MTPR

Reflections On Rachel Dolezal, White Privilege, And 'America's Headlong Progress'

Sep 14, 2016

Is this not the record of present America? Is not this its headlong progress? Are we not coming more and more...to making the statement, I am white, the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality? - W.E.B. Du Bois

“For seven days in June 2015, Rachel Dolezal captured the news cycle,” writes University of Montana professor, Tobin Shearer, for "Reflections West."

 

“Dolezal had led Spokane's NAACP and taught Africana studies, but lost those positions after her parents outed her as a white person. Dolezal had presented herself as black for years.

 

She dropped out of the news cycle after the June 17 massacre of nine worshippers at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the aftermath of that hate-fueled attack, few wanted to hear about the tawdry details of Dolezal's racial passing gone awry.

 

I invoke Dolezal's example because, juxtaposed against the Emanuel church massacre, her story suggests that well-meaning white people have only two absurd options in the face of racial injustice: create distance from racial hate groups, or become black.

 

The first option is expected. Creating political distance from hate groups brought down the confederate flag from South Carolina's capitol, after the massacre. The second option – implied by Dolezal's story – suggests that to be passionate about racial justice one must attempt to become black.

 

As the director of African-American Studies at the University of Montana for the last seven years, I tell my students each semester, “I want you to know that I know I'm white.” I make clear that being passionate about racial justice does not require white people to become black.

 

It requires those of us who are white to become more, not less, aware of our racial identity and all the power, privilege, and access it affords. Masking that identity, as Dolezal tried to do, changes nothing.

 

Only changing the institutional practices that give the benefit of the doubt to white people will create a world where racial passing no longer captures our attention.”

Shearer pairs his reflection with a passage from W. E. B. Du Bois, a pioneering 20th century African-American activist and scholar who wrote extensively on race in the United States. Like Shearer, DuBois grasps that white privilege filters even how we judge crime. In this passage from 1920, he reflects on “The Souls of White Folk,” a play on his magnum opus, "The Souls of Black Folk." He writes:

 

"But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?"  Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!

Only when this basic, iron rule is involved is our defense of right nation-wide and prompt.

 

Murder may swagger, theft may rule and prostitution may flourish and the nation gives but spasmodic, intermittent and lukewarm attention.

 

But let the murderer be black …, and the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Nor would this fact make the indignation less justifiable did not we all know that it was blackness that was condemned and not crime.”

 

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 3/9/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)