I met a white woman about thirty-five years ago during a job interview. I did not know her well, but apparently she knew me. She told me we were in the same boat.
“Which boat?” I asked.
“We are both dating black men.”
I accepted the job she offered me, because I needed one, but I had some doubts because there are a lot of boats out there, and I wasn’t sure we shared one.
As I got to know her over the next few months as my supervisor, I knew for certain our boats were different.
Her boyfriend stole and used her credit cards. He got fired from his job at the hospital and served time in jail for stealing prescription drugs and selling them on the street. He didn’t respect her and saw other women while they were still in a relationship.
Ronald would go on to serve the community as a firefighter for twenty-five years. He was and is a terrific, involved, and loving husband and father. He did not drink or do drugs and he did not participate in criminal activity. The only thing Ronald and her boyfriend shared was their brown skin. I found her comparison racist, based solely on one attribute, as if they were just piles of brown skin and not individual people.
One day she showed up at work with her fine, blond hair in cornrows. The movie Ten was still popular in the early ‘80s, and she just had to have them, she said, because Bo Derek had them and because she was dating a black man. I took one look and said, “Your hair is going to fall out.”
One day while walking to work, the heavy, damp smell of burned wood and plastic enveloped me. As I rounded the curve, I saw firefighters cleaning up at at my supervisor’s house. It was a total loss.
She stood in the street watching the firefighters.
“Oh, my God, are you all right? What happened?” I asked, my voice shaking, and my eyes wide.
“My house burned down. What the fuck did you think happened?” she said, her face emotionless.
I found out later it was arson and had something to do with a bad drug deal or maybe a bad drug dealer.
Soon after I moved on to another position, marriage, and motherhood. She moved on to a new town in a new state because she followed her boyfriend who had been quite clear that he did not want her to.
So I get suspicious when people tell me we are in the same boat. And I wonder about people who try to climb into other people’s boats like my supervisor and Rachel Dolezal.
If you were out at sea, climbing Mount Everest, or otherwise off the grid, she is a civil rights advocate who claimed black heritage, but her parents have come out in the press and said she is white and of European heritage.
Her race appropriation made me angry.
White privilege enabled her to decide what race she wanted to be. The social constructs of whiteness and blackness assure that people who are bestowed with privilege and power in our society, white people, can easily be identified from those who historically have not had access to privilege and power, people of color.
Let’s face it, our society views white people as being race-less and of having no ethnicity. When people say someone is “ethnic” they aren’t usually talking about a white person even though ALL people are ethnic. So only white people can choose to be something else because their slate is blank.
I can’t imagine my husband waking up one morning, leaning over to kiss me, and saying, “I think I’m going to be white today.”
It’s not that he can’t think it. It’s that no one else in our country would allow it.
There are physical markers that people use to identify race, like hair texture, skin color, and eye and nose shapes. Our brain is constantly categorizing things so we can identify the same or like thing next time. It is an intrinsic survival tactic, but it inadvertently, in this case, contributes to the syndrome called racial bias. And it isn’t accurate in many cases. I know many people of black heritage who do not have the markers most people identify as belonging to black people, and the same goes for all people of all ethnicities. Our appearance is individual.
So is Dolezal wrong or hurtful in her choice to identify as black? She is a civil rights activist and devoted her life to changing our conversation about race. She raised two of her adopted black brothers, who she calls her sons, and her ex-husband is black. She claimed she wanted to understand what they experienced and has been able to since identifying as a black woman. She also claimed that she has been interested in black culture and identified with it more strongly than her Euro-ethnic culture ever since she was a child. She self-styles her hair in locs or uses extensions and is also a makeup artist who knows how to darken her skin.
But all this tells me that she is just performing.
I am married to a black man. I’ve raised two interracial daughters. I have experienced, as close as I can as a white person, what it is like to be black in America, like when we had to go to court to buy our first house because the owner didn’t want to sell to “a black family.” I loved Sidney Poitier and Michael Jackson when I was growing up, and still do. I loved my father’s best friend, Harold, who was the grandson of slaves. He was kind and generous to us, and he admired my mother’s cooking even though he was a professional chef. I love the blues, jazz, Zydeco, and funk. I love dance that came directly from black cultures like tap dance, hip hop, and what is referred to, wrongly, I think, as black concert dance, because it is contemporary dance by black artists and choreographers. I think locs are lovely and have complimented many friends who wear them or those who have “gone natural.” I have family and friends who are black. I am often in situations where I am the single white person. I do not suffer from race anxiety or racial bias.
Yet, I am not in the same boat. I don’t pretend to be in the same boat or dream of being in the same boat.
I am not black. I would not call myself black. I would not cornrow my hair or otherwise try to change its texture to look like “black hair.” I would not darken my skin through tanning or makeup. I would not disrespect my family members, friends, acquaintances, or the millions of black Americans I do not personally know, through imitation and performance, because they are not an “it” or a “thing.” They are people. They are Americans or they are living in or visiting America. They share an incredibly painful history and legacy that I can never share.
But I can acknowledge their history, my history, their experience in America, my experience in America, the cultural contributions of all ethnicities, and the intersections among them that translate into us, Americans.
Though I don’t specifically identify myself with the social construct of whiteness, because of its basis of privilege and exclusion, I am white. My husband is black. My daughters are interracial or mixed race.
But identifying as black or white is damaging in our country where systemic racism and a violent history of oppression, segregation, and enslavement have made us a tale of two countries. Because of that President Obama was considered too black for some and too white for others. When those same people failed to get the response they wanted from the rest of America, they started to say he wasn’t American at all. He is still often called the black president and his mixed race heritage is ignored or twisted.
Yet there are millions of Americans who have no choice but to be identified by race, and it has negative social and economic consequences. It is the foundation of racism and segregation in our country. The fact that people of color do not have choices like Rachel Dolezal is what angers me about her choice, because she has a choice.
Tomorrow she could decide she doesn’t want to be black anymore. Maybe the performance has run its course and the show is about to close.
I also wonder what her personal gain is in all of this. What psychological benefit is she reaping from identifying as an ethnic minority? I can’t imagine, because, like my husband, many American blacks will tell you that being black in America is no parade. Ask the people of Ferguson or Baltimore about being black in America. Ask the teenagers in McKinney, who were just middle class kids having a party at their community pool, what their experience was like when their neighbors treated them as if they had no right to be in their own neighborhood, and the policeman ran around like a crazy man wielding his gun because a fourteen-year-old girl scared him, or rather his racial bias scared him.
Make time to listen, because I’m pretty sure they could talk about it for hours and still not be finished. That doesn’t mean they don’t have pride in their heritage. They do and have a right to. But Dolezal is getting something out of it, and that personal payback, that truth, is where this particular incident will finally find its resolution.
One day we may live in a race-less country where skin color will not convey a bounty of negative history, divisiveness, segregation, violence, haves vs. have-nots, and emotions, lots of emotions like anger and hatred. One day it will just be a physical characteristic that will have as little consequence as one’s eye or hair color. But we are not there yet. We are not in the same boat and not even in the same water.