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Opinion: I learned a valuable life lesson at the barbershop. It takes courage to speak out against hatred.

I have a confession.

Oftentimes, we are quick to superficially crown ourselves as upright, honorable and virtuous individuals. But when circumstance puts us to the test, we can’t help but question the true depth of our integrity. 

These junctures offer us opportunity to choose between fortifying our long-standing self-deception, or exchanging our artificial constructs with authentic, deep-rooted principles. I am publicly pledging the latter. And I hope you will join me. 

Michael Milobsky

Until I had teenage sons, a haircut was strictly utilitarian; qualification was determined by only two prerequisites: clippers and a pulse. 

My son Caleb, however, made it his business to reform my “unsophisticated” ways and inspire me to recognize the stylist as an “artist,” sculpting, personalizing and polishing our identity. That is how I came to meet Ron.

Ron is a chiseled, model-esque black man, and a uniquely talented hair artist, designing masterpiece styles for high-end clientele in one of Denver’s upscale salons. Originally from Missouri, Ron was raised in inner-city St. Louis by his mother. 

What struck me about Ron from the very first time we met, however, wasn’t his undeniable talent; it was his insatiable thirst to learn; about people, places, politics, science and religion. Worldly and incredibly self-educated, Ron’s chair has become his window to the world. 

Last week, Samuel, a close family friend, and member of my local Jewish community, arrived early for a scheduled appointment with Ron. Ron’s client, noticing Samuel’s yarmulke (skullcap), became instantly aggravated. He embarked on a hateful tirade; against Samuel, against Judaism, and against Jewish people … questioning whether Jewish people should be allowed to live in America. 

We, as a people, are all too familiar with persecution and hatred. Unfortunately, while upsetting, this man’s remarks aren’t THAT shocking. But what WAS shocking, was Ron’s reaction. I might have expected Ron to try to quiet, placate or even rebuke his client. 

But without a single hesitation, Ron resolutely intervened; he expressed his revulsion and disdain for this man’s hatred, removed his protective cape, and ordered his client to leave the salon and never return. 

Samuel was shocked, and incredibly moved. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Ron’s reaction inspired me to question the depth and breadth of my own willingness to stand up for my values. If the roles were reversed, would I have had the courage to act as resolutely as Ron did? If a patient or colleague displayed racist hatred, would I half-heartedly shush them? Or would I have the courage to ACT in accordance with my beliefs? 

I am ASHAMED to admit that, before last week, I probably wouldn’t have acted as decisively or as courageously as Ron did. Not from a lack of disdain; but rather, a lack of COURAGE.

I texted Ron to thank him for his bold response, acknowledging that I might not have had the same courage or strength of character. I have copied excerpts of his reply, below:

“Thank you, Michael. I appreciate those kind words. It actually wasn’t difficult for me … We have to start confronting people who spew out anti-Semitic / racial hatred, or any other biases. Otherwise, they may feel you also agree with their divisive nature and I never want to be complicit in those regards. At least now I hope [my former client] will understand in the future that you don’t have to have the same beliefs, nationality, or look like those who you decide to defend! [My former client] definitely looked very surprised with me confronting him to correct his misconception of Jewish people, since I am a black man … I just simply don’t tolerate ignorance. Especially when it is targeted to people who I love and respect … I just did what came naturally to me … Thanks to my mom.”

I am guilty of being too scared to voice my truth — questioning what others might think or say or feel. When faced with the choice, standing up for what’s right was more important to Ron than his profession or his reputation. 

Many of us sit in Ron’s chair, donning Ivy League educations, six-figure salaries, or prestigious titles and accomplishments. Yet it is in his chair that we get to really SEE the world through the eyes of a courageous, principled, and just individual. And we get to choose whether to walk away with only our designer hairstyle; or the commitment to have the courage to do what is right, despite the cost. 

I am walking away with possibly one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned. From this point forward, I am committing to do what is right; to speak up in support of my values and speak out against hatred … even if it makes me vulnerable … because, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “Fools multiply when wise men are silent.” 

Who dares to join me?

Michael Milobsky, MD, is a primary care pediatrician and private practice owner in Castle Rock, Colorado. Dr. Milobsky specializes in pediatric emergency and adolescent addiction medicine, and is committed to destigmatizing the conversation around mental health, with the goal of improving care for adolescents at-risk.

Editor’s note: Dr. Milobsky first shared this column on Facebook.

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