Marian Lee Lewis

“White privilege” is a term that makes most white people uncomfortable.  They want to believe that whatever success they have in society has been earned by discipline and hard work.  The idea that they may be favored to succeed is not something that they want to think about.  Understandable.

Wikipedia defines white privilege as “a term for societal privileges that benefit white people in western countries beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances.”  Simply put, whites “enjoy advantages that non-whites do not experience.”

“Imitation of Life” is a movie made in 1934 and remade in 1959 that showcases the difference between white life and black life in America.  The character Sarah Jane who is a very fair and recalcitrant mulatto teenager, tries to escape the poverty and denigration of being black by passing for white.  Her mother, who is decidedly brown, is a maid to a white woman who is a wealthy actress.  Although the white woman is very magnanimous in her treatment of both mother and daughter, Sarah Jane is ashamed of her mother and rejects her until her death.  The funeral scene is one of the biggest tearjerkers in Hollywood history. “Trouble in this World” sung by Mahalia Jackson who is a gospel monument, is the heart-breaking dirge played as the distraught and repentant Sarah Jane throws herself on her mother’s coffin.

It might be said that “Trouble in this World” is a good description of the post-slavery, post-Jim Crow, post-lynching life of African Americans.  Passing for white is not only about gaining access to a Woolworth lunch counter to order a Coke. During slavery it was a choice for freedom instead of bondage.  Sometimes it’s even a choice of life over death. Certainly it can be economic choice.

Today the fact is that the median income of black households is less than 60% of white ones.  Blacks are twice as jobless as whites.  It goes on.  So even though forfeiting family and friends is heart wrenching for miscegenated blacks, it is understandable.  However, the reverse, white people passing for black, is unheard of.  In fact in the term “passing” used by black people, it is implicit that it is black to white without even mentioning race.  It’s a given because nobody in their right mind would pass from white to black.

Until Rachel Dolezal.

Twitter is on fire with reactions to a white woman who passed for black and became president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington.  Black people have special radar for scoping out their own, and even with her tan skin and hard-core African braided hairstyle, black people were buzzing.  It’s not that whites have not played a prominent role in the NAACP history, but with Dolezal, something was off.

Because her race was in question, reporters hounded Dolezal’s estranged parents to find out the truth.  They finally “outed” their daughter and said that she had no black ancestry.  A photo of Dolezal in her youth reveals a pale, freckle-faced child who looks like she came from Mayberry.  Needless to say, Dolezal resigned her position with the black organization.

But it gets worse.

Carrying the married name of Moore, turns out Dolezal attended Howard University and sued them for discriminating against her white race when they refused her a teaching job.  (You can’t make this stuff up.)

As a black activist and artist who painted African American themes, it seems that once Dolezal decided to pass for black she was committed to the lie.  But if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.  I’m not saying that it is criminal to be black…well, with the criminalization of the black male, it actually kind of is.  But Rachel, if you want to be a black woman, let me tell you what you have to look forward to.

HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death for black women ages 25-34.  In general, 66% of new AIDS cases are black women.

As for unemployment, you should have held on to your job.  Between 2009 and 2011, although black women are 12.5 percent of the population, they represented 42% of jobs lost.  Indeed, even when the endangered black male gained jobs in the recession, black women lagged behind.

And should you survive AIDS, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, strokes and asthma, which black people suffer at higher rates than whites, you can expect to die before white women.  With regard to elderly black women, according to the Women’s Institute for Secure Retirement:

Black women earn an average of $471,000 less than the average white man over a 35-year career.  As low-income workers, they are less likely to have access to employee benefits…Minority women are less likely to work in jobs covered by pensions.  Eighty percent of African American women received none of their income from private pensions or annuities…The poverty rate for singe African American women over age 65 is 32.5 percent…while for white women it is only 15.3 percent.

Although Dolezal is going through a rough patch right now, I’d say cheer up.  The good news, Rachel is that you are white.  And after all is said and done…it’s a privilege.