I sunk into a two-month depression, the first of my life, questioning who I am and who we are, and how I could possibly find a way to be a part of my community and my country. I considered leaving teaching, retreating into myself, protecting myself from the struggle that comes with living a life among others. I stopped writing, seeing my friends, exercising, even talking very much outside of work.
But I started reading. I read Ta-nehisi Coates, Luvvie Ajayi, and Very Smart Brothas. I read about existentialist writers and thinkers Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and others. I read Death of a Salesman, and Fences, and Song of Solomon. I talked and talked and talked to my colleagues and friends and students. I asked questions and listened. I forced myself to look deep inside, and face my prejudices and entrenched beliefs. What I saw there wasn’t always pretty, and shames me, but I channel another writer, Glennon Doyle Melton, who says to run toward our pain, not away, for that’s the only path to peace.
And then I woke.
Woke: To rouse from lethargy, apathy, ignorance.
I was the only Jewish girl in my grade through elementary school. In high school I was the only Jew in my small group of friends. College was the same, and I was in a small handful of Jewish women in my sorority. It wasn't until I moved to Potomac, Maryland, and put my daughter in a Jewish preschool that I felt part of a plurality. I am quite familiar with being asking to speak on behalf of my people. I know what it's like to feel the need to prove myself and live in a way that makes Jewish people look good. I know what a history of oppression feels like.
That's probably why I have always rejected the idea that I had any kind of white privilege. But the truth is, if I want to, I can hide the fact of my Jewishness. I can act and look a way that no one would ever know. My black and brown sisters and brothers do not have this choice. And therein lies the privilege I have a spent 43 years denying.
Woke: Actively aware of systemic injustices and prejudices, especially those related to civil and human rights.
I was driving my car a few days ago and a young man on a bike suddenly swerved in my path. I slammed on my brakes and he rode away as my heart pounded in my chest. I could have killed him. As I thought about it, I realized it's a perfect metaphor for my white privilege. I am in a big, heavy, strong car. I might like to think the guy on the bike is dumb for being on the same road as I am in his flimsy bike. What is he even thinking trying the drive on the same road I am?
But that's the only road we have. And maybe he can't afford a car. Or maybe the people selling cars won't give him one. Or maybe he doesn't know how to go about getting a loan and a license and insurance and all the other systems that are in place around car ownership. So here we are on the same road. No matter what he does, how hard he pedals, I'm going to get there first. My car will always be faster. If he swerves, I'll be fine, and he'll be dead. And he'll probably get blamed for it. In bad weather, I'll be warm and dry while he's cold and wet and can't see very well.
Woke: A person who doesn’t blindly believe cultural dogma and isn’t swayed by media propaganda, but searches for the truth themselves.
Neither the guy on the bike nor I created cars or roads or bikes, but here we are together. The law says we must share the road. And I'm the one in the car, whether I want to accept it or not. If I don't acknowledge the power of the car I'm in, and lack of equality in the vehicles we are driving, I have potential to do great harm.
Ignoring the big strong car that I drive called the Common Sense newspaper, I did great harm this semester. The parents and students of color were angry and in pain, and I caused that. I can't undo what I did, but I can apologize and learn from it. I can see the power of the car I drive. I can accept that it’s my car, whether I like it or not.
Woke: Unselfconscious social awareness.
On the eve of the peaceful change of power that is the pride of American democracy, in the face of a man who stands against every single value I hold dear, I vow to keep facing my own shameful beliefs, to keep asking questions, to search for truth in the midst of rhetoric and obfuscation, and to fight for those who need it most, those who rights are threatened in any form.
I hope the Wootton High School community, and my friends and family and YOU will talk with me about these issues, and the role we all play in them. We have a long road ahead of us, and I know the first step begins with me.