It’s really not that “complicated,” #RachelDolezal. Because, no, you didn’t “go there with the experience”; no, you’re not a black hairdresser; no, you didn’t have to play black to be your black children’s mom; and no, this discussion about race and what it means to be black—while rich and important and long overdue—hasn’t occurred “at your expense.” But other people will let you have it for those transgressions. I’ll just share my personal experience because I think, just by laying it out, that you’ll see the problem.
Consider this an ode to my mother, who was often—perhaps usually—seen as white. She was descended from many generations of mixed-race people: African (of unknown origin), Cherokee, Choctaw, Irish, Portuguese, Scottish and Lord knows what else. Mommy’s eyes were forest green, with gold specks, and sparkled. Whether snatched up into a bun or braided and falling down her back, her hair looked straight, except on a humid day. In some communities she could have passed for white, although black folks knew the deal.
And truth be told, for several years I, Hilary, her eldest child, believed that she was, in fact, white. Her face hit the floor when she heard me tell one of my white girlfriends, Julie—who was shocked that a woman whom she saw as having white skin was my mom—that she was “white and Indian.” It hadn’t occurred to my mom, having lived her entire life under the one-drop rule, that she was anything but colored (which gave way to Negro and then black and African American), or that she would have to explain her racial identity to her very own biological child. She was just stunned, and I, her firstborn, felt very ashamed.
My mother definitely experienced light-skinned, if not white-skinned, privilege. But unlike you, Rachel, she and most of the people she descended from—many of whom also had a somewhat or very European appearance because they were, in fact, somewhat or very European—had the lived experience of being nigger-Negro-colored-African American-black in these yet-to-be United States. For some of my ancestors, that included living as free blacks; for most of the others it meant being terrorized and subjected to the subhuman experience of enslavement.
In my family tree, free blacks and whites intermarried and left behind their loved ones and communities to migrate cross-country to stay away from slavery’s spread. To protect themselves, they formed communities with other people who had escaped slavery or were trying to avoid its grasp. Since you went to Howard, I know you know, Rachel, that slavery had a claw-back provision, that any white person could accuse any black person of being an escaped slave at any time and pull him or her into that misery, whether or not that person had ever been enslaved—you’ve seen 12 Years a Slave.
Some of the enslaved black women in my family tree were raped by white slave owners and overseers; the mixed-race children of those rapes married the mixed-race progeny of other rapes. The trauma of those terror-filled nights—or did it happen in the light of day, during those days when black people worked from can’t-see in the morning until can’t-see at night?—isn’t literally encoded into your DNA to trigger fear, panic, anxiety or the other debilitating emotions that so many women descended from that history experience, and some experience often. Not to mention the higher rates of diseases related to trauma, poor diet, poor living conditions, stress—the list goes on; it’s depressing to talk about it.
Some of my fair-skinned ancestors used their light complexion as camouflage and helped facilitate the Underground Railroad. For decades, their children and grandchildren fought in the civil rights movement—the greatest struggle for human liberation that has ever taken place on earth, and the inspiration for much of the second-wave feminist movement, the senior citizens movement, the LGBT-rights movement, Arab Spring, black spring, and the countless other human rights and freedom movements that are essential to making humankind more, well, humane.
Rachel, my mother was born in an inferior colored hospital. And as light as her skin was, and as much privilege as it afforded her, she sat in the peanut gallery at the movie theater; she lived off campus during college and walked home from the library in the dark because colored people weren’t allowed in the dorms; she participated in sit-ins—even risking her pregnancy with me as she did so; and she, along with my ebony-skinned father, was subjected to (and also chose, by not passing, to subject herself to) countless indignities, such as being interviewed to see if she was “good enough” to become the first Negro family to integrate the neighborhood I grew up in—after which, my father kept the best lawn in the whole daggone neighborhood.
Mommy worried about the safety of the man she married—for example, when the police interrogated and intimidated him as he was just doing his job as a city planner and standing near an intersection counting traffic, because some Negro male had (allegedly) robbed a nearby bank (fat chance, given the neighborhood). She fought to create a space in the world for the brown-skinned children she bore and for other people’s brown-skinned children (and children of all races) to access this country’s promise. My mother worried about her own children, too—about whether another nun would humiliate me in front of my (all-white) religion class by accusing me of stealing something I hadn’t even known existed; about the boys who encircled me on bikes and spit on me because I was Negro (no, it didn’t happen in my immediate neighborhood); the list goes on. I’m sure you’ve read about this kind of stuff.
My mother handled these issues and raised me well, so I don’t need you to cry for me, wannabe Teena Marie. But do know that the last act I performed to honor her life—which, true to the experience of all too many American women who actually possess African genes, ended a good 15 years earlier than a white woman’s life expectancy—was to change the race on her death certificate from white, which the hospital assumed that she was (the daily presence of her brown-skinned children be damned; at least they could have asked), to black, since that’s how she both identified and lived.
Yes, Rachel, I know that there’s a way in which that act was just as crazy as the one-drop rule, but I fought the last fight she couldn’t fight for herself. Plus, how can you be born colored and die white? May the good Lord bless my mother (and father).
So this, Rachel, is why I am challenging you to do better, for these reasons and the fact that mixed in with your very human and understandable identity issues is your racial privilege, multiplied by your opportunism, to the cultural-appropriation power. (That’s my hairstyle you’re wearing, sweetie, but it probably never occurred to you that some of us, in order to wear it and other natural styles, have to overcome a cultural beauty standard that tells us that the way God made us is ugly.)
For the most part, I think you mean well, and I don’t want to minimize the good deeds that you’ve done. But please do “the work” and become a true ally and stop playing the community that you say you love, as though we’re not intelligent enough to peep your B.S. Instead, please support us by doing the things you can do that we can’t, from your identity position as a white woman.
It may be a while before you gain that level of insight. Until then, I do understand that membership has its privileges. I’m not a wagering woman, but if I were, I’d bet that you will be on the speaking circuit soon, getting paid rates that rival, if not exceed, those paid to highly qualified speakers of color, some of whom I could name-check by tagging them, but I won’t. Oh, and you’ll probably get a book deal, too. But if any sistah I know helps you write it (ahem!), trust and believe that we will call in the Drop Squad. I’m quite sure you watch movies and know what that is.
In love and sisterhood,
Philadelphia-based writer Hilary Beard is co-author of Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life and Health First! The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide, both of which have won an NAACP Image Award. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.