By now, just about everyone has heard of the white woman Rachel Dolezal who’s been passing as a black woman in Spokane, Washington while teaching African American studies classes at the local college and chairing the local NAACP chapter. Many black people are understandably outraged by Rachel’s actions. The right wing is having lots of fun comparing Rachel’s “trans-racial” identity with transgender identity. When I look at what she did from the perspective of a white ally, I’m convicted by the ways that I’ve tried to validate myself through my relationships with people of color. I suspect that every white ally has some stories of when they pulled a Rachel Dolezal, even if none of us went as far as she did.
Have you ever taken one of those overseas mission trip photos? You know, the white messiah photo, where you’re in a village in Haiti or Sierra Leone, and dozens of black kids are sitting in your lap and loving on you. Above is a white messiah photo of me in the Dominican Republic. I genuinely loved those kids, and I genuinely wanted to remember my time with them. But I was also a little bit too enamored with myself for being semi-fluent in Spanish (unlike those other white people who go on mission trips), and the kids validated me by getting in my personal space like we were family even though I’ve completely forgotten their names. When you’re a white ally, it feels so good to be validated by people of color.
I remember the man who said, “Are you sure you’re not a brother, Morgan?” when I was part of an activist coalition with him in Saginaw, Michigan. I remember the time when my high school student Ieshia called me the N-word in a note she wrote on my blackboard the last day of school. It was the biggest compliment I’ve ever received from a student. I remember the way that my almost all Latino youth group a few years later told me I had a “brown heart” and started calling me Morgan Lopez. I thought my Spanish accent was so “natural” until I heard a recording of me preaching in Spanish. I could only listen to that recording once. It was so embarrassing. I sounded so incredibly white.
When white people learn about systemic racism and start to see all the ways that our peoples’ ideology has been shaped to justify racism, it’s understandable for us to feel ashamed that we’re white. Since we don’t have any perspective on the very real humiliating and dangerous experiences that people of color have gone through in their lives, we sometimes wish that we could just “become” not-white like them. We understand race in terms of abstract existential legitimacy. White means privilege which means illegitimacy which means that I have less credibility points than people of color.Sometimes white allies compensate for our sense of illegitimacy by making ourselves the loudest voices in the room dissing those stupid other white people. There’s a game within identity politics called the “oppression olympics” where you get a point according to how many oppression categories you can claim. But I’ve noticed over the years that identity politics is mostly a game played by allies trying to out-ally each other. People of color and other marginalized groups just don’t like it when their allies talk over them and make themselves the experts on realities they haven’t lived through.
The reality is that white people have been deeply harmed by the hidden ideologies generated over the past several centuries of modern racism. We haven’t been harmed in the same way or to the same degree as people of color, but we have been left with a deep sense of shame and a need to justify ourselves. So we create rigorous meritocracies for our self-justification. Some people self-justify according to the meritocracy of “family values.” Others self-justify according to the meritocracy of “social justice.” Any worthy cause can be made toxic when we make it all about our need to feel legitimate.
That’s why Jesus said that we have to lose our selves in order to gain eternal life. As long as we are self-justifying our way out of shame and illegitimacy, we are living in a form of hell, whatever meritocracy we use to measure our validity. I suspect that salvation may take a different shape for people who aren’t wrestling with the particular form of shame that I’ve received from centuries of white supremacy. I just know that the more I accept God’s unconditional love for me, the less I behave obnoxiously in an effort to prove that I’m one of the good white people. I have no idea why Rachel Dolezal did we she did. I just hope that somebody will be there to love her unconditionally so she can come clean and start a new chapter of her life. And I have to remind myself that I’ve got a little bit of Rachel in me too.