Rachel Dolezal: racial impostor? Credit: family photo: Eastern Washington Univ.

One of the reasons I’ve been so cynical about America’s “conversation about race” is its circular character. The same conclusions keep getting arrived at, the same rhetorical teams keep trotting out the same old plays. It seems that every generation needs to hash out this hoary American debate for itself.

New Orleans has been having a conversation about race longer than most places because racial identity here has generally been more complicated, more nuanced, than in areas with less racial mixing. The whole nation experienced a cataclysmic revolution in race relations 50 years ago, but racial consciousness has been evolving more slowly since then, notwithstanding the Obama presidency — more a matter of optics, perhaps, than profound social change.

The latest twist in the national debate is brought to you by former Spokane NAACP chapter president Rachel Dolezal.

Though black people “passing” as white were a staple of the “conversation about race” before the Civil Rights era, a white woman “passing” as black, as Dolezal managed to do until recently, has provided a fresh enough twist to light up the twittersphere, albeit with chatter more often inane than insightful.

Ebullient postmoderns celebrate the freedom of all to invent their own identities, regardless of biological restrictions like skin color or sex. They point out that in physical terms Rachel Dolezal’s identity migration has involved nowhere near the striking visual turnabout that Caitlyn Jenner’s did.

In another corner (there are more than two in this boxing ring), many African-Americans see Dolezal’s choice to self-identify as black as yet another arrogant expression of white privilege. While she can choose her race, many black people are too dark to do that. There’s a sense, too, that a white person is colonizing the limited sphere of black privilege, at a time when white privilege still brings many more rewards and remains more fiercely guarded against black intruders. (Note, too, that this vigorous defense of whiteness relegates a wider range of skin-tones to the black side of the rampart.)

Other African-Americans are willing to overlook Dolezal’s embellished racial identity out of respect for her commitment to racial justice. Then there are the white anti-racist liberals who seek to enhance their own cred by agreeing loudly with aggrieved blacks that Dolezal’s appropriation of their limited “racial capital” is unconscionable. (Conservatives try to devalue that asset by calling it “victim capital,” forgetting, I guess, that black cool is a currency held in high regard by many a white liberal.)

Unfortunately, white supporters of racial equality are often inhibited in the scope of their analysis by fear of treading on the authentic black subject’s license to have the last word in any discussion of race.

Finally, aggrieved white right-wingers, convinced they are being condescended to by other white people, whine that they are somehow being stripped of their right to have any opinions at all about race ­— those opinions often being racist, but not always.

The problem people have with Dolezal is not that she’s a white anti-racist or even that she assumed a leadership role in the NAACP, but that she has chosen to fight racism as a black person, rather than as a white person.

The proper role to be played by white anti-racists triggered debate 50 years ago and a hundred years before that. When my white parents were active in the Civil Rights struggle in Mississippi in the 1960s, the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) resolved to expel white members and become an all-black organization, a step the NAACP has never taken.

…In our time the white-on-white racial debate is most often disingenuous and unproductive, an entertainment conducted to tittering laughter by elite media liberals like Jon Stewart …

The idea of an all-black SNCC wasn’t meant as a slap in the face to drive white allies from the struggle for black rights. The idea was that white people should form their own organizations for combating racism. Thus did SNCC spawn a more heavily white offshoot called the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC). The point was that white people should speak to white people about race and promote anti-racism among them. That didn’t mean agreeing with liberal friends over craft cocktails; the SSOC plan was to reach out to working class whites, the people most targeted by racist propaganda, and organize them, not laugh at them for being dumb racists.

Unfortunately, in our time the white-on-white racial debate is most often disingenuous and unproductive, an entertainment conducted to tittering laughter by elite media liberals like Jon Stewart and centered on making fun of “rednecks.” The assumption that poor white southerners are probably racist is an inoculation against the guilt that stems from not doing a @#$% thing about a grievous social problem that hip references to race and gender don’t even begin to address: the massive and mounting economic inequality that’s tearing America apart.

Almost a century before SNCC and SSOC, white anti-racists in the labor and populist movements hit on what strikes me as a far more enlightened strategy. It was to show working white people that anti-black racism undermined white interests, too. Capitalist overlords, from the agrarian planter class to industrial robber barons, had cleverly used racism to create a bogeyman — the notion that working blacks, their natural economic allies, posed some kind of threat to the white working poor. Thus was racism used to subvert a cross-racial working class movement from gaining real momentum, even in the teeth of the Great Depression.

It worked then and it still works, as can be seen in a glance at post-election maps of today’s voting patterns. In short, the effort by white southerners to inculcate anti-racist values in other white southerners has not gone well — unless we recall that even white southern Republicans claim to be anti-racists nowadays — and I suppose that counts for something.

Michael T. Jeffries, writing in the Boston Globe, has offered one of the most cogent responses to the Dolezal incident. Obviously, a white person passing for black is not a simple symmetrical inversion of a black person passing for white. Jeffries points out that black people “passing” for white (passé blanc, in old New Orleans parlance) can be a form of resistance to racism. But this is an iconoclastic view in the context of African-American literature, where passing has most often been represented in negative terms.

Two famous novels on the theme are Nella Larsen’s “Passing,” (1929) and James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” (1912) While Larsen and Johnson were celebrated figures of the Harlem Renaissance, New Orleans writers were way ahead of the curve on this issue. Local writer Alice Dunbar-Nelson captured the haziness and variety of racial identities in 19th Century New Orleans, as did white writer George Washington Cable before her. And from John Howard Griffin’s “Black Like Me” in 1961 to Nell Zink’s hot off-the-press “Mislaid” — both written by whites and exploring white passé noir experiences in the South — the topic has continued to fascinate.

The New Orleans contribution to the national obsession with racial identity is rooted in our racial indeterminacy — with being neither black nor white, with being both, or not being able to tell which. It was a big theme in New Orleans literature and culture before race relations here were finally Americanized in the Jim Crow era.

Lafcadio Hearn wrote of New Orleans in the 1880s: “Every race that the world boasts is here, and a good many races that are nowhere else… .” In one of the most striking scenes in Cable’s 1880 masterpiece, “The Grandissimes,” a transplant from Philadelphia discovers that his landlord is … well, what is he? “Ah ham nod whide, m’sieu,” the landlord advises the bewildered northerner.

As New Orleans became more American and more homogenized linguistically as well as ethnically (with immigration tapering off after the 1920s), the color-line became ever more stark.

Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village,” never published in her lifetime, is a tragedy of racial determinism, depicting the unhappy fate that befalls an Afro-Creole man who, feeling neither black nor white, tries to live on the white side of the growing racial divide. He ascends to the heights of elite New Orleans society, but is emotionally torn apart by fear of discovery and resentment that he has been required to make such a choice.

Another story of Dunbar-Nelson’s, “The Pearl in the Oyster,” published in 1900, is more like a comedy of errors. The protagonist first outrages his Afro-Creole family by attending a black university, then blends in with the Irish in the Irish Channel, then tries to go home again to his people in the Creole districts, only to discover that they resent his dalliance among whites too much to accept him again. He resolves to leave New Orleans forever, saying to his wife: “… We will start life again, but whether we decide to be white or black, we will stick to it.”

With the Americanization of race relations in the Jim Crow era, New Orleans became much less racially imaginative. My dad reports, however, that in the Ninth Ward shortly before my boyhood there, many racial self-identifications seemed to hinge on trust, perhaps owing to the lingering presence of dark-skinned non-black ethnicities. I remember him saying later that the funny thing about a David Duke rally in New Orleans was how many people in attendance wouldn’t be allowed to join the Klan in Alabama.

I am old enough to have known some of the low-income white people who crossed over into poor black society, most commonly women who married in. (These were common-law marriages, of course.) They were not exactly passing; the black world knew these women to be racial interlopers — and accepted them anyway. And of course there was no turning back and rejoining white society once they made the choice to have black children.

But did a socially established white person ever actually assume a black identity, long-term, in the era before Rachel Dolezal? According to University of New Orleans anthropologist Martha Ward, that’s exactly what the love of Marie Laveau’s life, Jean Louis Christophe Duminy de Glapion, did in the 1820s, so great was his commitment to love the Voodoo queen as a peer.

And what lies ahead — for us? For Rachel Dolezal? In her 1976 novel “Woman on the Edge of Time,” Marge Piercy depicted an anarcho-syndicalist utopia of seductive charm. It could not be called post-racial; there is a wide range of communities in Piercy’s American future: African villages, Native American ones, and a host of other cultural models. But the citizen gets to choose which culture to live in, regardless of her racial or ethnic background. Naïve, perhaps, but sweet. And of course not possible in the kind of economic rat race we live in, one that pits us against the wrong people for all the wrong reasons —such as their skin color or the color they want to be.

C.W. Cannon teaches New Orleans Studies and English at Loyola University.