Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America

Rachel Dolezal’s Unintended Gift to America

The New York Times

Allyson Hobbs, Assistant Professor of History
Stanford University

Allyson Hobbs is the author of “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life.”

In James Baldwin’s 1968 novel “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone,” a child points to his light-skinned mother’s relationships to offer a compelling case that she is indisputably black:

“Our mama is almost white … but that don’t make her white. You got to be all white to be white …. You can tell she’s a colored woman because she’s married to a colored man, and she’s got two colored children. Now, you know ain’t no white lady going to do a thing like that.”

For the child in Baldwin’s novel, racial identity was determined by the life one chose to live and the relationships one chose to privilege.

Rachel A. Dolezal evidently believes that she should have the same choice as the light-skinned mother in Baldwin’s novel. Enmeshed in black politics, black communities and black experiences — she is raising two black sons — why should she see herself any other way?

As a historian who has spent the last 12 years studying “passing,” I am disheartened that there is so little sympathy for Ms. Dolezal or understanding of her life circumstances…

Whiteness is a form of property, the legal scholar Cheryl I. Harris has argued, a privilege that allocated economic, political and social resources along the color line. By passing as white, one could have access to employment opportunities, buy a house in a better neighborhood, and enjoy countless other advantages, like sitting in a more comfortable seat on a train or being addressed as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” One could do more than survive; one could live….

Read the entire article here.

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