Do you ever get asked questions about your identity?
How about me? Could you guess my ethnic background or identity? In fact, you could put your answer in the comment section and see if you aren’t alone!
There is going to be some humor in this post. Beware!
My name is Sophia. Like Sophia Loren with the big eyes, or Sofia Vergara with the big breasts. I haven’t called myself these names; I am only (vainly) conveying what people have said since childhood and in later years.
I have consistently been asked these questions: where are you from? What is your ethnicity? At some point I decided to ask the curious person what they thought. The guesses across U.S. state lines varied only slightly: Brazilian, Moroccan, and Indian were the top three guesses. Less than a handful of times someone guessed Italian, Eritrean, and Afghani (I wondered if they had been stalking me, but they just had a good eye for phenotypes).
I am a Mhaya from the Haya tribe of northwest Tanzania, west of Lake Victoria. This is the tribe of my mother and my grandmother, while my great-grandmother was from the Kingdom of Buganda. I am also Punjabi, Afghani, Eritrean, and Italian; and that only covers up to 4 grandparents & my great-grandmother Nshashwoi – I think her name is so awesome! I consider myself all those things, and I am aware of being all of them to some, and one of them to most. At this point in my life I wonder, more than anything else when it comes to this, how I feel about it all and how I identify.
It’s an ongoing question, but I know I am not alone in answering it. I think there are others who are going through the same thing, so I hope this post can help someone with today’s set of… wonderings about their identity.
Sophia in Italia
When I lived in Italy as a kid, I honestly had the best time! We played outside; I ran and ran and ran; we shouted; we had spit contests; we did our homework; we played palla a calcio, aka football or soccer; we hid from the Carabinieri driving by, as if we had done something wrong. I am still in touch with most of my neighbors and elementary school friends; they hold a special and beautiful place in my heart. There were parts of childhood that were tough and in retrospect uncertain, but overall, I think it was pretty great!
The grocers across the narrow street from our house were super nice and let me learn how to do things around the shop when I asked. I never thought anything really deep, when the husband would tease and say “O! Are you getting bananas today? You guys like them where you’re from!” with a big smile on his face. I just thought that was a stupid comment and that he was only making a joke. So I took it as that.
It wasn’t until 20 years later that it dawned on me that in our class, there were just two of us who were not “olive-skin white Italians”. I mean… our olive skin is there, but you know, mixed with some other things like… cardamom and Thai basil.
We tanned really well! No one pointed any of that out, though, and childhood went on as I wish it would for all children.
Sophia in Tanzania
When we moved back to Tanzania I learned Kiswahili and English as quickly as I could. I jumped straight into 6th grade with two-weeks’ worth of English classes, and let me tell you… it was quite the experience! From a class of 18-24 students, all speaking Italian, all friends since yay high, to a class of 90+ students, speaking in languages I didn’t understand, and looking at me like only a part of what I am ethnicity-wise. How dare they!
One girl in particular was really cool. She was African (color omission is intentional) and she knew all these cool English hip-hop songs that I heard in 6th and 7th grade. Our Cameroonian teacher would let us sing them in class. Her English sounded perfect, even though I didn’t know the meaning of all the words we were singing (now that I speak English I can say she does speak it excellently.)
As time passed and I learned to speak the local languages, people started asking me about my ethnic identity; guessing that I was Baluch, Omani, Arab, or Indian. The Somali girls would befriend me and we’d hang out quite a bit. I remember being in Form II (think sophomore year in U.S. high school) and a group of Indian girls asked if I wanted to be friends, to which I said yes. The next morning at school, the group of Indian girls and I waved from across the courtyard.
During that same morning, I met some more friends in class, and during class changes I walked with them to our next destination. Three of the Indian girls from that morning saw me with my new friends, looked at me, hugged their books tightly to their chests, and walked past us like they didn’t know me.
During recess I went to say hi to the Indian girls, and sure enough they had changed their minds about hanging out with me. The only difference that I could think of is that the friends they had seen me with looked pretty coffee-skinned.
It’s so strange to me to say Black, as Black is not a word anyone used to describe our identity; not even the darkest-looking person… unless they were really, really dark… like beautiful moon-lit nights. In this case, someone might have called them ‘of the night‘ or ‘of blackness‘, which was sometimes done in a collective jest that included the person being discussed, and at times it was used to be hurtful.. The more I say, the more wrong it sounds, but I am not here to lie to you or paint a picture that isn’t so. Back to my point, though. Africa is home to so many skin colors, physical features, and hair textures!
So it was, that from that day I chose to not say I was Indian; that included Afghani. I was Tanzanian, Eritrean, and Italian. I didn’t watch Indian movies if I could help it, I didn’t seek out anything to do with my Indian heritage at all. I still ate Indian sweets like gulam jamun because, well… it’s gulam jamun.
I came back to appreciating and happily embracing my Asiatic identity in my 20s. Of course that small group of girls was not a complete representation of all Indians, just as most small groups aren’t a complete representation of a group or an ideology or belief.
This brings us to Sophia In the United States of America, but see, that is an entirely different experience, that requires its own post.
Before I go, I would like to ask you: Did any of this resonate with you? How does it feel? You don’t have to answer that publicly, but you are free to do so.
I hope it feels reassuring or that it helps in some way.
I am a mom amongst some other titles life has fortunately given me. I love photography & the reward of someone being really happy about a photo I took of her/him. I work, I study, I try to pay attention to life. I like writing. I don't understand many things...especially why humans treat each other & other living & inanimate things so vilely sometimes. I like to be an idealist, but when most fails, I do my best to not be a pessimist: Life itself is entirely too beautiful, amazing & inspiring to forget that it is!
Each year on December 10, people all around the world celebrate Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to honor the United NationsGeneral Assembly‘s adoption on 10 December 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global statement of international human rights principles. The UDHR was the first international document that spelled out the “basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy.” The UDHR has been translated into more than 500 languages and dialects, making it one of the most translated documents in the world.
The theme for 2021 is EQUALITY – Reducing inequalities, advancing human rights. The official slogan is “All Human, All Equal”.
“This year’s Human Rights Day theme relates to ‘Equality’ and Article 1 of the UDHR – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
The principles of equality and non-discrimination are at the heart of human rights. Equality is aligned with the 2030 Agenda and with the UN approach set out in the document Shared Framework on Leaving No One Behind: Equality and Non-Discrimination at the Heart of Sustainable Development. This includes addressing and finding solutions for deep-rooted forms of discrimination that have affected the most vulnerable people in societies, including women and girls, indigenous peoples, people of African descent, LGBTI people, migrants and people with disabilities, among others.”
Below are some ideas for simple yet meaningful ways that families can celebrate Human Rights Day by learning about the rights and responsibilities that we all share as human beings. For more ideas, check out our previous posts:
“We’ve combed through the episodes to make sure they’re free of profanity, graphic references and other adult content. (Although talking about race and racism is always complicated, so parents, use your judgment here.) Our episodes never have all the answers, and we’re hoping these will open up space for some good old-fashioned dinner-table discussions.”
“Developed in collaboration with United Nations agencies, civil society and other organizations, YUNGA Challenge Badges aim to raise your awareness, educate and motivate you to change your behaviour and become an active agent of change in your local community.”
9. Make your own human rights meme!
Use this year’s Human Rights Day theme and brainstorm with your kids to come up with a meme. Use any free online meme generator to create your own meme. For inspiration, check out these take action memes.
10. Talk to your kids about how important they are to making the future better for all of us!
Jennifer Prestholdt is a lawyer and the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights, a volunteer-based human rights organization that works locally, nationally and internationally. Her work in human rights takes her around the world, but she spends most of her time in Minneapolis, MN, where she lives with her children (two sons and one daughter), her husband, an elderly cat and a dwarf hamster.
As Jennifer’s kids are now all in school (1st, 4th and 6th grades), she is finally finding more time to do the things that she used to love to do, especially running, writing and knitting. Jennifer loves to travel and has had the dubious distinction of having been accidentally locked in a bathroom on five continents so far. Australia and Antarctica await!
In January 2011, Jennifer made a New Year’s Resolution to start writing about her experiences in order to share with her children the lessons learned from 15 years of work in human rights. The result is her personal blog, The Human Rights Warrior. The name comes from her son Simon, who was extremely disappointed to learn that his mother is a lawyer, not a warrior.
In August 2020, a 29-year-old African-American man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back multiple times by police, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. This incident resulted in Jacob being paralyzed from the waist down. On August 25, 2020, during the protests that followed, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse left his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, and went to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Armed with an AR-15 rifle, he fatally shot two men and wounded a third. Mr. Rittenhouse and the three people he shot were all Caucasian.
During the subsequent trial, Mr. Rittenhouse and his legal team argued that he had been acting in self-defense. Now 18 years old, he has been acquitted of all charges.
I must be honest and share that I was not surprised by the “not guilty” verdict handed down to Kyle Rittenhouse. I have learned through observing numerous courts cases that Caucasian males are seen to be innocent even when they are guilty.
When the judge threw out the gun charges against Mr. Rittenhouse, I knew that he was extending to him the judicial courtesy that so many Caucasian males in his position get. The Judge wouldn’t even allow the three men to be labeled as “victims” although the terms “protester” and “rioter” were permitted.
How can you charge a person with a crime when the weapon involved in the crime basically doesn’t exist and there are no “victims”? This judicial bias that was shown to Kyle Rittenhouse rarely gets shown to non-white males. This directly reflects the fact that even though non-white males represent approximately 29% of America’s population, they represent over 57% of the incarcerated population (Morgan, Smith, 2005).
Though I wasn’t surprised by the verdict, I was still enraged by it. The interpretation of law always seems to lean in the favor of Caucasian Americans, and that same law or rule is enforced fully in the cases of any male that is non-white. According to the United State Sentencing Commission (USSC), non-white males receive, on average, prison sentences that are 20% longer than those of their Caucasian counterparts.
I am enraged that a 17-year-old could walk around with an AR-15 rifle and not be stopped or apprehended by one of the many police officers present. This demonstrates the ongoing systemic racism that continues to plague our country. How are we ever going to correct a problem when the system that governs the problem is the problem?
Morgan, K., & Smith, B.L. (2005). Victims, Punishment, and Parole: The Effect of Victim Participation on Parole Hearings. Criminology and Public Policy, 4(2), p. 355.
Uggen, C., Larson, R, & Shannon, S. (2016). 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016. Washington, D.C.: The Sentencing Project. Available at:
United States Sentencing Commission. (2016). The federal sentencing guidelines : a report on the operation of the guidelines system and short-term impacts on disparity in sentencing, use of incarceration, and prosecutorial discretion and plea bargaining. [Washington, D.C.?]: https://www.ussc.gov/guidelines/2018-guidelines-manual-annotated
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Dr. Denetria Brooks-James.
World Moms Network is an award winning website whose mission statement is "Connecting mothers; empowering women around the globe." With over 70 contributors who write from over 30 countries, the site covered the topics of motherhood, culture, human rights and social good.
Most recently, our Senior Editor in India, Purnima Ramakrishnan was awarded "Best Reporting on the UN" form the UNCA. The site has also been named a "Top Website for Women" by FORBES Woman and recommended by the NY Times Motherlode and the Times of India. Follow our hashtags: #worldmom and #worldmoms
Formerly, our site was known as World Moms Blog.
Amazon Prime released a series called “Them”. It is set in the 1950’s, and it tells the story of a Black family that moves into an all-white neighborhood in Los Angeles. Watching this show reminds me of the fact that my parents were the second Black family on our street. This was well before I was born but I’ve heard the story all my life.
The female neighbor next door told the other neighbor on the opposite side that since N-words lived there now she didn’t want “their” plums falling in her yard. So the other neighbor cut the plum tree in our back yard down in the middle of the night. My daddy, being who he was, burned the man’s storage shed down and cut his fig tree down. This kind of thing went on for a few years.
By the time I was born, there was another plum tree, fig tree, and storage shed. The neighbor who didn’t want the N-word’s plums in her yard ended up babysitting me after school, and her grandchildren who spent the summer with her stayed in our house and back yard most of the time. We played,fought, and got spankings together too many times to count. We even painted them black with charcoal and dog poop once and all ended up in the bathtub together.
Over the years, TWO men who originally hated one another got older and sickly, but by this time they both had spare keys to each other’s homes in case of an emergency. The man who had cut our plum tree down at one point had the pleasure of cleaning up after my dad after he had soiled himself, and he stayed there with my dad until my mom got home. He also cooked for him on dialysis days.
My dad would sometimes ride his wheelchair down to the other man’s house to take a plate of food my mom had made, or they would have a cup of coffee standing out on the property line they once cursed at each other over.
Both of those neighbors are long gone now. All I have are fond memories of them both. When my brother passed, the male neighbor was the first person to hug and kiss me and tell me he loved me. The female neighbor left me my favorite one of her tea cups that she used to use for sun-tea and allowed me to use for my after school snack. Until the male neighbor was well into his 80’s he helped my mom in any way possible without her having to even ask. His family still sends her greeting cards and gifts from time to time.
The show “Them” is a trigger for many reasons, but from a cinematic perspective, it is very suspenseful, and this can make it easy for us to forget the advice to love thy neighbor. If we all put ourselves in our neighbors’ shoes and committed to truly loving them, imagine how much greater we could become as individuals, families, and communities.
How diverse is the neighborhood you live in? Are your neighbors a big part of your family’s life?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Disha Ellis. Photo credit to the author.
Last month, my county had its 32nd Annual AIDS Walk to pay tribute to those who we have lost, and to support those who are living with HIV/AIDS. Whenever I receive an invitation to this event, I remember a news story I did a decade ago about how child marriage and HIV have common drivers, and what UNICEF was doing to combat child marriage and HIV/AIDS.
Some of the factors that put girls at risk of child marriage also place them at higher risk of HIV infection. These include poverty, low education attainment, and gender inequalities, especially those that limit girls’ ability to make decisions about their own health.
And this year, there is one more factor—COVID-19.
With 25 million child marriages averted in the last decade, UNICEF issued a warning earlier this year that these gains are now under serious threat: 10 million additional girls at risk of child marriage due to COVID-19.
According to the UNICEF analysis, school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, 100 million girls were at risk of child marriage in the next decade, despite significant reductions in several countries in recent years. In the last ten years, the proportion of young women globally who were married as children had decreased by 15 per cent, from nearly 1 in 4 to 1 in 5. This is the equivalent of some 25 million marriages averted, a gain that is now under threat.
“COVID-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore in a statement.
And the AIDS Walk just reminded me of what these girls have to lose if we do not act urgently – their education, their health, and their futures.
Here is the situation on our hands. When a girl turns 12 and lives in poverty, her future is out of her control. In the eyes of many, she’s a woman now. She faces the reality of being married by the age of 14 and pregnant by the time she’s 15. If she survives childbirth, she might have to sell her body to support her family, which puts her at risk of contracting and spreading HIV. Definitely not the life we would imagine for a 12-year-old.
There is a solution. Imagine rewinding her to age 12. Have her visit a doctor regularly, and help her stay in school where she’s safe. Then she can use her education to earn a living, avoid HIV, marry and have children when she’s ready, and raise happy and healthy children like herself. Now imagine this solution continuing for generation after generation.
COVID-19 is profoundly affecting the solution and the lives of girls in poverty. Pandemic-related travel restrictions and physical distancing make it difficult for girls to access the health care, social services and community supports that protect them from child marriage, unwanted pregnancy and gender-based violence. As schools remain closed, girls are more likely to drop out of education and not return. Job losses and increased economic insecurity may also force families to marry their daughters off to ease financial burdens.
Worldwide, an estimated 650 million girls and women alive today were married in childhood, with about half of those marriages occurring in Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, India and Nigeria. To off-set the impacts of COVID-19 and end the practice by 2030—the target set out in the Sustainable Development Goals—progress must be significantly accelerated.
“One year into the pandemic, immediate action is needed to mitigate the toll on girls and their families,” added Fore in the same statement. “By reopening schools, implementing effective laws and polices, ensuring access to health and social services—including sexual and reproductive health services—and providing comprehensive social protection measures for families, we can significantly reduce a girl’s risk of having her childhood stolen through child marriage.”
Is child marriage a common problem in your part of the world? What can those of us who live elsewhere do to help?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by To-wen Tseng. Photo credit: Raphael Pouget/UNICEF.
As the world struggles with the pandemic and increasing political division, it is more apparent than ever that government policies – local and global – greatly affect the fates of our families. Many moms have awakened to this reality and are trying to be strong advocates. Yet many don’t know what to do beyond protesting in the streets to get the attention of decision makers. They get frustrated to the point of throwing up their hands and saying, “Why even bother?”
I encourage every mother to engage in the next steps of reaching out personally to elected officials, because we have the motivation and skills to change hearts and minds! For over a decade, I’ve coached everyday folks to meet with members of U.S. Congress. I continually see the characteristics that mothers have that make us powerful advocates.
Here are five reasons that you should tell your government what’s on your mind:
#1 Moms are powerful
Have you ever been reduced to a weeping heap after watching a news story or a movie about children in distress? In those moments, many of us think, “I wish I weren’t so fragile.” Yet those maternal moments of vulnerability are precisely what give you special strength to speak out for those who needlessly suffer. As mothers, we often find ourselves momentarily consumed by crushing empathy when we encounter stories of parents who can’t give their children what they need. But this emotional response isn’t a sign of weakness. Instead, this ability to internalize another person’s story gives you great power because caring and empathy are contagious.
Your passion can incite a riot of emotion and resolve in your hearers even if—especially if—your voice cracks when you retell it. If your audience is a senator, a congressional aide, or anyone in the path of power, you are in a position to create change. Your emotional retelling is more likely to inspire action than a dry recitation of facts and figures.
Your vulnerability can be your strength. And the ability to turn your emotion into positive, constructive action can be your superpower. When you learn to combine your emotions with information and clear requests, you become dangerous to the status quo. You threaten systems that keep families stuck in cycles of suffering. And that is a very, very good thing.
#2 Moms explain things
If you can sit on the floor and explain a concept to second graders, then you’re speaking plainly enough to be understood by a member of Congress. That may sound like a joke, but I’m quite serious. Explaining concepts to kids means boiling your message down to its most basic parts and delivering it in an engaging way. Even though U.S. representatives might sit in high-level briefings all day, that doesn’t mean they relish listening to someone reel off a bunch of statistics out of context. Children love to hear clear explanations accompanied by stories, and so do adults! Never forget that they’re as human as anyone else.
#3 Moms are persistent advocates
It would be nice if governments were so efficient that a single conversation could convince a policymaker to support your request. In reality, it usually takes time, patience, and more reminders than you give your children to get their laundry off the floor.
Unfortunately, no matter how urgent you feel your issue is, there will always be hundreds of other matters clamoring for a congressperson’s attention. Plus, if the office staffers are not already aware of your issue, they’re going to have to research and consider your request even if they don’t oppose it. A mother’s touch to provide helpful information and consistent reminders is an incredible advantage.
#4 Moms are responsible
Once you’ve been the sole person standing between a happy family and total family chaos, you start to view your place in the world a little differently. Some moms are fortunate to have responsible spouses to shoulder a lot of familial tasks. But women in every part of the world bear the heavier responsibility for household chores and child-rearing. Moms are generally the ones making lunches, outfitting diaper bags, scheduling play dates, and making sure you don’t run out of toilet paper or cheese sticks. Moms are chess players looking two, three, and four moves into the future.
So, how does a responsible nature translate to successful advocacy? It allows you to stay organized and prepared to react to the needs of your volunteer groups. It gets you to meetings on time with all the materials you need. It helps you respond to emails from congressional aides in a timely manner. Moms are welcomed at advocacy conferences because we are low-maintenance, responsible, capable people who get things done.
#5 Moms are experts in the most important skills
I won’t tell you that everything I needed to know about advocacy I learned in kindergarten. But I insist that the most critical lessons were learned around age five, especially since the most successful advocates believe in strong teamwork. Advocates should always be prepared to:
Treat others with respect;
Give everyone in the group a turn to play;
Avoid calling anyone a hurtful name;
Apologize when you hurt someone; and
Say “please” and “thank you” (this is the number one lesson and the step that is most often forgotten when talking with members of Congress as well as other volunteers).
Moms keep all of these skills top of mind because we coach our kids to use them. We should be able to follow them even when our children aren’t in the same room. We can model these important skills for young college activists and aging senators alike.
Our mom voices need to be heard more than ever before in our political climate of nastiness that permeates cable news and social media. Mom advocates can be at the forefront of carrying a positive tone of reason, kindness, and respect into politics. Whatever the cause is that drives you to protect your children, put yourself forward. You are more powerful than you think.
Have you, or would you, approach your government with issues in your community? Has being a parent helped you in this quest?
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Cynthia Levin. Photo credit to the author.
Cynthia Changyit Levin is a mother, advocate, speaker, and author of the upcoming book “From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started.” A rare breed of non-partisan activist who works across a variety of issues, she coaches volunteers of all ages to build productive relationships with members of Congress. She advocated side-by-side with her two children from their toddler to teen years and crafted a new approach to advocacy based upon her strengths as a mother. Cynthia’s writing and work have appeared in The New York Times, The Financial Times, the Washington Post, and many other national and regional publications. She received the 2021 Cameron Duncan Media Award from RESULTS Educational Fund for her citizen journalism on poverty issues. When she’s not changing the world, Cynthia is usually curled up reading sci-fi/fantasy novels or comic books in which someone else is saving the world.