By Alexandra Katz, Rashi Class of 2003
Big nose and frizzy hair! Get out of here—you aren’t welcome.”
I spun around to face the girl who was spouting these ugly words. Almost immediately, I turned back around to see who she was talking to. It couldn’t have been me—I had never seen her or her friends in my life.
She pointed at my friend and me. “Where are you from—Israel? Go home.”
Was this really happening? Expressions of total shock and disbelief on our faces quickly turned into anger and utter confusion.
They didn’t stop. “Get your frizzy hair and big noses out of here! You don’t belong here!”
Though I physically heard and understood the words they were saying, it took me several minutes to process what was happening. This was anti-Semitism, and we were being targeted because we were Jewish. Unsatisfied with our lack of equally aggressive reactions, the most vocal girl lunged at me only to have her friends hold her back. She continued screaming in our faces, baiting us to fight back. Unable to maintain my composure for any longer, I robotically threw my drink in her face. Shocked by my own actions and worried about the girls’ responses, my friend and I quickly moved away and removed ourselves from the situation. As we walked away, the last thing we heard them say was “kikes.”
As someone who plans to devote my life to upholding civil rights, I have spent years attempting to gain what I believe is an intellectual and theoretical understanding of issues surrounding bigotry and discrimination as well as the hatred and ignorance that inevitably accompany it. Like many other students who discover that there can be a difference between theory and the reality in the world, the truth is that when I was faced with real-life bigotry, I felt unprepared.
Am I proud of how I responded? Not particularly. To be completely honest, I was at a loss for words and felt completely powerless. My knee-jerk reaction was to do something, anything, to show that I wasn’t just standing there and taking it.
Being picked out of a crowd as having a certain identity is scary and makes you feel exposed and vulnerable. It is especially upsetting because humans are not made up of a single identity—we carry many identities with us throughout our daily lives. Some are at the forefront of our minds, and others are not. When walking alone late at night, I am very conscious of being a woman. When discussing issues of race in class, I am very conscious of being white. When tutoring high school students through a partnership with struggling, inner-city schools, I am very conscious of being a college student.
On that night during a spring break trip in the Bahamas, I didn’t feel I stood out, and my Jewish identity was not on my mind. Being Jewish has always been a source of pride for me, but it felt strange and uncomfortable to have that identity imposed upon me, especially as something negative.
Many do not have the “luxury” of blending in. I cannot begin to imagine how it must feel to be even more physically identifiable—whether it be by the color of one’s skin, a disability, or a head scarf.
The vulnerability and fear that I felt in those short minutes showed me what it is like to face bigotry. But by no means do I understand what it is like to experience bigotry or discrimination on a daily or even occasional basis. I don’t understand what it’s like to be physically identifiable at all times.
In the days that have passed since this episode, I have had time to process what happened. Why did I respond the way I did? Why was I so shocked to encounter such ignorance? Why were these girls so filled with hatred? And while I don’t know the answers to those questions, I believe it is important to ask them.
Why is it a privilege to be able to blend into the backdrop and not stand out? Some people actively avoid being different in order to escape discrimination or the immediate judgment of those around them. They work hard to appear “normal” and “accepted,” but these should not be the values we teach children in order to survive.
Instead, we should teach our children to be proud of who they are and that while they might be met with negativity at certain moments in their lives, identity can also be a powerful source of strength. Ignorance exists, and it is a shame that it often gets in the way of proudly asserting one’s identity. This incident rattled me, but it only strengthened my resolve to work toward a more accepting and unprejudiced world.
Alexandra Katz is a Barnard College senior. This article was originally printed in the Columbia Spectator.