Wednesday, June 17, 2015
To say that Rachael Dolezal has made headlines would be an understatement. While Ms. Dolezal has represented herself as African American to her community for decades, she is actually white. The media firestorm – and the mockery – have been swift.
The question raised by most of the writers addressing this topic has been some version of “Why? Why would a woman with white skin and all of the privilege that it entails suddenly give that all away?” This is certainly a valid question. In her influential article, Whiteness as Property, Professor Cheryl Harris wrote, “Whiteness defined the legal status of a person as slave or free. White identity conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits and was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof. Whiteness – the right to white identity under the law – is property if by property one means all of a person’s legal rights.” While the nation has moved – albeit at a snail’s pace – from rigid conceptions of whiteness defined by hypodescent (colloquially known as the “one drop rule”) that arose during slavery, the benefits of whiteness as noted by Prof. Harris remain substantial. In his book Two Nations, noted political scientist Andrew Hacker found that when he asked his white students how much money they would want if they had to live the remainder of their lives as Black, on average, the students wanted one million dollars for each year of Blackness. For a person with an average life expectancy, this would be approximately fifty million dollars. To paraphrase a popular marketing slogan, when it comes to whiteness, membership has its privileges.
The existence of white privilege, while quite real and potent, is obfuscating. When we focus on whiteness, we neglect Blackness. This is a shame, because as a result, our national discussions on race have obscured a very simple truth about Blackness.
The simple truth is that being Black is awesome.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that we are living in a post-racial America. I am not saying that the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow no longer matter. I am not saying that Black Lives shouldn’t Matter. I am not ignoring the fact that African Americans have worse outcomes on pretty much every social metric that there is: education, income, social mobility, and health, just to name a few. I am also mindful that Black bodies are a special favorite of the prison industrial complex. What I am saying is that despite these serious challenges, being Black can be a wonderful thing.
Some time ago, in an inverse of the question asked by Dr. Hacker, I asked the African-American students in my Critical Race Theory course if there was any amount of money that would cause them to abandon their Blackness in favor of becoming white. I have asked this question every semester since. Over the past few years, I’d estimate that out of dozens of African American students, maybe three have said that they would be willing to switch. This outcome begs the question: why not? Because they are law students, we can assume that they are brighter than average, and also of reasonably sound mind and body. Why would any rational person reject whiteness in favor of Blackness?
Again, because being Black is awesome.
We focus so much on what one loses in this nation by virtue of being a person of color that we seem to have lost sight of what is gained. While there are far too many wonderful things about Blackness to list them all here, if I had to name what I believe to be the number one benefit of Blackness, it would be a shared community with mostly shared values and goals. The #AskRachel hashtag on Twitter was so successful because it highlighted experiences shared by African Americans from which whites are largely excluded. Sure, whites know about those parts of Black culture that have been commodified for the masses – our various styles of music, dancing, and clothing, for example – but due to the residential and therefore social segregation that still exists in America, most whites know little about the *truly* important things in Black culture that cannot be purchased at your local Target. Things like which pictures you would see in Black grandmother’s home, what business advertisement always appears on the back of a fan in a Black church, the double meaning of the word “kitchen,” or the damage that can be inflicted by that most devious instrument of torture, the hot comb. These folkways are the glue that holds our community together. More critically, white folks (excepting perhaps those that have married intraracially), will also never be fully aware of what it is like to struggle on a daily basis against the prison industrial complex, or job discrimination, or racist police at pool parties, or any of the other one million or so macro- and microaggressions that Black people face every day in this nation.
In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, the late Professor Derrick A. Bell eloquently made the case that racism in America is permanent. In the face of this permanence, he noted that “struggle is our salvation.” Moreover, he stated that there is “satisfaction with the struggle itself.” Not only is there satisfaction in the struggle, there is unity in the struggle. The racism that we fight is a constraint, but the shared experience of it and the fight against is also one of the ties that binds us together.
If you challenge my conclusions, just ponder this question: How often do you hear the phrase “the white community” used as often or in the same manner as the phrase “the Black community?” Two quick Google searches (here and here) will reveal that the terms are not interchangeable.
One could posit that “the white community” is an unused phrase because one of the privileges of whiteness is freedom to be an individual and that people of color are lumped into categories with little regard to the individual. I would not disagree with that point in the main. However, there is a difference between saying that all Black people act and think alike and acknowledging the reality that the experience of being Black in this country, while different for each person, has some parts that are universal. In fact, if that were not true, why call it the Black Experience at all?
One final point. As we continue our struggle against racism, we know - consciously or unconsciously – that we rise or fall together. The successes of Joe Louis, Althea Gibson, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and others are in some sense shared by all African Americans as we recognize that they have benefitted from African Americans that laid the groundwork for their success. (Would there be a Barack Obama without a Shirley Chisholm or a Barbara Jordan? Would there be an Oprah with a Madame C.J. Walker?) Conversely, the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, and countless others resonate with all African Americans because we know that it could have just as easily been one of our loved ones on the other end of that bullet.
Whiteness has its privileges. (Pun intended.) But when we ignore the fact that African Americans continue to function, to grow, to move forward, to live and breathe and support one another in a country with so many systems designed or operated to engineer the exact opposite result, we ignore the beauty of the struggle of each African American to simply exist. When we focus on white privilege, we prioritize whiteness. What’s more, by ignoring the beautiful things about Blackness, we tacitly buy into the assumption that the Black Experience is nothing but pain and pathology. Any Black person can tell you that is simply not the case.
Just don’t ask Rachel Dolezal.