We Are Not All That Different: Race and Culture Identity | Seconde Nimenya | TEDxSnoIsleLibraries


Translator: Geoff Jensen
Reviewer: Ryan You Three years ago, I was
presenting at a conference, and the keynote speaker
was speaking two hours before me, so I had plenty of time to kill. At this particular keynote, I didn’t want to go in the auditorium
to listen to the talk. I didn’t want to go because
the topic was about something I didn’t think I could relate to. It was about the speaker’s
experiences as a Jewish gay man. (Laughter) I knew I couldn’t learn
anything from this man. (Laughter) After all, I’m not gay, I’m not Jewish, and I’m not a man. So what could I possibly learn from him? But I had nothing else to do
before my presentation, so I decided I would sit in the auditorium
and just play on my phone. Once the speaker started
sharing his message, I was instantly taken aback that I even forgot I was there
to play on my phone. First, I was shocked by how much
this man had gone through just to be accepted by society. And then I realized that even though
his experiences were different from my own journey,
we were not all that different. That day, here is what I learned: that whether you’re gay or straight, black or white, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, Democrat or Republican, human beings at their very core
are yearning for the same thing: to be accepted for who we are. In my early days of coming to America, I struggled with
sticking out as different. Whenever people asked me,
“What’s your name, hon?” I would say, “My name is Seconde,” and they would say,
“Oh, you have a beautiful accent,” and I would reply, “Thank you.” But I was aware
that my accent had an accent. So I already knew the follow-up question,
which was: “Where are you from?” I would pause, think, and then say, “I’m Canadian.” (Laughter) But they would ponder my answer,
give me a once over, and ask again: “But where are you from originally?”
with a fat emphasis on “originally.” It wasn’t until, one day,
my two teenage daughters sat me down, looked me in the eye,
and, with a teenage attitude, said, “Mom, we’ve noticed that each time
people ask you where you come from, “you lie.” (Laughter) Yeah, it was like
a mini-intervention or something. (Laughter) What my daughters didn’t know
was why I was trying to hide my origins. At that time, they were too young to fully understand
the many scars I carried within, scars of a childhood
lived in a war-torn country. I was born and grew up in Burundi, a small country located
in East Central Africa. From the age of six,
I had experienced civil wars, constant unrest and
destruction in my country, that I felt ashamed of the war stigma and the many invisible wounds
it inflicted on me. And as a result of the ongoing civil wars,
I became a war refugee, and I lived in Canada for 12 years
before moving of the United States. Moving from Africa to Canada
and then to America meant that I had to deal with
a set of new expectations from different people
and different cultures. As a newcomer, there was always a place where my being different was pointed out, and not always in a good way, which is why I was trying
to hide my origins when people asked me where I came from. I wanted to belong
and to be fully accepted. Today, I consider myself fortunate
to have experienced life in these different cultural settings. They gave me a new sense of appreciation, and new perspectives when it comes
to diversity and inclusion. Now, I’m not saying
that it was all smooth sailing, but what I learned came from
some of the most difficult situations, especially as a mother – situations like when my children
came home from school crying because they had been called names
by their classmates when they had started school – names such as “chocolate milk” or asked whether their mom
drank too much black coffee when she was pregnant. Granted, these words
had a racial connotation, but five-, six-, and seven-year-old
children are not racist. Those kids were only acting
out of what they didn’t know, and what they have not been taught. I could have blamed their parents,
their teachers, or the principal, and to be honest with you, I did. But then after some time I realized
that no amount of blaming could have restored
my children’s self-esteem or reduced my own pain. When people think
“different is bad for you,” and you buy into it, before you know, you might start denying
your own self-worth and self-identity, as I was doing before my teenagers set me straight. That’s when I decided that the only thing
I could really control was to choose how to respond. I could be bitter, or I could be better. It was my choice. So instead of fear, I started using my differences and my adversities to fuel my compassion for others. I chose to advocate for
and educate about diversity, and to bridge the cultural gap
between our communities. That became my passion and my mission. Today, I see how the fear
of our differences is affecting the youth in our schools
and communities across America, and the growing disconnect
young people feel when it comes to their social identities. When I speak to students in high schools or colleges and universities, the number one hurdle they share is not about academic achievement. No, it is about the fear
of being different, and the threats they sometimes face on their campuses or in their communities, mostly because of their race, gender, sexual identity, and religion. Some of you have walked into a situation
where you were put in a box, maybe because of
how you look, who you love, what religion you practice,
or how your name sounds. At times, we’ve all been
a victim and a perpetrator of stereotypes and biases. But when we unleash our capacity
for human connection and human empathy, we give others the gift
of living in their own truth. I now look at racism, sexism, or any other type of discrimination
that plagues our society today with these two perspectives: One, it’s what it does to the person
it’s committed against, and two, it is what it does
to the perpetrator of that discrimination. I truly believe the victim
as well as the perpetrator are both wounded, and they need healing. Deep in my heart, I know we are more alike
than different, so I have hope that we can build
an even more beautiful world if we choose to use
our differences as a catalyst to uplift one another. If we choose to see others
for who they are and not what they are, we might even change the world. Sometimes people ask me, “Seconde, “so what we can do
so that our next generation “can live in a world
where differences are celebrated?” So let me just share three things today
you can start to do today. Number one, start where you are, and where you have most
personal power to impact change. It can be in your home, your school, your community, or your workplace. And number two, be brave. What do I mean by that? Be brave by having conversations that are sometimes uncomfortable. Race issues, for instance, in America, is an uncomfortable topic for many people. But it’s not going away
just by ignoring it. So let’s have a conversation about race, and seek understanding
from one another and heal each other. And number three, be flexible. Even when something you don’t understand
or you don’t agree with, have an open mind
and learn what you don’t know. In the end, it really comes down to giving a kind smile to a stranger, a handshake or headshake to acknowledge somebody and say, “I see you.” “I love you.” “You matter.” Thank you. (Applause)




Comments
  1. I am truly inspired by your words and generosity to others. Thank you for sharing your deeply rooted ancestral wisdom through and intercultural and spiritual lens. You are a remarkable leader for other women.

  2. Thanks for your great speach i'm really proud of translating such a speach to Arabic 🙂 thanks seconde a lot

  3. Hello Seconde,
    I used your TED Talk in all five of my sophomore classes last week to kick off small group discussions about acceptance (what does it look and feel like? How important is it?). Next, groups discussed race and culture in our school (did they think students felt comfortable here? What problems or successes did we have in these areas?). Finally, each group decided on 3-5 guidelines or norms for how our class should function together. These ideas were posted to an online discussion board where, once I gather patterns, we will follow up by voting on our top choices. We thought your talk was powerful. All my teens were attentive. I teach many students of color who, it seemed to me, appreciated your compassionate yet direct approach.
    Many thanks!!

  4. I am also fighting hard to abolish race parties, race policies and race politics in my country Malaysia.
    Together we can change.

  5. United Nations studies show ethnic, cultural and religious diversity "within nations" are the primary engines of civil conflict and war.

  6. The Scottish are ver shy, they have invented half of the modern world? Why is that not recognised? They are a shy retiring people living on the Northern part of a small island batterred by the relentelous Atlantic gales. They enjoy incredible scenery. One sunny wind free day is worth a thousand days anywhere else on our Planet
    . An incredible little place, a place to find yourself in raw beauty steeped in amazing ancient and more modern history.

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