In light of the horrible events in Charleston, South Carolina, I was going to shelve this post, which I started writing a couple of days before the shooting. The whole Rachel Dolezal drama seemed particularly trivial by comparison. But actually, it’s not. It speaks to the ways we discuss race, discuss our troubled national history behind race, and the right and wrong ways of promoting positive change.
First, I want to look at a couple of examples of the right way to promote positive change. Both examples come from music because, well, music.
When long-time DJ, musician, and music promoter Johnny Otis died a few years back, at the ripe old age of 90, I read something interesting in his obituaries. A man of Greek heritage, he grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, California. This would have been in the 30s and 40s, a time of extreme racial polarization in the country. In his autobiography, Listen to the Lambs, he wrote that society told him to identify either with the black kids or the white kids, so he chose the black kids. His dark complexion could have helped him “pass,” but that wasn’t where he was coming from. Says Mr. Otis in a San Jose Mercury News interview in 1994: “Genetically, I’m pure Greek. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community.”
In addition to his own substantial musical accomplishments, Mr. Otis was a prodigious talent scout. His discoveries included Etta James and Hank Ballard. He was also very political. When Watts blew up in 1965, he said he could understand why, given the treatment blacks have received by the police. One commentator believes that this stance, as well as other civil rights stances, probably stunted his career and kept him from becoming as big a household name as a Dick Clark or a Casey Kasem. But Mr. Otis was OK with that.
John Hammond, born in 1910, came from a wealthy white family in New England. He studied classical music in his youth, but went headlong into the world of jazz, and pretty much stayed there during most of his professional life. As an A & R man for various record labels, most notably Columbia Records, Mr. Hammond went out of his way to find talented African-American artists and promote their careers. Two names he brought to the spotlight include Billie Holiday and Count Basie. He also championed integrated bands, something otherwise unheard of in the 1930s. To that end, he encouraged Benny Goodman to hire vibraphone legend Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson. One of his final gigs was the produce records for the 80-something year old Alberta Hunter in the late 70s and early 80s when she came out of retirement and resumed her singing career after nearly 40 years of musical inactivity.
So here we have examples of two non-African-Americans who clearly had the community’s best interests at heart. Mr. Otis was a brother-man, his soul deeply embedded within the African-American community. Mr. Hammond used his position of privilege to further the careers of great artists. Neither men claimed to be biologically black, but then they didn’t have to.
Then we have Rachel Dolezal.
Much verbiage has been spilled about Ms. Dolezal, including those who defend her as a transracial person. She and her defenders cite Caitlyn Jenner’s recent coming out as a comparable situation. I find this comparison troubling and deceptive, because I find Ms. Dolezal troubling and deceptive. Throughout her story, various facts have come under question, starting with her parentage. She claimed some black dude as her father; turns out he isn’t. She also claimed to have been beaten by her white “step-father,” the man who’s her biological father; to have been born in a teepee; and to have been the subject of racial prejudice.
The last point is particularly fascinating. While attending Howard University, she indeed sued the school on the basis of racial discrimination, among other things, as a white woman. She claimed that the school prevented her from getting a teaching assistant position and prevented her art work because she was not African-American. Yikes to the yikes.
What Ms. Dolezal did was quite different from Johnny Otis or John Hammond. She consciously perpetrated a deception, including inventing relatives and a whole backstory to her life that simply wasn’t true. Her deceptions were no different than Jayson Blair’s or Stephen Glass’. And deception, even well intended deception, ultimately helps no one. Indeed, the orgs that she worked for seem to agree. She resigned her position from the NAACP just before they were about to ask her to leave. And the Spokane city council removed her from the police oversight commission. Civil rights work requires people of the highest integrity. Ms. Dolezal has called hers into question.
As I’ve noted, there are plenty of white folks who “get it” about race and work to improve things. Indeed, the NAACP itself was founded primarily by concerned white folks. Ms. Dolezal could have been one of those people, but she chose not to be. She and her prevaricating ways epitomize the wrong way to promote positive change.