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Assume Nothing

Last month I was interviewed for a documentary depicting racial bias and stereotypes in my community. The interviewer asked me what advice I would give to citizens in my community regarding the subject. I shared two words…assume nothing.

I want citizens in our community and citizens of the world to resist their own biases and approach each other as human beings and not as stereotypes. Let me give you some scenarios:

  • When you see my children playing in our yard and they wave to you as you cross the street with your dog, don’t ask them if they live there in a condescending tone…Assume nothing.
  • When I was test-driving at a car dealership the dealer tried to find the hip hop radio stations. I do love my hip hop, but I bet he wouldn’t have found those stations for my white husband… Assume nothing.
  • When I was hired for my dream job someone asked, “how did you ‘swing’ that one?”…Assume nothing.
  • When recognized for accomplishments some people have hinted it wasn’t on merit but because “I was the token black person” in the company…Assume nothing.
  • When we bought our dream house someone questioned, “How’d you get a loan?”….Assume nothing.
  • When I changed my hairstyle some people assumed I was going through an identity crisis…Assume nothing.

I could go on. And on. So many interactions are burdened with racial biases and assumptions. When we all realize the importance of framing a question from a kind hearted, bias-free place our interactions will become less burdened. And, their value will increase exponentially as we break down tensions and barriers that too often characterize cross-cultural interactions.

Instead of asking, “Do you boys live here?” Ask, “Are you little guys new to the neighborhood?” Instead of assuming that because I’m black I like hip hop, ask, “What kind of radio station would you prefer?” Simple congratulations on work well done, a new home, or a promotion can go a long way. On the subject of hair and black women, just commend us for keeping our styles fresh, no identity-crisis intervention team needed.

If you don’t know something, it’s okay to ask. But ask from a place of compassion, free of assumptions. Ask because you care, because you genuinely want to understand. Ask in a way that squashes negative perceptions and allows civility to reign. And, if you have to assume. Assume the best. Always.



Standing in the immigration line to keep America great.

First time I got my chance to vote.

First time I got my chance to vote.







Like Jen, I also wanted to take the time to reflect these past few weeks. I thought a lot about my own immigration journey. Immigration isn’t for the weak, downtrodden, or weary. Immigration is a painful, guilt-ridden, and very expensive process.

I’m a proud first generation immigrant. The United States is all that I know because I arrived here at a very young age. I always sounded American. I had a lot of friends and grew up like the average American child. But, dance recitals, sleepovers, and girl scout meetings don’t guarantee your citizenship rights. Unlike other average American children, my life also included a lot of hoops, red tape, immigration attorneys (if we could afford one), and long lines outside and inside the immigration office. Let me paint a picture of my typical immigration employee permit renewal day.

Imagine it’s 5 am on a cold Minnesota winter day and you’ve been waiting in line for nearly an hour outside an office building. Fifty people are ahead of you and you’re patiently waiting for the doors to open at 8am. You hear babies outside in parked cars crying. You’re in line with young children, elderly, and people with disabilities. The immigration officer finally opens the door, and counts us individually while laughing at us under his breath. When the officer counts the last person in front of you, he slams the door in your face and yells at you through the glass that he’s “at capacity” for the day.

You beg and plead with the officer and tell him that you drove three hours from up north to get there. He scoffs and tells you to prove it. By the grace of God, you still have your electric bill with your Duluth address in your purse. He sees it and hesitantly lets you in. Relieved yet? Don’t be. You still have to wait seven more hours until your red number is called. You wait in the cramped basement with the other immigrants trying to “de-thaw.” For seven hours you sit and you watch CNN. You wait with no vending machines and no lunch counters. You wait…until your number is called.

You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself. You don’t have time to be angry. After all, you need to shell out $500 in order to be eligible to keep your college job at the mall for one more year. When your number is finally called that day, you get fingerprinted (I still can’t stand the smell of cornstarch) and the photographer who takes your picture for your permit asks, “What do you have to smile for? This isn’t your country” (lightbulb flashes). You get your receipt and drive back up north hungry and tired, but determined not to miss another day of school.

It wasn’t until my junior year in college that lawmakers, like the late Senator Paul Wellstone, changed the laws and got immigrants like myself out of the cold lines outside and gave us appointment notices. The harsh treatment we experienced was still there, but this time by appointment only. Some people make excuses and others say that our system is broken. I say that if this were to happen to Americans there would be an uproar.

Immigrants and refugees have been given a bad reputation. Yes, there are a few bad apples but there are more amazing people in that same line every day. We wait in that line because of fear of persecution from our homeland. We wait in that line with survivor’s guilt. We wait in that line for fear of losing our employment. We wait in that same line as taxpayers and sustainers of the American economy. We wait in that line because we’re trying to bring a loved one over here for safe-haven.

It took me 20 plus years of waiting in that line. It took countless phone calls to lawmakers both statewide and nationally. It took stomaching a flow of racist comments from friends, family friends, a few colleagues, some employers, and some members of Congress … but those comments have become a catalyst for my courage.

I’ll never forget the moment. It was a crisp fall Minnesota day and at thirty years old, I stood in a new line. The voting line. I had my 18-month-old son in his stroller and I remember sobbing tears of joy. People in line were surprised when I said that I had waited 28 years to finally gain my citizenship. I was so happy that I took pictures with my election judge, who also took a picture of me and my son. That voting line was the line I had been waiting for.

I still continue to have hope. If I didn’t have hope then what had I been doing in that cold immigration line for over 20 years? When you hear people in your community, or even a President elect say that immigrants and refugees are hurting the American economy, think about the millions of immigrants and refugees like me. Think about us standing in line and spending thousands of dollars while holding our breath for a chance at our own pursuit of freedom and prosperity – like so many before us.


You’re Black!

When my son was four and daughter one, we invited Jebeh and her boys to the pool at the country club where we belong. As we were wading into the shallow end holding hands with the kiddos, my four year old turned to Jebeh, observing his hand in hers and the stark contrast and said loudly, “You’re black!”

The truth. Spoken. Loudly. As a parent a part of me cringed. I wanted to duck, hide, ignore and pretend “that didn’t just happen.” As parents, our initial reaction in these situations is often to back pedal, save face and find a way out of what we perceive as an embarrassing moment. This event, four years ago contributed to the work Jebeh and I are doing now.

My instant gut reaction was embarrassment. But for who? Hayden? No, he wasn’t embarrassed. Me? Why? Was it as a failure on my part? No, not really. He was observing. That’s what four year olds do. They learn about the world and everything in it by making observations. Jebeh? No. She rolled with it.

Ever the “teacher” Jebeh turned to Hayden and said, “Yes, I am, and isn’t that beautiful? And look, Max and Mateo are brown, and you’re white.” A validation of his observation and no assumed guilt or shame in making that observation. Done.

We see color. We all do. And to pretend that’s not the case just doesn’t do anyone any good.

I’m pretty sure I still followed Jebeh’s comments with something along these lines… “we have lots of friends with different color skin.” And proceeded to name the three children of color in his preschool class. The truth is, we don’t. We live in a middle to upper middle class neighborhood in east Duluth, MN. I could probably count on one hand the number of families or children of color that we see regularly.

My children aren’t exposed to a lot of diversity. So the struggle becomes, how do I teach my children to respect and value diversity if the opportunities in daily life are so few? My goal is to embrace each opportunity that does arise and to push for new opportunities. To speak it and not “shush” it. To be open and honest and welcoming of conversations and observations.

Why did Hayden feel the need to comment on black skin? Because it was different. Different than him. Different than everyone else at the pool and probably nearly everyone else he had ever seen at that pool. That’s another post.


No Identity Crisis Here

Some adults still struggle with their identity. We all wear multiple hats, but at the core, our identity is our true self. It reflects who we really are and is comprised of our beliefs, qualities, characteristics, and values. Sometimes, the hats we wear don’t align. When our values, beliefs, and qualities conflict with expectations of our various roles and our understanding of self, it can lead to identity struggles.

But I’ve never felt that. I’ve always identified myself as a Liberian-American woman. I was born in Liberia but raised in the United States. I’ve been fortunate enough to identify and embrace who I really was since I was about three. I used to play ‘fashion’ show with the tons of Liberian dresses and matching head-ties my grandmothers would send over from back home. In fifth grade we had a choir concert with the theme “Love in any Language” and I made my mother sew me a pink kaftan dress with matching head-tie. See a pattern here? I love my accessories.

I had this feeling of being different because my name was different. My family was a minority in a predominately white suburb. None of my friends looked like me. I had to embrace my difference within my community. I rocked it too.

I ate all the Liberian foods my mother and family would cook. I wore t-shirts with pride that said “Got Fufu?” or “Vai Girl” everywhere I went.

I ate all the Liberian foods my mother and family would cook. I wore t-shirts with pride that said “Got Fufu?” or “Vai Girl” everywhere I went. I even found a job in my community where I could share stories and Liberian dance (my way) to thousands of K-college aged students for over an eight year span. It became common when I would go shopping to see a sweet blonde child smile at me and say “Yah-kuhneh”(Hello in Vai) and see their blonde mom “freak out” because she didn’t have a clue what her child just said. That was funny.

I have been blessed to add to my identity Naturalized Citizen, wife, and mother. Each of these facets of my identity make me the woman I am today. I cherish each one because it was no easy feat to accomplish the last three parts of myself.

As a person of color in a predominantly white community I often get asked, “What are you?” or “What should I call you?”

As a person of color in a predominantly white community I often get asked, “What are you?” or “What should I call you?” While these might be well-meaning attempts at understanding and being nice, they are also near-sighted. The answer they are often looking for is a descriptor of my skin color. But that’s not who we are. That’s not what I am.

Think about it. Would a white person be asked, “what are you?” or “what should I call you?” And, if by some chance they were, would “white” be the response? To those questions I simply say, “I’m Jebeh.” In my heart I’m thinking… “If you ask me a question like that, then you don’t really know who I am.”

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