June 13, 2015 8:58 AM EDT
Smiley is host and managing editor of Tavis Smiley on PBS and author of 50 for Your Future: Lessons From Down the Road

When I first heard the story about the “black” NAACP head in Spokane, Washington, Rachel Dolezal, being outed as a white woman, honestly, I laughed. Out loud.


Because I knew how this story would land in Black America, I tuned into urban radio and perused black Twitter to get a sampling of the jokes that I knew would be flying.

As expected, the jokes were plentiful, ranging from versions of “She actually signed up for this?!” to “Why would you ruin a good credit score!”

In truth, the closest that most white folk want to get to the black experience in America, is tanning at the pool to get “that look.” But that’s as far as they want to go.

Okay, possibly some collagen in the lips. But that’s as far as they want to go.

Okay, perhaps an injection in the behind. But that’s as far as they want to go.

Okay, maybe they’ll sport street-smart black fashion, borrow a hairstyle or two and call it a “mini bun” when it’s really a bantu knot. But that’s as far as they want to go.

In other words, “I’ll take the look, but you can keep the life.”

When God was passing out colors, who raised their hand for a life of social disenfranchisement, political marginalization, economic exploitation and cultural larceny?

And that’s on top of always feeling unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and being hated for who you are. A reality that black folk live with everyday, but one that most whites didn’t experience until September 11, 2001.

I love being black, and wouldn’t want to be anything else, as if I have a choice. But let’s be clear, I didn’t volunteer for this.

So, why would you pass for black?

Although she clearly deceived people, let’s assume for the moment that Ms. Dolezal’s intentions were honorable when she signed on to serve in a local leadership position with the NAACP. In this sense, her passing for black doesn’t automatically disqualify her altruistic service on behalf of black disenfranchised peoples, any more than the black folk who passed for white during the era of slavery and segregation, Jim Crow and Jane Crow, should be all regarded as suspect for the choice they made. Because I might not have made the choice to pass for white doesn’t mean that those who chose to — or who were sent away by their parents for hopes of a better life — were all cowards.

The real question this sordid matter raised for me is simply this: Assuming again that her intentions were noble, is there a better way for Ms. Dolezal to have advocated for the rights of marginalized fellow citizens without fronting as somebody she’s not?

Of course there is.

What we need in America are fellow citizens not in “black face,” but ones who have the courage, conviction and commitment to unapologetically use their white face —and their white voice, hands, feet, head and heart to make America a nation as good as its promise.

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