The case of Rachel Dolezal reveals a great deal of confused thinking about race and racism.
The US activist—who describes herself as black but whose parents insist she is white—this week resigned from the local leadership of the moderate civil rights group, the NAACP.
We may never fully understand Dolezal’s motivations, and there are serious questions that need answering. But the frenzy which this has caused does not help anti-racists.
There are many reasons why it is wrong for a white person to insist that they are black.
But the specific accusation of “acting black” carries with it reactionary overtones that go way beyond this somewhat unusual case. It suggests some common pattern of behaviour or culture that all black people share—something essential to our very nature. That is an argument long used by racists.
Black people are not homogenous—they are divided in all sorts of ways, particularly by class. It’s pointless to lump together the way of life of an African-American single mother on a Baltimore project with an African-American man with an MBA from Harvard.
In Britain, more than in the US, the term black is used in a political way. It helps us identify people who face discrimination because of their perceived race, ethnicity or skin colour. And it acts as a category of struggle, rather than simply an ethnic description.
In Britain it came into widespread use in the 1970s as means of uniting African, Caribbean and Asian people who faced battles against state racism and the Nazis. It was a means of bringing together people with many different traditions.
Used this way, black was intended to challenge stereotypes, not reinforce them. The misunderstanding of this is often compounded by an argument about the place of white people in the anti-racist movement.
Advocates of privilege theory dominate liberation politics in the US, and increasingly shape the left in British universities.
They argue that white people are beneficiaries of racism and receive unearned advantages because they do not face racism. Even whites who reject racism entirely are tarnished by it, they say, with traces of prejudice left untouched in the unconscious mind.
The practical conclusion of this is two-fold.
First, that white would-be activists must first acknowledge their “guilt” and accept they are racist—wittingly or unwittingly. Second, that white people can at best play only a supporting role in the movement.
This approach comes from seeing oppression as rooted in the relationships between individuals, rather than something that has its origins in class-based societies and the state.
But even a cursory look at the ways in which black people are disadvantaged reveals something far more systematic than individual prejudice. And contrary to surface appearances, most white people do have a vested interest in fighting racism.
Immigration controls, detention centres, police stop and search, miscarriages of justice, school exclusions, unemployment and poor housing—to name but a few—are crucial areas in which black people suffer racism.
Of course there are individual managers, police, judges, head teachers and so on who hold racist views. And of course we experience racism at the hands of these people.
But behind each stands the system and the state that are the main actors. To suggest anything else is to let the bigger perpetrators off the hook.
The division between workers from different countries and backgrounds is a key means by which the ruling class minority maintains its control. The very institutions of the state that are used to target black people are also directed against poor whites—and all those who resist.
That is one reason why there is long tradition of black and white working class unity in Britain —something that socialists have played a key role in developing and maintaining.
In the wake of the Dolezal case, the cultivation of a climate of guilt among those who do not face racism does nothing to help in this battle. Instead it neutralises would-be allies and makes it harder to generate the unity we need to bring down the racist system.