It took me a while to figure out just why Rachel Dolezal made me so angry. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the reasons why she should make me angry and certainly not that I didn’t think I ought to be angry. But, none of the specifics felt right as a reason she engendered the particular response in me that she did.
To be honest, it took Dylann Roof.
I was a wreck last Thursday morning when I read the news that 9 parishioners had been shot and killed in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina. But this was a different wreck than I felt after Columbine or Aurora or Newtown. Dylann Roof was a studied white supremacist whose targets were chosen by virtue of their race. This was a particular sort of mass murder—one compelled by racial terrorism.
There is a desire in the face of such a tragedy to identify with friends and strangers in one’s grief. To turn to a coworker or neighbor, whether in person or on social media, and exclaim, in some sense: “How could this thing happen to us?” I did some of that, to be sure—this event touched any American with a conscience. Yet, that “us” I crave in moments like these was more elusive here. It’s not that I didn’t find fraternity in my sadness but rather it was recognition that as a white American, there were and are insurmountable limits to how much I can associate myself with the “us” of the experience of racism and violence against Black communities. I can know of that pain. I can grieve it and study it. I can even fight against it. However, I cannot identify with it. And part of me wishes I could.
On pronouns and privilege
Like many progressive, white adolescents, I headed off to college with a curiosity about social justice and an anything-is-possible desire to make the world a better place. I wanted to locate myself on the right side of issues related to race, sexual orientation, religious tolerance, and women’s liberation.
During the first semester of my freshman year, I went to a workshop on white privilege. I’d never heard the term. The workshop was led by a campus dean, a white woman who in her days as a professor had studied and lectured on the topic. She began with little fanfare, distributing a questionnaire to the 25 or so participants who were seated in a circle in a back room in the student union.
Scrambling to find a pen, I barely had time to glance at the questions (“You experience white privilege if this… You experience white privilege if that…”) when I noticed the students of color in the room—about half the participants—exchanging agonized glances. I intermittently struggled through the questions and puzzled over the increasing frustration in the room. Moments later, my friend Kyle, a freshman, spoke: “I want to suggest that my fellow Black students gather in the hallway to discuss what we want to do next.”
I was lost. I didn’t get the source of the outrage but as half the room cleared out into the hallway, it was clear that the students of color “got it.” And it was equally clear that I was left in the room with everyone else. I was left with her—the dean who seemed equally puzzled and was clearly the primary object of frustration. I didn’t want to be in that group. I didn’t want to not understand.
And then, with nothing else to do, I looked back down at the questions in my lap: “You… You… You…” I was in a workshop on white privilege organized by a white woman that was (seemingly unselfconsciously) designed for white people! It was as though it hadn’t occurred to her that students of color would attend or that they would care about being syntactically excluded by virtue of a questionnaire that assumed whiteness on the part of its respondents.
A few minutes later, the students of color returned from the hallway, reporting that the group wished to participate in a different conversation on white privilege—one that they would lead. The facilitator consented, at this point having realized her oversight, and what followed was a lesson on white privilege led by the people most qualified to lead it. It’s a lesson I will never forget.
I’ll also never forget that horrible feeling—being excluded, not in on the moment, a part of the object of such frustration, left to sit with a presumption about the significance of my skin color and the ideological fraternity it implied. But wasn’t that the lesson? That brief encounter with the realities of race, presumption, and entitlement—with that sudden painful awareness of my skin color and its implication—was…brief. That, it seems, is the ultimate privilege. Unlike the students of color in the room, unlike my friend Kyle, I could return, passing later into the night, in the dining hall the next day, marching off to class, to a status of unawareness. Unlike Kyle, who over the next few years I watched get sneered at in the hallway, who was pulled over by the town police driving the campus jitney (his work-study job) countless times, and who endured the daily experience of being presumed to not exist.
White people who choose to participate in conversations about race have to open ourselves up to feeling the experience of race that our whiteness protects us from any moment we choose to allow it. We must encounter a sort of secondhand experience of racism, feel its awfulness, grapple with our complicity in it, and deal with the fact that no one in the room is going to give us any special consideration. Not because we are unwelcome or because our presence does not matter, but because our agony in the face of racial terror is only that—a fleeting encounter that pales in comparison to an experience of racial injustice felt by Americans of color that we, at best and with tremendous effort, can only barely understand.
In the coming years, I took classes, joined clubs, and attended meetings and a sit-in. I affiliated. I tried to listen and learn.
What I craved was what anyone craves: Freedom from the discomfort of living in a country founded on racial oppression, a sense of belonging, a wish to be associated with the right side of things, and to sit unaware of my race and how others experience it. It is not the desire for these things that is problematic, but rather the inequity built into the fact that I can choose what others can’t—to tune it in or tune it out at almost any moment.
That feeling I experienced in that workshop still visits me. I understand it better now as an opportunity, not for self-pity but for empathy. But it still comes and still brings with it distress. And so I felt it, acutely, on that Thursday morning last week when I read about the 9 victims killed at First Emmanuel. I wanted to be in the hallway with the students of color and wanted to be a part of the “we” invoked by my Black friends on Facebook. I wanted to pretend, at least, that I understood the history of white violence, the symbolism of the Black church, and the ways in which so many Americans of color experience white terrorism. And I didn’t want to be a part of the white America that many columnists of color insisted needed to take an accounting of our whiteness, our complicity.
Of course, I don’t want to experience those things. Many white Americans choose to avoid those feelings. To file experiences like last week’s killings in a cabinet that all white Americans are born with—a part of our collection of assets of racial privilege. It is the right to turn away, to move through the corridors of America without thinking about race.
Rachel Dolezal seems to have had a similar want. The media has taken for granted the altruism of her desire to participate in the struggle for racial justice with statements like: “She could have helped the cause as an ally.” I neither seek to confirm nor negate this assumption, but don’t feel it’s a premise worth granting her automatically, that the origins of her participation in the civil rights movement were compelled by genuine motives. I do find it an odd presumption to grant her given the harm she’s now done to that very cause. What is clear is that Ms. Dolezal chose to locate herself in Black life and in circles of the Black community that are expressly oriented towards the fight for racial justice. As I did, I’m certain she encountered the discomfort that comes for a white person choosing such an orientation and the absence of dispensation given the habit of privilege of which she was unlikely so aware. White liberals crave a pass that people of color are, rightly, unwilling to grant. We seek acknowledgment of our specialness and crave a footnote to Black rage (“…excepting, of course, the lovely white people in the room—we don’t experience oppression with you.”). In other words, we participate in these spaces fully expecting that we will be able to do so while simultaneously experiencing all of the benefits of our white privilege. We don’t just want to have it both ways, we expect to.
Except we can’t. Kyle and I remained friends, but he has never granted me the dispensation that I still crave. No matter how many meetings I attended and no matter how “right” my position on matters of race on our campus and beyond, he hasn’t once given me the high sign, to say, “You’re in. You’re one of us. Join us in the hallway.” Even though I know better and know it is undeserved, I still want it. Privilege is hard to give up.
Rachel Dolezal wanted that, too—to avoid feeling without and excluded, being the object of resentment and anger. She sued Howard University. And then, in the years that followed, exercised the ultimate in white privilege: She passed.
Ms. Dolezal hasn’t hurt me. What she has done is insult every Black American by claiming to know their experience, by stepping uninvited into a “we” to which she cannot belong. Whiteness and blackness are not equivalent. Blackness is a thing, a fixed, inescapable category. Whiteness is neutral, an adaptable blankness that those born to it can use to maneuver in and out of most corners of America fluently and with little awareness of it. The space that isn’t available to white Americans is the experience of “we-ness” with Black Americans. But Ms. Dolezal claimed that space too. I understand the desire. Every person of conscience despises the experience of race in America. It’s just that some of us have more options for how to live with it.