choice of color

A few years ago, a woman named Rachel Dolezal made media  waves when she was ousted from her position as president of the Spokane,  WA chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored  People (NAACP). The reason for Dolezal's dismissal was that although she  presented herself as African American, subsequent scrutiny revealed  that she had no discernible black ancestry. 

Being  white in a predominantly black organization was not the issue that led  to Dolezal's downfall. Whites have been involved with the NAACP since  its founding back in 1909. People of any racial background can be  members of the NAACP, and hold office in that organization. 

It  was Dolezal's deception, not her race, that did her in. There was  nothing to prevent her from achieving the office of branch president as a  white woman. But if she could lie about her racial background, what  credibility could she claim on other matters? Despite her apparently  sincere affiliation with black people, she had become too hot to  handle. 

Ironically, Light-skinned blacks have  been passing for white since the days of slavery. Dolezal's case is one  of the few in which a white person has attempted to pass for black.

Recently, a documentary film about Dolezal has been released under a clever title: The Rachel Divide.  Dolezal, who wears her hair in blond dreadlocks, now goes by the name  Nkuchi Amare Diallo. The transformation of her racial identity  continues.

However, Dolezal's is not the first  case of racial ambiguity in the ranks of the NAACP. From 1931 to 1955,  the national president of that organization was a man named Walter  White. This is how White described himself in his autobiography, A Man Called White:

"I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere upon me."

In  his own genealogical research, White found that of his 32  great-great-great grandparents, only five were black. He grew up during  the predominance of the infamous "one-drop" rule, which meant that any  known black ancestry, however remote (i.e., "one drop of Negro blood")  was sufficient to classify a person as black, with all the obstacles and  disadvantages that status incurred.

Booker T.  Washington, a prominent black leader during the late 19th and early 20th  centuries, once quipped to a white friend: "We Negroes must have the  strongest blood in the world, if all it takes is one drop of it to turn  one of you into one of us."  Well, Walter White had five drops of black  blood. Yet, had he chosen to do so, he could easily have ignored those  drops and passed for white. No one would have been the wiser, and some  might have applauded him for slipping out of the chains of racism. 

And,  indeed, White did find occasion to conceal his true racial identity.  But he did so under the most extraordinary of circumstances.

When  he was young, White became involved with the nascent NAACP. Realizing  the opportunity his Caucasian appearance presented, NAACP officials  utilized him as the ultimate undercover again. Thus, White passed for  white and infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan and other white-supremacist  organizations that clamped a tight lid of terror on the South of the  early 20th century. Taking full advantage of his white guise, he  funneled valuable information about the plans and tactics of the  unsuspecting supremacists. 

White could not  maintain that deception forever. Eventually, word got out that a Negro  passing for white was spying on the supremacists. White was already  taking his life in his own hands with each of his missions to the South.  Now, his situation had become completely untenable. Thus, his  undercover days ended, and he served the NAACP in other capacities,  including national president, until his death in 1955 at the age of 61. 

The  times and circumstances of Walter White's and Rachel Dolezal's tenures  at the NAACP. are, of course, vastly different. She risked her  reputation; he risked his life. But they have one thing in common: They  each chose their color. One drop or no drops, that choice is  significant.