In mirror he sees color of success by Regina Brett, Plain Dealer Sept 7, 2007

In mirror he sees color of success

September 7, 2007 | The Plain Dealer

Justin Bibb still gets accused of acting white.

He was a seventh-grader at Shaker Middle School when I first met and interviewed him. That was seven years ago.

Back then, some black kids tormented Justin for being smart. They spit on his food at lunch. Called him names. Punched him. One day in the restroom, they urinated on his daily planner.

Back then, Justin cried himself to sleep some nights. His dad put him in private school after a boy picked up Justin and dropped him on his head in gym class.

Back then, a black principal suggested to Justin’s parents that his interests – debate and studying hard – were too white.

Last week, I was sitting at a restaurant when a tall, GQ-handsome black man in a crisp black suit and deep purple dress shirt called out my name. I recognized his eyes.

Justin Bibb.

He’s 20. He left Shaker Heights for Orange Christian Academy and went on to graduate from Trinity High School. He’s a junior at American University in Washington, D.C.

He interned his freshman year with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas. Sophomore year, he interned with Sen. Barack Obama. He was elected president of his pre-law fraternity.

He got a scholarship to study urban issues in one of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C. He created a nonprofit called D.C. Today-D.C. Tomorrow to help students create service projects and become leaders.

Justin interned this summer at the Cleveland Clinic. He leaves in two weeks to study abroad. He’s spending his junior year at the London School of Economics.

The boy he once was told me, “Why can’t I be who I am?”

The man he is gets quiet about that painful time.

“I didn’t really know who I was,” he said. “Kids were calling me white, yet I look in the mirror and see an African-American male.”

Justin grew up in Cleveland where his mom taught him to dress for success, for the part you want in life. His first day of school, he wore a buttoned-down dress shirt tucked into khakis. The taunting began.

Justin has straddled two worlds, splitting time with his mom in Cleveland and his dad in Shaker. He has caddied at a country club and has worked construction jobs in the inner city.

At college, he sees too few black males. In some classes, he’s the only one.

“The spotlight is on you. You represent the black race,” he said. “I’m on the path not just for me, but to help another brother. I represent them.”

Justin believes every success he makes will show others that blacks are so much more than what TV and movies depict.

He tells kids it’s not acting white to be successful. He reminds them that Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X both wore a suit and tie.

“We’ve lost that sense of history,” he said.

He doubts the stereotyping will stop anytime soon. The key, he said, is don’t let it stop you.

Justin has no regrets. His experience at Shaker taught him a message he passes along to every child who wants to achieve:

“Dream big,” he said. “The dream has to be greater than the struggle.”

Join Regina Brett today at 9 a.m. on WCPN FM/90.3, where she hosts “The Sound of Ideas” every Friday. Today’s topic: “Reading. What’s on your nightstand?” To reach Regina Brett: rbrett@plaind.com, 216-999-6328