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Passing in the Classroom

Academics weigh in on the curious case of Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who allegedly passed as a black instructor of African-American studies for five years.

June 15, 2015
 
Eastern Washington University
Rachel Dolezal

Within a few hours last week, Rachel Dolezal, the head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP and an adjunct instructor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, went from a community leader to an unwitting celebrity. Apparently outed by her own white parents as having pretended to be black for the better part of decade, Dolezal attracted a startling amount of attention, from the New York Times to People magazine to blogs and social media.

Much of the interest so far has centered on Dolezal’s potentially falsified application for a police ombudsman position and her involvement in the NAACP, which for now is standing by her. Much less ink has been spilled over Dolezal’s position as a university instructor and the issues her self-identification poses for her profession, her discipline and her students. But the case has nonetheless captivated academics, who in interviews condemned what they called Dolezal’s ethical transgressions while pointing to larger cultural forces at work.

“Speaking for myself, as an African-American woman, I know how important it is to my students -- even though it is not my intention -- that I am a role model, again whether I want to be or not,” said Nyasha Junior, an assistant professor of religious studies at Temple University who’s been following the Dolezal case. “People want to hear my story and celebrate my success because they see an African-American woman in the front of the classroom, which is something you don’t see very often, certainly not in a university setting.”

So for someone to be pretending to be a black woman in the way that Dolezal appears to have done -- changing her hair and darkening her skin to adopt a number of “stereotypical” features of African-American women -- Junior said, “from an educational perspective, it feels like mimicry. Not what you would expect from an educator having a certain level of appreciation and respect for her subject matter or material or her students, even.”

Leslie Bow, a professor of English and Asian-American studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who has written about transracialism, said Dolezal didn’t seem to be transracial -- a concept she said has been most commonly invoked in terms of adoption, such as when white parents adopt children of color -- as some have claimed. (Bow also has argued that transracialism indicates a kind of "social betweenness," such as Asians being treated as black or white under segregation.) Rather, Dolezal was “passing” as black, she said. And while the issue is highly complex, Dolezal's actions amounted to “misrepresentation, particularly to her students."

Bow called that an "ethical lapse." Moreover, she said, Dolezal’s “taking the place of faculty of color by allowing her colleagues to assume that she’s black. With [faculty diversity figures] being as they are in academia, that’s an issue to me.”

Dolezal’s narrative -- apparently that she is part black, white and Native American -- began to unravel following local police and journalism investigations into several hate crimes she reported against her. Soon, Dolezal’s parents -- from whom she is reportedly estranged, and whom she has accused of physical abuse -- were giving national media interviews, saying their daughter was in fact white. As proof, they produced a birth certificate and photographs of their daughter with straight, blond hair.

That conflicted with Dolezal’s previous claims that her father was black. When confronted by a TV news reporter on Thursday, who asked if her father was the black man she’d posted a photo of on Facebook, she said yes.

But when the reporter asked Dolezal if she was African-American, she replied, "I don't understand the question of -- I did tell you that, yes, that's my dad.”

YouTube

Elsewhere, including on social media, Dolezal has presented herself as black.

Facebook

Dolezal’s response to the question of whether or not she was African-American bothered Aaron Bady, a postdoctoral fellow in English and specialist in African literature at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Putting aside the trust issues this raises, how could such a person operate in the classroom?” he said via email. “Someone who teaches in this area should be able to answer that question; being a teacher in that area means you have to understand that question. But if her understanding is filtered through a need to present herself as a particular kind of person, then her teaching is likely to be, to put it simply, quite bad.”

In a public statement issued to a local TV news station Friday, Eastern Washington University distanced itself from Dolezal, saying she’s been hired since 2010 on a “quarter by quarter basis as an instructor in the Africana education program. This is a part-time position to address program needs. Dolezal is not a professor. The university does not feel it is appropriate to comment on issues involving her personal life. The university does not publicly discuss personnel issues."

The university did not immediately respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment, but Scott Finnie, professor and director of Africana studies, said Dolezal was an effective teacher and researcher with a strong grounding in her field. He said he’d presented with her several times at local events, and that she’d been hired consistently, quarter after quarter, for at least three years.

“Those decisions are based on her effectiveness in the classroom setting, and because of her passion and mind-set and research, and because of her credentials and her ability to lead her students into critical analysis,” Finnie said. “We found her services valuable to our goals.”

Dolezal, who holds a master’s in fine arts from Howard University -- earned before she began passing -- specializes in representations of blackness in visual culture. She's taught classes such as African and African-American art history, African-American culture and “the black woman’s struggle," according to her Eastern Washington faculty bio.

Like other scholars, Finnie said it was absolutely not a requirement to be black to teach Africana studies. Indeed, many prominent African-American studies scholars are white. And the decision to hire Dolezal was not based on her status as an activist or NAACP roles, Finnie added. But Finnie said she had always presented herself as black to colleagues and that is how they knew her.

Asked if Dolezal has misrepresented herself, Finnie said what’s known about her thus far is just “the tip of the iceberg on her personal story,” and that he preferred to “let the dust settle” before rushing to judgment about why she did what she did or her fitness for teaching going forward. Academic integrity is important and will be protected, he said, but it’s too early to make any definitive statement. For now, Dolezal is still scheduled to teach in the fall.

Little has surfaced so far about the conditions in Dolezal's classroom, beyond a BuzzFeed report about a former student who complained Dolezal once doubted whether she looked sufficiently Hispanic to participate in a class activity about experiences with discrimination.

Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who has written extensively about race and education, said Dolezal might be able to move forward with her students by telling the truth and apologizing.

Her biggest offense? Having used race to “authenticate her ability to teach the subject” or somehow raise her academic status, if in fact she did, Giroux said -- since that would play into all kinds of falsehoods about identity and scholarship and politics. One needn’t live out an experience to teach it, he said.

“It’s like somebody saying they were in the Vietnam War, and they weren’t,” Giroux said. “That’s a terrible pedagogical lesson for students. You can’t be dishonest with students and expect them to have an ethical pedagogical practice. The hypocrisy is a little too overwhelming there.”

Like Giroux and seemingly half the world, Bow, at Madison, also wondered what motivated Dolezal to pass as black.

Those African-Americans who have passed historically have done so to avoid discrimination, Bow said via email. “That’s not the case here: if there’s some sense of gain, then what is it? In regard to the teaching, her gain involves the authority derived from identity politics: that you ‘know’ your subject matter experientially.”

“Lived experience” has never been a criterion for professors, she said -- think of all those Victorian literature scholars out there, for example -- “but in the case of identity-based epistemologies and fields, it is viewed as an enhancement because it represents a diversity of perspective, a widening of how we know. But that criterion for authenticity deserves to be looked at more closely: What exactly ‘counts’ as lived experience, particularly for scholars and teachers of color?”

Dolezal did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a TV news interview over the weekend, she said was assuming the role of mother to her younger, adopted brother, who is black, and that her identity made it easier for the family. Other family members have questioned that explanation. 

Asked if she was misrepresenting herself to the public, Dolezal said, "It's more important for me to clarify that with the black community and executive board [of the NAACP] than to explain it to a community that I don't really think understands race and ethnicity." Asked if she was African-American, Dolezal said she preferred the term black and considered herself to be black.

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Bow also noted that Dolezal’s done a lot of anti-racist work in her life -- something she said can’t be discounted. And DNA sequencing is revealing that race is evermore “fictive,” in that biology does not simply confer race on anyone, she said.

Nevertheless, Dolezal’s misrepresentation, especially to her students, remains problematic, Bow said.

Bady, at Texas, said he thought that deception is one reason Dolezal’s case has captured so much attention.

“For me, the nerve she strikes is the lying,” he said. If she wants to be “open and honest about who she is and who she thinks she is -- if she wants to say that race is a construct and that she's transracial or whatever -- that is a very different thing than actively constructing a false past.”

Junior, at Temple, attributed the viral nature of the case to the trove of photos and videos Dolezal’s shared of herself on social media.

YouTube

But there are bigger issues at play, she said. “Any time somebody crosses a boundary, people flip out about policing those boundaries. If someone crosses a line, all of the sudden, how good was the line to begin with? Maybe it’s more fluid than we imagine and that’s scary for people who are invested in those markers and boundaries.”

Of course, she said, all that must be considered along with the fact that Dolezal lied for years, including to her students.

Giroux said he got the sense that Dolezal was somehow “carried away” by subject matter that’s close to her heart. But the frenzy over her story is more about our culture than Dolezal herself, even though it doesn’t seem that way, he said.

“We live in a country that wants to personalize everything -- we privatize these issues and then we have to talk about character, and then everything else disappears,” said Giroux, who is American. “But we don’t know what the context is here. We don’t know what the pressure was on her. What does it mean to live in a society where there are pressures on people to the point that they have to lie about themselves to do something they’re good at?”

Giroux also said he thought Dolezal’s case came at a time, post-Ferguson, in which the “lie” that racism doesn’t exist has been cracked wide open.

Finnie, Dolezal’s program chair, also said he thought interest in the story reflected heightened tensions about race going back to 2008, when President Obama was elected.

“The whole myth of postracial America has had its ugly head stuck out aboveground,” he said. “The racial undertones that have developed underground in a faceless, institutional way, we’re now having to come to terms with what’s been happening on this San Andreas fault line of race.”

But perhaps the biggest reason this has captured the attention of academics in particular is that race is in so many ways an academic issue.

“Identity has really been placed in a secured locked box for all of us,” Finnie said. “But so much has been based on assumption and the social construct of race itself. You know we’re all 99.9 percent the same.”

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