Whoopi Goldberg grew up in Chelsea, New York, in a mixed working-class neighborhood. It was the hippie era and she was wearing bell-bottoms, Afros, and painting her face.
She was unique and wasn’t lacking any self-confidence.
Her appearance led to all kinds of commentary from the peanut gallery.
People questioned the way she looked and who she hung out with. Those kinds of judgments used to bother her a lot because she didn’t understand why her preferences in people and style should be questioned; and the critics were actually people she liked.
The pressure to conform was strong and her self-confidence was wavering.
One night, she was getting ready to go to the movies with a friend from her neighborhood. She was dressed in torn overalls, a tie-dyed shirt and she had a big old Afro. Her friend looked well …. normal. Her friend took one look at her.
“I don’t want to go anywhere with you looking like that,” she said. “You should change your clothes.”
“What?” Whoopi said.
“Change your clothes,” she said. Whoopi didn’t like that.
So, Whoopi said, “You change.”
Then her friend said, “If you’re going to go looking like that then you’re not going with me.”
“Okay,” Whoopi said.
And she split.
Whoopi looked at her mother who happened to be standing there when the discussion began. And her mother said,
“Well you can change your clothes and go ahead and be like everybody else. But if it’s not what you want and you’re strong enough to take other people’s ridicule, then stand by your convictions. You need to know, however, that criticism is what’s coming. It’s not ever going to be easy because being different never is.”
That was a shock to Whoopi. She understood then that people were not necessarily going to encourage or even support her as she explored other ways of being. But she didn’t want to be limited by other people’s ideas.
When her friend said, “You have to go change,” the dilemma became, If I change for you this time, how many times am I going to have to change in the future?
And she guessed what her mom realized was, in saying, “no,” she might be opening herself up to a lot more of these kinds of conversations in the future.
Tough on Criticism
People would always make judgments about what people are on the outside – what they’re wearing, how they look-instead of trying to understand the person inside.
If you want to be an individual, you have to be tough enough to take the criticism.
Whoopi’s friend’s comment had been the first instance where she had to face the challenge directly. Her mother’s words assured her that she wouldn’t be making a mistake by refusing to change, but she was also warning her of the tough road ahead if she refused to conform.
Expecting difficulties made them easier to take.
This issue of conformity has run through Whoopi’s whole life. Nobody looked like her when she got famous. Nobody had dreds.
Now lots of folks do. People would say, “Why doesn’t she wear high heels to functions instead of yellow-and-red Reebok sneakers. Why doesn’t she wear dresses? Why isn’t she changing?“
In the end, everything that brought people to her was that she wasn’t like everybody else.
You have to believe in yourself in spite of what other people believe.
Self-confidence brought Whoopi through everything in her life, and that wisdom came from her mom.
It is tough to remain an individual when we’re all asked to be sheep. It is not easy being green.