When is a white person not a white person? Maybe when she has a black family? I can’t really comment on this case, though on the face of it, pretending to be something you’re not in this way seems a mad thing to do. Maybe Rachel Dolezal is a bit mad. But I do think some white people are in a better position than others to adopt a credible non-white perspective, and having a black immediate family is a good place to start.
Not that that is any excuse for claiming to be what you’re not. But there is more than one way of gaining the relevant insight. Having an adored black sibling perhaps; or giving birth to a non-white child and gradually, as he grows, coming to terms with what that means can be a uniquely uncomfortable learning process in its way.
The assumptions teachers make about that child (especially when they haven’t met you!) The assumptions other kids and parents make about him (ditto!) The assumptions, later on, employers and policemen and girlfriends will make about him; you know only too well, because, oh help, they were kind of the assumptions you used to make about young boys who looked like he does, even if you never said. Now, you ask yourself searching questions about identity and self-confidence you never bothered with before, and you know, with the fury of the new convert, that few other white people bother with now. Yet they should! Everybody should! Racism, racial prejudice, disadvantage, all of it, is after all, everybody’s business!
It’s hopeless. Last week, I sat around a pub table with six or so other school mums, at an enjoyable, well-lubricated PSA meeting. Of course, it wasn’t just a social occasion; we had school business to discuss; events, fund-raising and so forth. We were seven middle-class white women, representing a school which is about 80 % non-white; more like 95 % if you include white-non-British.
We did talk about it, which is a first on these occasions in my experience, and it wasn’t me who raised it. And I got to point out that my kid, at least, did not look like theirs. We resolved, even if we do most of the PSA work, at least to make continual efforts to bridge the gaps, to consult, to invite to groups and parties. In a school like ours, it must be said, those gaps are enormous, and about far more than just racial identity. Just making that point was an achievement.
There’s a new baby on our street. He’s a deep brown colour, darker than my son at that age, though his mum is white and blonde. I know from a conversation when she was pregnant that she’s single, back from a stint on some project in Africa. I hope, when the time comes, she’ll feel able to use our school, which is just next door, not flee to the whiter suburbs or the private sector like so many round here. I hope that by then she is not taken aback by the sea of brown faces in the playground, the way our posh neighbours were, if they troubled to look at all, and which, it embarrasses me now, took time even for me to get used to.