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Don Benjamin On Unlearning, Self-Love & Healing After Heartbreak

Don Benjamin talks growing up without his father in his life, growing into manhood, and so much more.

#xoMan

Model. Actor. Musician. Author. Those are just a few words to describe the multi-hyphenate heartthrob that is Don Benjamin.

Hailing from humble beginnings on the South Side, the Chicago native found himself bouncing between Minnesota, Mississippi, and even Florida before settling in Los Angeles in 2005. It was there that he thrust himself into the world of modeling, fashion, and music, securing campaigns with various notable brands such as Bloomingdale's, True Religion, Tillys, Guess, and also appeared as a finalist on America's Next Top Model. But don't let the handsome face and pretty eyes fool you, there's much more to Don than meets the eye. And if you needed further proof of that, look no further than his new book, My Truth. In his debut work, Benjamin opens up about the tests, trials, and testimonies of his life experiences––everything from growing up without his father in his life, growing into manhood, love and loss and so much more.

xoNecole recently got the chance to chat with Don about all things personal evolution, self-love, and dealing with heartbreak. Here's what he had to say:

Courtesy of Don Benjamin

xoNecole: You’ve got your hands in a lot of things with acting, music, modeling, and now your new book. Which of those do you find the most rewarding?

Don Benjamin: I try to make them all coincide as much as possible. As long as I'm being creative, you know expressing different sides of my creativity. Sometimes I'll get really into my music and I'm in a zone where I want to write a ton of music. And sometimes I'm locked in and all about acting and growing. Now I'm all about writing. After spilling my soul, I'm really loving writing books. I've already started writing my second book. But I feel like it all goes together even though they're all different, they still kind of feel like one.

In your book, you talk about the difficulties you faced growing up without your father and the void that that relationship created. Why do you think it’s so important for young men to have that healthy male presence and dynamic?

That's important because, without it, I think it's something that kind of messes us up to where we kinda start questioning ourselves, like 'Was it something I did? Was I not good enough for him to be around?' And it breaks down our self-esteem. For me, I just bottled it in. My mother was always asking if I wanted to talk to a professional about it but I would always bottle it in, not really realizing how unhealthy it is and how it leads to bigger issues. But I think it's important to put yourself around men that are of a positive influence. Because when you grow up in that situation, you're kind of hungry for the influence of a man that's going to help guide you since you didn't get that from your father.

A lot of times, it leads you to other broken situations where you find yourself with other men who didn't have their father around. And you're following the footsteps of the people you see in the media and it just leads to an unhealthy pattern. That's what I found in myself. I kinda had to snap out of it, I had to take some losses in my life and learn some pretty harsh lessons and THEN go searching for that. Like, 'Yo, I need some men in my life that can actually be a positive influence.' So I want to try to help the younger generation understand that at a sooner time, rather than waking up in their thirties and forties and realizing it and doing a lot more damage.

I often feel like most people at some point in their life go through a Blinding Light experience. Meaning a moment where life knocks you off your current course in order to redirect you onto the right one. Have you had one and if so what was it?

Yeah, I think I had an initial one when my father passed away in 2017 and it made me start looking at life a lot differently.

"I went into a real depression, I stopped focusing on work. I think my entire life I was looking for his approval subconsciously, I was always like, 'I wanna get super-rich and famous so I can take care of my Dad and give him the life.' I finally started to come out of it and then last year I was engaged to be married, but towards the end of the year, I made some stupid choices that led to us breaking up. And that was my ultimate Blinding Light to where I needed to step back and look at the things I was doing. And why I was carrying on these continued patterns that my father had been doing to me and make a change in my life."

It really woke me up and it's crazy how it happened the year we were forced to stay inside and stay to ourselves––and not do anything but focus on ourselves. So I had it at the top of this year and I feel like I'm finally aligned and seeing things clearly. It's a blessing.

I’m sorry to hear that. But how did you deal with that heartbreak?

When we first broke up, I didn't really know how to get through it in the moment. I went to God and just laid it all on God. I had a good support system around me, thankfully. I was like, 'Lord give me the strength to understand this and get through this and use this to grow and become a better version of myself.' And that's what really helped me. A lot of reading, praying, and meditation.

That prayer and meditation will do it, won’t it?

Man, I'm telling you. It was everything.

What’s something you vow to do differently or do more of in your next relationship now?

For me, what I've really been working on is being a lot more selfless in a relationship. I never really had a solid foundation of a relationship to look at for inspiration. I always just kind of created my own thoughts of what I thought a good relationship should be like. And I was going based on a lot of men from broken homes as well. I did a lot of reading of different mentors who've been in strong relationships after making some mistakes and how they changed things up and maneuvered differently. And how you do things differently in a relationship, and just being all about your woman. Making her feel confident and letting her have the right type of trust in you––and just letting the woman feel confident and full in a relationship. Letting her have that queen feeling. That's what I'm really trying to work on carrying into my next relationship. I don't have to let my pride win or my ego win and I make sure my focus is all my woman and cutting out certain distractions and temptations. Because the world we live in right now is so full of temptations with social media and TV. So being more aware of those temptations so that it doesn't interfere in my relationship [is how I'd move differently].

Speaking of distractions and temptations, when it comes to things like infidelity or unfaithfulness in relationships––what’s one thing men and women should understand?

I think for men a lot of times, it stems from past issues with parents or influence. Not getting the proper influence from people around us. And our need for certain attention, it goes deeper than just the situation per se.

"My advice for women is that it doesn't have nothing to do with you. You could be the best woman in the world, but if a man is broken inside, he has to dig deep and fix those issues. Because the infidelity is usually something deeper that he's searching for and he doesn't realize that it could stem from his childhood."

The couple has to really come together and talk about it and maybe go to relationship counseling early to prevent anything from taking place.

Do you think a person can truly be ready for love if they don’t first love themselves?

You definitely have to love yourself first, how can you love somebody else if you're not happy with yourself? I feel like there are gonna be a lot of issues. I've been learning that more and more. But it's weird because you hear stories about high school sweethearts and the ones who got married young and lasted long, and they grew together and learned lessons together and bonded together even stronger. Nowadays, especially if you're a little bit older, I feel like you wanna have as much love for yourself as possible. You have to know what you need in life before you go searching for that in someone else. Because then you're gonna put all the weight on them and it's gonna lead to a lot of stress.

That last part is definitely key, I love that you brought that up.

It's real though.

For sure. Let’s talk relationship green flags, what would make you feel the most safe and secure?

I think a woman having confidence and something going for herself, to where she's not sitting at home all day wondering what you're doing. If she's confident and independent, that's definitely a green flag. Family, religion. If she doesn't have a strong religious foundation or good guidance in her life, I feel like it's gonna be really hard to make that connection. So religion is key.

Courtesy of Don Benjamin

How can a woman get AND keep your attention?

Right now, I'm so focused on my personal growth, it's whatever God places in my sight. I'm not really specific. It has to benefit me and help build me, there has to be that spiritual energy and connection. Being in LA, you see so many attractive people, you could meet one just walking to Starbucks. So it's not really so much about the image, it's about the connection. If you have a connection with somebody on a deeper level, that's how I feel like you can maintain that longevity.

Do you know your love languages?

I think mine are physical touch, I like to be held and I like cuddling. I love quality time, I need that. I like to just cuddle and watch a movie.

Before you go, I want to know what’s something you know now about yourself or about love that you didn’t know before?

The main thing I've learned is that you really have to be selfless. It's not about you, of course, the self-love dynamic too, but you have to be confident in you—and really be more aware of your partner's feelings. And keeping them happy and safe.

"It's a lot of work, [but] I've learned that you have to be ready to put that work in going into a relationship in order to make it last. Everything isn't gonna always be peaches and cream, there's gonna be disagreements; there's gonna be family issues. It has to go way deeper than just 'oh I'm attracted to you.'"

Once the puppy love stage wears off and ya'll get past the honeymoon phase––then it becomes another form of work. You literally have somebody's heart and feelings and well-being in your possession, you have to be careful with it.

You have to be careful with it. And lastly, what's next for you Don?

I was supposed to be filming a movie this year. I was playing the lead in a movie I co-created and produced, but I feel like we're still up in the air as far as whether or not we're going to be able to finish shooting it before the year is up. So hopefully we can do that. I'm also working on another book that comes along with a masterclass. A lot of people have been asking me how to break into the modeling industry, so I wanted to create something for them to go along with that.

My Truth is available now, everywhere books are sold. And to keep up with Don, make sure to follow him on Instagram.

Featured image courtesy of Don Benjamin.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

Featured image by Shutterstock

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