The first time I read about the woman who the state of Louisiana says is black and who has gone to court to have herself declared white, my reaction was, "How sad . . . What self-hate." Then the story further unfolded -- Susie Guillory Phipps, 48, white-skinned and black-haired, was shocked, when she applied for a birth certificate a few years ago, to find that the Bureau of Vital Statistics had her down as "colored."
When it developed that some blacks in New Orleans are leading the applause for Phipps' fight, I couldn't brush this aside as a single eccentric's identity crisis.
The latest statements that caught my eye were made to The New York Times by Dr. Dan Thompson, a black sociologist at Dillard University, who is the great-grandson of a white slave owner in Georgia:
"I am cheering Susie Phipps on for two reasons," Dr. Thompson said. "First, she is emphasizing something we've said all along: It is a great advantage to be white in American society. It costs several thousand dollars a year to be black. Schools, clubs, economic advantages are still to this day much better if you are white.
"Secondly," he said, "I hope her case will dramatize the foolishness of race as a criterion in our society. I would like to see this distinction abolished. I would like to see racial designation gone. When you apply for a job and somebody asks your race, it's demeaning. What the hell difference does it make? You're an American citizen, period," he said.
"Finally, I would say race does make a difference, and if I were her, by God, I'd try to get it changed, too, if I could."
Louisiana has traced Phipps' genealogy back 222 years, to a black slave named Margarita, her great-great-great-great grandmother. Today, some of her relatives consider themselves white, while others consider themselves black.
Phipps, who is married to a wealthy white seafood importer, says: "I'm not light, I'm white. Take this color off my birth certificate. Let people look at me and tell me what I am."
Reflecting on all of this, I've had to conclude that my first reaction betrayed a temporary lapse in my understanding of the nature of American society. This really is nothing new on the race relations landscape.
It's naive to get caught up in this as an "interesting" court case; it is having your head in the sand to be shocked. Susie Phipps is doing what many blacks are doing -- running away from being black.
It sounds harsh and it is a hard admission to make, for I'm as proud of the '60s revolution of black consciousness as anybody else. But it is a mistake to think it took us further than it did.
Instead of tut-tutting Susie Phipps, those of us who have been fooling ourselves into thinking that something had changed fundamentally in America ought to be thankful for the reminder that it hasn't. This story is as old as the nation.
It's not hard to understand why so many blacks still secretly worship white attributes. The society fosters that attitude. Every time a black person turns on television, he or she learns that if you're not white, you don't have much of a place in this society. It's more subtle than a century ago, but it's not all that different.
And in the middle of the Reagan administration, thinking black folks shouldn't need the message that the reason it remains more advantageous economically and politically to have white skin rather than black skin is because white people have organized power on that premise.
You don't escape the prison by pretending that you're free, but by realistic analysis of how racism works and why it persists. This takes courage and hard work. The few blacks who have undergone this analysis and pledged to fight for justice and self-respect are examples to us all.
Susie Phipps' suit really speaks to the emotion and psychology surrounding racism as much as to its politics and economics.
It strikes me that the simplest response for blacks is the two-word prescription I've heard psychiatrist Frances Welsing give: Respect Yourself. Then you can begin to change the negative circumstances, and not pretend that they aren't there.