Two people who wanted to be something else have grabbed our attention recently: Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president in Spokane, Wash., and Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion.
Dolezal, who grew up white, wanted to be black. She took every step she could think of to be a black person. Though her parents are white, she grew up with black siblings. She married a black man and has black, or mixed-race, children. She attended the historically black Howard University. Later, she worked enthusiastically and effectively to improve the lives of black people.
Bruce Jenner, who grew up male, wanted to be a woman. Many applauded, although some women said, “Oh no, you can’t be a real woman. You didn’t spend a lifetime with the terrible challenges that every real woman has to face.”
Although some African Americans welcomed Dolezal’s efforts to be a part of the black community, others said, “No. Only those who have actually suffered the challenges that all real black people face from birth can have a legitimate claim to be black.”
Dolezal and Jenner brought back an assortment of personal memories of encounters on the fault lines of race.
The late Maxine O’Kelly, an outstanding African-American leader, served on the UNC Board of Governors while I was Secretary of University. One day she explained to us that her very light skin created ambiguities and problems for her, so that she determined to marry someone with much darker skin, “so my children would never have to worry about people thinking they were white.”
Several years ago, at the request of then University of North Carolina-Pembroke Chancellor Joseph Oxendine, I worked for about six months in Pembroke, the unofficial capital of the Lumbee people. Some Lumbees have red hair and blue eyes, and others have very dark skin. These differences cause no problem for Lumbees. UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Malinda Maynor Lowery in her book, “Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation,” lovingly and authoritatively explains that the identity of the Lumbee is defined primarily, not by the percentage of Indian blood, but by kinship, mutual recognition, and strong and longstanding connections to the land.
While we were living in Charlotte, my children were assigned to formerly all-black West Charlotte High School. Our children flourished, making us proud of their performance and of our connection with the school’s history. However, once an older woman in the school’s neighborhood jarred me when she said loudly and pointedly, “The white people have come and taken our school away from us.”
For many years, my family and I were active members of a predominantly black church in Charlotte, where our children learned at an early age the otherness of being a minority. But when I tried to take advantage of our commitment to the “black church” in my political campaigning, a black minister deflated my claims, saying, “That is not a black church. It is a white church that has black members.”
In “Civil Rights Journey: The Story of a White Southerner Coming of Age during the Civil Rights Revolution,” my brother-in-law, Joe Howell, explains how he and my sister were active in the civil rights movement in the deep South during the summer of 1964, at a time when the leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) determined that white people would no longer be welcome in leadership positions.
Howell records his humiliation under the SNCC leadership on the same pages he describes the humiliations of the local blacks under the oppressive white power structure.
What are the lessons from these recollections?
I am not sure, except that when we react to those who want to change their lives dramatically or discuss our racial differences and attitudes, we should look for ways to communicate with kindness and respect.