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Spokane's NAACP leader would not be first to pass herself off as black

Rachel Dolezal would not be the first white to pass as black. John Howard Griffin did in 'Black Like Me'

Anyone who has been near a computer, TV or any electronic gadget is probably familiar with the strange story of Rachel Dolezal, the NAACP leader in Spokane, Wash., who is being accused of faking being black.

But how many of us know about Mezz Mezzrow, a white jazz musician who passed himself off as black? Mezzrow’s real name was Milton Mesirow, and he was better known for his skills on the clarinet and saxophone than the color of his skin.

But his ability to blend in with the group he felt comfortable with, and one that accepted him, shows that it is never a question of black or white when race comes into play, said Allyson Hobbs, who literally wrote the book on pretending to be a different race.

Hobbs' book, "A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life,” examines the history of African Americans who passed as white in an effort to evade the obstacles U.S. society placed in front of blacks.

What's unusual about Dolezal's situation is that she is accused of opting to pass as black, said Hobbs, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

Hobbs said she has been surprised at the venom directed at Dolezal, who according to her parents has no claim to African American ancestry. Hobbs said much of the anger is likely the result of people simply not being able to understand why someone born white would voluntarily give that up.

"Part of what we really struggle with is this notion that, if given the choice, a white person would not choose to give up their privilege of being white," said Hobbs. "I don't get the sense she's using a black identity in an opportunistic way. I think a lot of people just feel like, oh my God, why would someone choose to be black?"

In the case of Mezzrow, who was born to Russian Jewish immigrants, it had to do with his passion to learn to play the blues and his determination to immerse himself in the music, life and culture of black American musicians. In his autobiography, "Really the Blues," Mezzrow claims to have even convinced jailers that he was black when he was arrested on drug charges.

Perhaps the most famous example of a white person passing as black was John Howard Griffin, whose 1961 book, "Black Like Me," recounted his experiences living as a black man in the South. Griffin used drugs, sunlamps and creams to darken his skin.

It's unclear how many of the people who saw Mezzrow play really believed he was anything but a white man playing the blues. But Mezzrow lived from 1899 to 1972, and he had an advantage over Dolezal in his dream of being black: There was no social media to spew endless videos and photographs of him for the world to see and judge.

Dolezal, on the other hand, has been in the spotlight for years and has held herself up as a fierce defender of civil rights, based in part on what she says were her own experiences suffering hate crimes and other slights for being black.

She responded in passionate tones when she was confronted by a TV reporter Friday who suggested that she was responsible for some of the racial harassment she says has been directed at her and her sons.

"As a mother of two black sons, I would never terrorize my children, and I don't know any mother personally that would trump up or fabricate something so severe that would affect her kids," Dolezal said, adding that her 13-year-old was so shaken by one incident that he could not sleep alone for two weeks.

But Hobbs said it is exactly such indignation that is infuriating Dolezal’s detractors, especially the ones who have been on the receiving end of racist attacks.

"There definitely is this concern or this kind of sense of outrage that someone could try on an identity or that someone could decide they are going to choose a particular identity, whereas the people who actually inhabit that identity don’t have that option," Hobbs said. "They don’t have the ability to sort of put it on and take it off, almost like a costume or a disguise."

Still, Hobbs said Dolezal’s situation had led to a healthy conversation about who should decide each individual’s identity, and how one reaches conclusions about themselves and who they want to be.

“Your identity is not always of your own making. Rather, it's how do other people perceive you, how do other people see you?" she said. "That can both limit you, and also open up new avenues.”

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