The last time I fought someone with true anger in my bones, a few guys were referring to my buddy with a common Black racial slur. They felt he shouldn’t be where he was, and this wasn’t the first time. When he lost his cool and decided to fight these guys, I didn’t have much choice but to get involved. By the end of the fight, my friend spit on one of the guys and yelled, “And I ain’t Black, I’m Cree Indian, asshole!”
My whole life I have been treated White. I have gone undetected, “in disguise,” I like to say, as a White Man. My ethnic disguise offers me privileges, whether I was dealing drugs or in a job interview. Assumptions of my character and family history are made within seconds of meeting me. This is human nature, and those assumptions likely change around the world, but I am old enough to know the assumptions about me, my friend the Cree, and many others. It even allows people to put their guard down, and share with me their disdain for non-White people.
I have been told by White Supremacists that “When the Race War sets off, we kill the race-traitors first. This way its easier to know who the enemy is after that.” It’s a threat, a reminder that to them I am a race-traitor. Once we learn the content of someone’s character, based on their actions and belief system, we all tend to adjust our assumptions about them. If someone lies about their past actions, experiences, or belief system, we are asking for others to reach manufactured (and false) conclusions about us.
Rachel Dolezal has likely been the only person in a room born to two White parents, who grew up as a little White girl, and who was treated accordingly. I can relate to that. Whether in a prison cell or a gathering with other incarcerated guys, or as an activist after release, I was often one of the few White people- and occasionally stood alone. When issues come up about “affected people” or “using our own voice,” my Whiteness presents a topic that needs to be addressed because you can’t help my lightbulb-like luminescence.
Rachel Dolezal chose to avoid the murky waters of inclusion by covertly switching identities. Disposing of her birth parents and concocting a Black father, adopting Black children, is something out of a bad Hollywood casting or a COINTELPRO government conspiracy to destroy Black professional advocacy from the inside. To be the leader of an NAACP chapter, teach African American studies, and say the word “We” is the worst form of cultural appropriation. At least Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and the Beastie Boys never fronted about who they are.
When someone lies about their war record, we dismiss them. Hard. Politicians use these records as capital, to show their sacrifice and patriotism, and it is the least we can do for someone who suffered through that experience. We honor it, and occasionally compensate it. It is literally illegal to exploit it. Ask a veteran what they think of someone who never put boots on the ground, who maybe sat out the war in the domestic National Guard with some college buddies. Careers have been trashed once these lies are exposed.
Piper Kerman never lied about her racial identity when writing “Orange is the New Black.” Her story, popularly adapted to a show on Netflix, spawned (overall) healthy discussion about race/prisons and who is “entitled” to speak on the myriad issues involved. Was her one year inside long enough? What does she know about the poverty that fuels prisons? Racial Profiling? She faced such questions while many people provided their opinions. Imagine if Rachel Dolezal had written “Orange” while posing as a Black woman? Perhaps her book never gets a New York Times Review, as it is no longer a “fish out of water” tale. Perhaps it does, and she lands her own show on BET… and then we find out she “presented as” a White girl throughout her youth. AKA, she was born White. White, but not like me.
Those of us who did “real” time scoff at those who spent a few days, or a few months, in prison. But we only scoff if they’re going around using that “street cred” to advance in some realm like hip hop, academia, or social justice. If someone converted to a religion, or a sexual preference, solely to elevate their professional status, few of us would respect them in the least. Particularly if it were a status they didn’t have to “pay dues” for. A few days for a protest, a few months for a non-violent first-time felony that gets expunged does not qualify someone to imply they served hard time.
For me personally, I’m not allowed in public housing. I can’t vote. I can’t own a gun. I can’t get a law license. I can’t be an AmeriCorps volunteer. I can’t travel freely. I can’t get many things otherwise open to equal citizenship and true meritocracy. This is due to my past actions legitimately earned by me under American laws. When I talk about how the criminal justice system impacts “us,” it is from the experience of someone who has spent more than half their life under government control.
Presenting as a straight, White male has also led to other results. I have heard that “we want a diverse workplace” where those three attributes are seen (due to American history) as the over-represented workplace. Diversity means opening up the opportunities to other racial, gender, and such identities. I get that. I fight for that. I’ve been told to my face (and in other ways) how my Straight White Male status is not scoring me any points in the given circumstance. If I pulled a Rachel-D move, I could just get some dreads and a spray tan going, and perhaps people would believe that my experience of foster homes, underground economy, violence, and prison was a “diverse” point of view- particularly for someone who then went on to get a law degree. Perhaps this would be inspiring to young Black Men being targeted by the criminal justice system. Perhaps I would be asked to serve as local chapter president of the NAACP.
Many organizations and political entities that work on criminal justice reform have nobody who has ever been in prison on their staff. Granted, me and a few guys can study the unequal pay of women and fight for their economic equality, but it would look a bit ridiculous if we didn’t hire any women. We need to be upfront about who we are and how we go about our work.
When the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund chose me as one of their Warren Scholars, I was one of the few White people to earn such a prestigious award. Several writers, some of them who also don’t realize it is a separate organization from the NAACP (not that it is relevant here), felt that the National Association for the Advancement of COLORED PEOPLE has no business concerning themselves with the advancement of a White person. They/I had to deal with that critique in a way Rachel Dolezal avoided. She and I both have a history of actions and beliefs that are in concurrence with the advancement of non-White people, yet my small semi-anonymous scholarship among many is a far cry from taking a leadership position based on false pretenses.
Our hearts are very important, but we can’t manufacture memories. If a journalist commits a crime to go in prison and write about it, she will not have the true gut knowledge of someone who committed such a crime out of desperation, confusion, poverty, or intoxication. They may talk to a host of people who have, and write about it, but this would be grotesque for them to pass other people’s sufferings off as their own. Such things have happened. But they shouldn’t. If Rachel Dolezal wanted to have a national discussion about the fallacy of racial identity, she should have been writing on that as an academic and talked openly about it.
Lie to me as a kid struggling to get away with something, as an addict fighting themselves… I can work with that. Lie to me as an educated grown-ass person and I’ve got no time for you.