When Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the concept of the White, Southern country lawyer defending a Negro accused of touching a White woman was inspirational. It showed how commitment to a moral cause could overcome social norms and bring justice to a community hungry for it.
It also showed something else about our nation’s social structure, that was, perhaps, more complex. If African Americans were to throw off the White oppression of generations, they would need the help of the ruling class, namely, Caucasian Catholics, Protestants and Jews, who were willing to stand up for every American’s fundamental human and civil rights to their neighbors, police, legislators and judges.
Some of those groups, namely the Catholics and the Jews, had also suffered the stigma of difference-ness, though, admittedly, not to the same extent. It was intolerance in different context. But those communities all understood there was a conscious decision by the bully class to forgo any effort at understanding, unwilling to share their economic and social superiority. Or their schools, bathrooms, water fountains and lunch counters.
The way to get past this willful ignorance, according to the hero of Lee’s story, Atticus Finch, was, as he told his daughter, “a simple trick:”
“[I]f you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view-”
“-Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
– To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3, by Harper Lee
Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, civil rights advocate who pretended to be the progeny of a mixed-race marriage, has gotten into a lot of trouble for taking Atticus’ advice literally. No one doubts her level of commitment. In fact, the N.A.A.C.P. issued a statement shortly after the story broke, remarking on how they “stand behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”
In the statement, the group emphasizes that the organization “has held a long and proud tradition of receiving support from people of all faiths, races, colors and creeds.” They go on to say, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” and they urge all to “respect her privacy in this matter.”
That does not mean we are unable to draw our own conclusions from her choice to be inauthentic about her background, despite her ability to fight for a cause. She obviously strongly identifies with African American culture and history. One can choose their religious identity. One can choose their gender identity. Her misrepresentations not withstanding, Dolezal has chosen a cultural identity.
The lies mean she is no hero. Neither, according to some, was Atticus Finch. Some believe that because the case was thrust upon him, he had no choice. Twenty-three years ago, the New York Times ran a story about the controversial law professor, Monroe Freedman, who penned an article saying that any lawyer who considers regarding Lee’s protagonist “as someone to emulate…would be making a terrible mistake.”
The Times goes on to describe Freedman’s stand:
“Mr. Freedman asked, what had Finch done up to that point to combat the forces that brought [Tom] Robinson down?
“Far from attacking racism at its root, Mr. Freedman charges, Finch was complicit in it. For all his gentlemanliness, he does not complain that blacks attending court are relegated to the balcony. He eats in segregated restaurants; he walks in parks where signs say ‘No Dogs or Colored Allowed.'”
But it was the response to Freedman’s words by Tim Hall, a law professor at the University of Mississippi at the time, that one can envision a young Rachel Dolezal reading and taking to heart.
“What Monroe really wants,” he told the Times, perhaps presciently, “is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1930’s, and if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero.”
What’s a hero? Someone who walks the talk? Then Dolezal qualifies. Her lie makes her imperfect. It’s certainly a lesson about integrity. But it doesn’t mean she cannot lead.
I’ve been close with people who have made cultural choices similar to the one that Dolezal made. Very close. Significant relationship close. The difference of course, is they did not deny their background, but they immersed themselves into the culture they chose very authentically, so there is no question about who they now are. They’re not pretending. They simply are their adopted culture. A bold choice, to be sure, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to declare whether or not it is a heroic one.