Dan Pelle / File / AP

Rachel Dolezal and academia’s authenticity litmus test

Why do we insist that people have personal experience with an issue to be an expert on it?

June 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

Like everyone else, I read with amused shock as reports emerged that Rachel Dolezal, president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, had been lying about her race. Although she was born to white parents, she claimed to be black. Less concerned with whether it was right or wrong, I found myself wondering what could drive someone to do that, particularly someone who should really know better.

She has spent much of her career within the walls of academia. She is an instructor in the Africana studies program at Eastern Washington University and has immersed herself in black history and culture. Suddenly, this story started to make sense to me. As those of us in the academy know, there is an unspoken social pressure to have a personal connection with the culture you research, and preferably the personal connection is that you are from that culture.

Dolezal’s faculty Web page states that she teaches courses on African-American culture, including a class titled Black Women’s Struggle. This item in particular proved to be a lightning rod on Twitter. “You don’t know the struggle,” one of the comments directed at her read. These reactions are what many of us who lack a shared cultural history with our academic disciplines of choice often fear will be directed at us. It made me wonder whether Dolezal, despite her decades of work advocating for black women’s rights and racial equality, felt that she would never be taken seriously discussing black feminism if she was known as just some white girl from Montana.

I am an African-American female who has taught college courses on Russian and Central European literature. I have absolutely no Slavic heritage. Last year I finished my Ph.D. in the subject at Princeton and bravely went on the infamous academic job market. Every tenure-track position I interviewed for ultimately went to someone Russian or from a neighboring country. “We really want someone who can bring the students direct exposure to the target culture,” one interviewer told me.

I fully understand the intangibles that come with actually being from a culture, not just studying it. However, I felt uneasy about linking academic work to personal experience. How can we inspire our students to study a foreign culture if we discount their input by virtue of who they are and where they are from (or not from)? As one of my non-Russian colleagues put it, “When did research become me-search?” Reading the criticisms of Dolezal’s work as an Africana studies professor on social media, I wondered if she had been trying to avoid what I was running into in my career — academia’s authenticity litmus test. 

Perhaps Dolezal felt that she couldn’t be taken seriously as a professor of the African-American experience without passing as black.

In the fall of 2012, I co-taught a course on 20th century Central European literature at Princeton as a graduate student. The professor who ran the course is a world-renowned scholar of Polish and Czech literature. She is Polish and had been actively involved in anti-Soviet political demonstrations. The course included a lot of material on the Holocaust, and I am not Jewish. The only thing I had personally in common with the class was the century I was born in. Halfway through the semester, the lead instructor had to attend a conference, meaning I was to run the seminar by myself that week. The assigned reading was “This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen” by the Polish writer Tadeuz Borowski, based on his experience as a prisoner at Auschwitz. It tells the story of a concentration camp inmate responsible for sending Jews to the gas chamber and discusses how prisoners often betrayed one another, knowingly sending friends to their deaths. This was incredibly sensitive material that did not present concentration camp survivors as heroes or martyrs. It was a totally taboo topic, and I had to teach it alone.

“Open by discussing African involvement in the Atlantic slave trade,” I remember thinking to myself as I prepared for the class. “It’s a good analogy, and it will legitimize your right to bring up interethnic betrayal.” I opened with that. The class went well, probably because I had spent years training to teach this literature to college students. Why did I feel I needed to have a personal stake in the material to speak on it?  

For the first time this past year, I had the pleasure of knowing what it was like for my race to match my academic discipline. I taught a course in Moscow called the Harlem Renaissance: From New York to Tashkent, which focused on African-American writers and intellectuals who traveled to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ’30s. My job in Moscow required that I teach a course in American studies with a Russian component, and I just thought that would be a really fresh topic for the students. I blogged about it for the NYU Jordan Center on Russian Studies, and my posts were widely shared. Suddenly I was inundated with invitations to participate in conference panels on the black experience in Russia and to contribute to special issues of academic journals on the subject. It was a level of attention I had always wanted, and I was grateful. However, there was also a tinge of sadness. The African-American experience had nothing to do with my dissertation or any of my other research projects. Why had this attention come only when I started to talk about race? Did I finally make sense to my colleagues?

The reason identity politics always makes me feel unsettled is that it goes against the very reason that I have chosen to dedicate my life to the study of literature: my conviction that the creative imagination required in reading fiction can sow the seeds of empathy in my students. If they can imagine themselves as characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels, driven mad by crushing poverty and social humiliation, they can feel for the real pain of oppressed peoples everywhere.

Judging from my experience, perhaps Dolezal felt that she couldn’t be taken seriously as a professor of the African-American experience without passing as black. Before writing her off, we should examine our own assumptions and biases about who can speak credibly about what and whether the limits of empathy are restricted within cultural lines.

Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literature from Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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