By John McWhorter
June 15, 2015
IDEAS
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Part of me wants to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be black. How dare Dolezal claim blackness without having grown up amidst the cultural experience? But I can’t hate her. In fact, I think I agree with her actions, at least more than I do with others who embrace blackness in even phonier ways.

For example, many non-black people under a certain age embrace cultural aspects of blackness such as speech patterns, dress styles, greetings, carriage, musical taste, and dress. This shows affection for blackness—or at least parts of it. Their idea would seem to be that these traits are more “real” than “whiteness,” which is often seen as boring, too buttoned-up, too cold, and lacking flair.

“I’m blacker than you!” such non-black people happily tell black people like, yes, me.With their immersion in hip hop, saying “naw” instead of “no,” certain hand gestures, and “street” social identification, I suppose you could say they are indeed “blacker” than I am, in a way. Yet there is a sense of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” about this “blackness.”

Make no mistake—the “browning” of American culture is a marvelous thing. It’s evidence of progress on race that is too seldom acknowledged. Yet the idea that how a person moves his body to music has something important to do with his or her worth as a human being is easy, sloppy, and dangerous. When white people venture such parochial sentiments in praise of themselves, they are called racists.

Dolezal, living as black for real, put her money where her mouth is in a way people like this would never even consider.

And she’s also certainly ahead of the curve compared to those who think progress on race means whites “acknowledging” their white privilege.

On that, I get the basic idea: An enlightened America should indeed understand that racism is much more than being called the n-word or not being allowed to shop at a store. But the white privilege routine of white people acknowledging the benefits that white people face is presented as something grander than that. The “acknowledgement” of white privilege is cherished as somehow being as important as, say, actual political activism. The ultimate purpose of this is to make white people feel absolved of racism, but blacks gain less.

Dolezal shines in contrast. She isn’t soberly “acknowledging” her white privilege and then going about her business. Nor is she just dancing blackness or hairstyling blackness within the cozy confines of a middle-class white existence. Dolezal actually left whiteness behind and presented herself as black to society. She has undergone what it is to be perceived as black (even if she has possibly been fabricating a particular hate-crime experience).

Moreover, she has done this not just to perform a charismatic piece of street culture, but to do something as serious as leading a branch of the NAACP. That’s no picnic—the NAACP is an organization with serious problems. She resigned from her position today.

Of course, all of this is a little weird, and even a little fake. One suspects that for Dolezal, being “black” was a way of feeling special and important, perhaps out of a sense that being a white political activist would have somehow been less “cool” or “real.” But none of us is perfect, most of us are actors to an extent, and I’ll certainly take Dolezal over “I feel like I am black!” and “I hereby acknowledge my privilege.”

Those types are talking the talk. Dolezal is walking the walk.

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