11 29 2014
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Editor's note: Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed out loud of an end to racism. Fifty years since, it's still here, though arguably more relegated to the private sphere than it was in King's day. To mark the anniversary of his speech, CNN invited readers to share their personal experiences of "everyday racism," the ways prejudice still creeps into American life. A note: These stories include frank and honest discussions of race. They may be upsetting to some. Here is one of five accounts:

(CNN) -- By the time he became a parent, Omekongo Dibinga thought he had racism down. He had made a career as a diversity consultant, drawing on his own experiences as a black child who was called names and bullied.

He always imagined he'd save "the birds and the bees of racism" talk with his daughters until they were around 10, old enough to grasp the concept.

That moment came much sooner than expected. One day in 2011, his then 5-year-old daughter Ngolela (pronounced 'go-lay-lah') came home from kindergarten with news that some classmates had called her a monkey. She wasn't hurt, but seemed confused by the nickname.

"It was a strange moment for me," Dibinga remembered. "This is post-Obama. I'm feeling generally good about my prospects as a black man in America, but that comment sent me back."

"Why does this have to be happening now?" he wondered. Dibinga never imagined he'd have to protect his daughters from racist comments so early in life.

Ngolela, who attends a private international school in Washington, wasn't fazed by the remark, he said, partly because she had no idea about the word's history as a racist stereotype for blacks. Chances are, her young classmates also didn't fully understand the power of their words.

As a parent, it was a painful situation to face. "I can protect myself. I put up the necessary shield and barriers to respond to these things," Dibinga said.

"If anything happens to your kid, you want to hug them and hold them and tell them everything's going to be OK. But you can't in these situations," he said. "They're going to happen, whether you're there or not."

Dibinga ultimately tried to take the incident in stride -- using it as an opportunity to work with administrators on fostering dialogue about cultural acceptance at the school. "You can become better or bitter," is one of his tried-and-true mantras.

Dibinga and his wife instead focus their efforts on what they can control: building up their daughters' confidence and teaching them to be proud of their Congolese heritage.

It's something they've done for years, prompted by a remark Ngolela made as a toddler. Like many parents, they lovingly called their daughter a princess and were taken aback by her matter-of-fact response that she wasn't one.

It was a wake-up call. At 2, Ngolela couldn't explain why she felt that way, Dibinga said, "but I started looking more closely at the products out there and realized it's all white princesses, nothing else." (This was before "The Princess and the Frog," featuring Disney's first and only black princess, was released in 2009.)

"I started getting frustrated," Dibinga said. He began looking for black dolls and cartoon characters to introduce to his daughter. He and his wife spent weeks reminding their little girl "that she was as beautiful as anyone else."

"If you don't do anything, the roles society puts out for us are reinforced," Dibinga said. "You have to work to build that self-esteem."

Their efforts paid off. Ngolela, now 7, believes she's a princess just like her white friends. Nonetheless, her father acknowledges that she and her 4-year-old sister, Ndeji, will likely face prejudice and ignorant comments over the years.

"It's sad I feel this way, but it's going to be happening for the rest of their lives," Dibinga said. Still, he's optimistic his girls will see progress as they grow older, just as he did growing up. In the meantime, he'll be there to help them confront whatever ignorant comments may come.

 

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