It started with hair for me. I wanted to be blonde.
And at age 8 I began my blonde journey. Just two hours and bam, blonde.
And while I’m sure Barbie and the Norwegian blonde blue-eyed descendants that made up the majority of my 2nd grade Minnesotan classroom played a role, there was another reason for this blonde wish. I didn’t want to not be recognized. I needed to blend in.
I learned about the Holocaust in 2nd grade.
I can’t recall exactly where I was, but I do remember the image. Kids just my age.
I went into panic. I had no idea that Jews were so hated. People called for our extermination. I quickly began thinking back to all the moments I let my Jewishness known.
How could I have let my mother (the token Jew parent at my Episcopalian school) bring lakas to my classmates every year. Prior, I was excited to have my mom invited in to school to share our holiday. But now, I was horrified. How stupid was that?! Was she not aware that people hated Jews?! Was she not aware that she let out our secret?!
The brown hair had to go.
The holocaust rocked my core as it showed the dark side of humanity. And even though I had never felt any anti-semitism prior to that day, the world now felt uncertain.
Would I one day be asked to don a star to be marked for slaughter? Would it happen over night?
But I had a plan… no one would ever know I’m Jewish.
And I felt safer with that mane of blonde. No one would know I was Jewish unless I felt the need to share that fact. This felt fool proof for this 8 year old girl. I solved it. Check.
But the fear remained and I later in high school realized I wasn’t alone, that there were others who had reasons to be scared, and sadly, my plan didn’t work for them. 2 hours at the salon would not give them solace.
Skin color cannot be changed.
I became obsessed with the racial inequality in this country my junior year after I took a course in African American history. I had the same feeling from second grade. How is this possible? How can mankind behave in such a manor? And how unfair it is for people of color to walk down the streets and be treated differently than me and how under my blonde disguise I never knew this.
I was inspired to make this my life’s work to learn and work to help race relations in this country. I felt that this was the modern holocaust and applied to Duke University, which had the number one African American history program in the nation.
I was accepted.
My first class in the Af Am building at Duke was memorable. I was the only white girl in the room and how white I felt. All eyes were on me. I was silent for most of class, but when I did speak, I could feel the daggers in my back. It was clear that my peers were annoyed that my voice was taking up space in a place that was theirs. And then the worst part happened for a freshman girl trying to make it on campus, all went to eat lunch, and it was clear, I was not invited.
I left the major by my second class (where I went to the bathroom and never came back).
Instead I found “my place” on the Quad, the bagel shop at the 2nd table on the left, where the Jewish kids from the east coast congregated.
*Please note that this is no knock on Duke, this is a knock on ALL college campuses (where we ironically send our youth to grow to become leaders of tomorrow). College campuses are the most segregated communities in the world. Just think back reader…how diverse was your friendships in undergraduate?
And I went along with my life, my easier life. My privileged life with my blonde hair. And left others who did not have that privilege behind.
So when my best friend, Jenna Arnold, a blonde white female, told me that she was going to spend her activist energies on race in our country, I was very clear: “Admirable, but suicidal.” This is TOO hard. You will be hated by the far right and questioned by the far left as who wants to hear from you, a white woman, on race. I implored her to continue to solve the organ crisis and continue the work of the Women’s March, both of which she has been instrumental in. This is tough. This is too hard. I was clear, don’t do this.
But, I forgot who I was talking to, this was Jenna Arnold. Having spent her career trying to make people “give a shit” she knew that race in this country was THE mountain that needed to be moved. That if humans could not treat each other with respect and understand the history of our abuse of each other to properly heal, that there was no way for us to care about the dolphins, the environment, Syria, etc. And there was no way to unite women when our voices were splintered into racial groups each eyeing the other with suspicion.
She sat down for a year and wrote a book, Raising Our Hands: How White Women Can Stop Avoiding Hard Conversations, Start Accepting Responsibility, and Find Our Place on the New Frontlines .
She decided to write it to me, and all the other white women who got too busy in our white world. Too busy working on being “perfect” (more on that in the book!). And how we have turned a blind eye to all the people without voices and that silence is implicitly teaching our children to do the same.
Like a true educator that she is, she uses her own narrative and journey to help others understand.
I implore all of us white women, the MOST powerful voting demographic, the MOST powerful “doers” to use our privileged voice to stand up for others who don’t have a voice. To spend less time on the PTA and the lunch party, and raise our hands. It starts by reading this book to understand how to navigate this mountain that I so quickly ran away from.
Or at least read this book for our fellow mothers. Mothers who deal with all the stress we face and then some. Who can’t just take their children for a dye job to make them feel safe on the streets. Who everyday have to carry their race with them and help their children navigate the implicit bias in our society. Having to tell their child that the shampoo for “normal” hair does not include her.
So Jenna, thank you. I’m in awe of you. I wish I was as brave as you.
And I’m ready to RAISE MY HAND with you. Thank you for reminding me that with power comes responsibility.