It may be hard for many to relate to the remarkable story of Rachel Dolezal, the African-American studies professor and head of the NAACP chapter of Spokane, Wash., who this week was reported as having been born into a white family. Dolezal, who has not just embraced African-American political and social causes but African-American culture and identity as well, wrote in a December 2014 column about “the asphyxiation we are experiencing as black people in America.” And in a 2010 interview with the New York Times, highlighted by National Review, Dolezal said she would be uncomfortable attending a tea party rally because of the preponderance of white people. “It would make me nervous to be there unless I went with a big group,” she said.
For me, the story immediately evoked a passage from the acclaimed and controversial 2014 book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in American City,” by Alice Goffman, a young white sociologist who for six years immersed herself into the life and struggles of a low-income black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, a community suffering from high incarceration rates and aggressive policing. Goffman, who began this work as a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, explains that her identity as a young white woman was initially an “encumbrance” to her research, “one that I had to invest significant time and effort to overcome.” Yet later, after becoming more comfortable in her new surroundings, she describes the culture shock and apprehension she felt when she began graduate studies at Princeton University, a much more affluent and white community, and and started commuting between the two worlds:
The [Princeton] students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them.
. . . The Princeton students discussed indie rock bands — white-people music, to me — and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They had witty chit-chat and e-mail banter. They listened to iPods and checked Facebook. I’d also apparently missed finding a spouse in college — many of the students had brought one along to graduate school. And since I’d been restricting my media only to what Mike and his friends read and watched and heard, I couldn’t follow conversations about current events, and learned to be silent during any political discussions lest I embarrass myself. Moreover, I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings. They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women.
More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups. I skipped the graduate college’s orientation to avoid what I expected would be large numbers of white people gathered together in a small space. In cafeterias and libraries and bus and train stations, I’d search for the few Black people present and sit near them, feeling my heart slow down and my shoulders relax after I did.
Above everything, I feared white men. Not all white men: white American men who were relatively fit, under the age of fifty, with short hair. I avoided the younger white male faculty at all costs. On some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me, but I could not escape the sweat or the pounding in my chest when they approached. Office hours were out — I couldn’t be in a room alone with them. When I had to pass them in the hallways, I could feel my heart racing, like I was getting ready to run. Very few professors of color were in the Sociology Department at the time, so for advising I stuck to women, non-American men, and men who had accents or who were otherwise far outside the cop mold.
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