession to possess more material things in order to gain a certain status and lifestyle. It is not for me to judge those who pursue that. Security is important. The problem I see is that the drive for material things becomes the main objective and people forget to live. The way you live your life should be an indicator of your identity and self worth. If you have to explain your intention more and more, perhaps people are not seeing the way you see yourself inside.
You have to find opportunities to make your identity come out and then live by it. You have to fight to have ownership of your identity and self worth. Evaluate yourself and identify areas where you can improve. Look for opportunities to uplift others and to help them find their inner selves and take ownership of their identities. Spend more time listening to yourself and take advantage of opportunities to change your behaviors if you see they do not represent you. To encourage others, you must first make time to listen to them. Listen without judgment. When you identify areas where you can encourage someone to take control, seize the opportunity. Be courageous and tell them. You can always start that conversation by saying: “Here is what I am hearing. I could be wrong. Please let me know if I am.” And then tell them what you are seeing that does not align with how they identify themselves.
For communities that are different from yours, spend time getting to know them before you offer assistance. Your help is only meaningful if it meets the needs of the people you are trying to serve. And, finally, do not be judgmental. Once you are, you lose the opportunity to be helpful. Judgment, prejudice and racism only prevent you from seeing another’s true self.