White Folks’ Problem

     Like Zsa Zsa Gabor, who was famous because she was so famous, the Spokane NAACP office has become interesting because it’s so interesting.
     It’s a good thing that Rachel Dolezal was exposed.
     Not good for Dolezal, perhaps, but I don’t care about her.
     It’s good because it’s got the entire nation talking about race – not because of violence, or tragedy, or police brutality, or unjust laws, or deep-seated rage – just because of the peculiarity of it.
     It’s difficult for many white Americans to talk about race without raising their voice.
     It’s difficult for millions of them to do it without becoming ugly.
     Lennie Bruce said that racial slurs don’t hurt: It’s the ignorance and repression behind them that hurt.
     Dolezal’s story has enabled many white Americans who could not do it before to talk about race without losing their minds. To explore a bit of our national ignorance. And that’s a good thing.
     Race in America is a white problem. Black folks do the suffering, as we saw again this week in Charleston, S.C. Those nine black churchgoers didn’t die because they had problems. They died because a white kid has a problem. Lots of white folks have that problem, and they aren’t going to get over it until a lot of talking gets done. And Dolezal has got us talking.
     I don’t find Dolezal interesting. Peculiar, yes, but not interesting.
     Far more interesting are all the issues here: A white woman sues Howard University for racial discrimination. The lawsuit goes on for 3 years, and she loses.
     Within 3 more years she is calling herself black. This time she wins, in a sense.
     Claiming to be a black woman, she gets a job with a human rights group.
     She gets a part-time job as a university professor in African Studies.
     She becomes boss of a citizens’ police commission in Spokane.
     She becomes president of the Spokane NAACP office.
     When it turns out she’s not black, she becomes world famous.
     Within a week she quits her job with the NAACP, the university lets her go, and the Spokane City Council says it’s investigating her.
     In a sense, Dolezal’s behavior is not unusual. Plenty of college professors manage to extend their adolescence for decades.
     She certainly succeeded better at the race game being black than being white – but that’s the problem. Race is not a game.
     As dozens of black commentators pointed out this week, black folks don’t get to choose to be white.
     Throughout Dolezal’s charade, during which she claimed to be oppressed, she was not oppressed at all – she was privileged – she was allowed to change her race.
     The NAACP has shown a lot of class this week, reminding us that anyone can belong to the NAACP.
     “The NAACP is not concerned with the racial identity of our leadership but the institutional integrity of our advocacy,” national President Cornell William Brooks said.
     I don’t know if there are any lessons to be learned from this, or what those lessons might be. But it’s been interesting – not just infuriating or depressing, as we Americans so often make issues of race.
     There’s only one thing I ever heard about race that made sense. My grandpa, who was born in Louisiana in 1895, moved to Chicago when he was 12 and lived his entire life on the South Side.
     “Robert,” he told me, “we’ll never get over this nonsense about race until everyone’s married everyone else for so long that no one can tell what anyone is anymore.”

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