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Dolezal Controvery Sparks Questions About Modern Civil Rights Movement
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Dolezal Controvery Sparks Questions About Modern Civil Rights Movement

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Dolezal Controvery Sparks Questions About Modern Civil Rights Movement

Dolezal Controvery Sparks Questions About Modern Civil Rights Movement
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The controversy over Rachel Dolezal's racial identity has sparked many public conversations, including one about the challenges faced by white people who are activists on racial justice issues.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, let's hear stories of people who support civil rights while acknowledging that they are white. This is something Rachel Dolezal did not do. She is the former NAACP leader from Spokane, Wash. who resigned after her parents said they are white even though she says she identifies as black. People who identify as white have supported civil rights for generations, though it is not always that easy. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this report.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: There's a long history of whites aligning themselves with the struggles of blacks in this country, from the abolitionist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries to the civil rights era of the 20th, when blacks and whites joined together to form the NAACP, to more recent protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That ain't right.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: That ain't right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, now.

CORLEY: The fatal shooting of black Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by a white neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012 sparked a new wave of activism. Michael Skolnik, who is white, serves on the board of the Trayvon Martin Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to violence prevention.

MICHAEL SKOLNIK: I don't believe racism can be solved without white people at the table.

CORLEY: And Skolnik says white allies must do even more than they have in the past.

SKOLNIK: The conversations about police brutality, about police reform or about race are oftentimes discussed at dinner tables between people of color. White people, we haven't really come to this conversation yet in mass numbers.

CORLEY: Skolnik has long worked for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons as Simmons' political director and the president of his digital website. Skolnik says he won't judge Rachel Dolezal about the choices she made, but says he's often been asked about what race he is because of the work he does.

SKOLNIK: It's easier, I think, for - oftentimes, especially for white people and sometimes even for black people - to think that I am black or to think that I am mixed race because, oh, you know, those people, they believe those things, and we don't really believe white people say those things.

CORLEY: For more than a decade, Sarah Halley has led workshops called White People Confronting Racism for the Philadelphia-based group Training for Change.

SARAH HALLEY: A lot of white people get stuck in this place of blame and shame.

CORLEY: And as a white person, Halley says she can talk to other whites and be heard.

HALLEY: So what we try to do is without blame and shaming people, we try to help people see and recognize both the racism that we've internalized as whites and that lives inside of us and also the racism that lives in the world.

CORLEY: Tim Wise, a white author who's written extensively about race and white privilege, says for this century's white allies, the challenge of racism is more nebulous than in the past.

TIM WISE: You may be fighting members of your own family who are not bigots or teachers in your kid's school who are not bigots but whose attitudes are still implicitly racist.

CORLEY: Wise says it's also tougher because some young white people who have friends of different races consider racism a problem of the past. And making reference to the Dolezal controversy, Wise says it's not necessary for white allies to reject their race.

WISE: If people of color were saying, hey, what we need y'all to do it is all become black and act like you're black and pretend to be black, then I guess we could talk about that being legitimate. But that is not what any black person, to my knowledge, has ever asked of white people.

CORLEY: Wise says as white allies, he and other activists must oppose white supremacy and insist that black lives matter. And Michael Skolnik says the issue for white society is not considering this a post-racial era but working to become post-racist. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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