Does The Rachel Dolezal Story Hold Lessons About Race Relations in America?

06/18/2015 11:58 am ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016

The Rachel Dolezal story has sparked a national conversation about racial identity, and for the last week, the story has dominated the media stratosphere and has been the number one trending topic on social media. The tale of the now-former president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP chapter -- a white woman who passed herself off as black -- has evoked a myriad of reaction and commentary, ranging from outrage to empathy to fodder for late-night comedians.

While I do not condone the dishonesty and deception of Rachel Dolezal's actions, I think of her story as a teachable moment about race relations in America -- about how the racial landscape has changed over the years. And about how far America has yet to go before blacks and whites are shown equal treatment.

As a Black woman, I understand, given the persistent systemic racism in America, why many blacks and, in particular, Black women, were angered by the fact that Rachel Dolezal seems to lack any understanding of how her choosing to identify as Black, sans any African-American heritage, is in fact a most compelling demonstration of white privilege. It's not quite so easy for blacks in America to change their race.

No one knows the real motivation for this elaborate deception. Dolezal's explanation to Matt Lauer on the Today Show was to simply say, "I identify as black." She has done so, she said, since she was five years old, when she drew pictures of herself using a brown crayon. Whatever her motivation, the story got me thinking about what impact it would have on race relations in this country if White Americans had the opportunity to not just experience what it is like to be Black but to see what racism feels like first-hand.

What would it be like for White Americans to have to walk a mile in a Black person's shoes? To be sure, race relations in America have improved since two white journalists passed themselves off as black more than a half-century ago. Ray Sprigle, in 1948, and John Howard Griffin, (Black Like Me) in 1959, reported on what it was like to use "For Colored" entrances and take Jim Crow taxis.

Racism today is more subtle -- but it is most certainly still with us. If you're Black, you're more likely to be followed by security staff in a store. You're more likely to be the subject of a traffic stop. If you're a Black woman, you earn roughly 64 percent of what a White male makes -- compared with 78 percent for White females.

Would race relations improve if whites could truly experience what it is like to be black in America? Would there be fewer police shootings of unarmed black men? Would there be more economic opportunity for African Americans?

In order for race relations to improve in America, Whites and Blacks must move away from seeing each other through a Victim/Villain prism. Walking a mile in each other's shoes would go a long way toward accomplishing that.