Rachel Dolezal, Identity, and the Ethics of Pedagogy in the Academy

Back to blogging, after summer of travel that has taken me to locales as diverse as Namibia, Seattle, Israel, and Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Time for an end-of-summer round-up of events and themes that defined Summer 2015.

The first reflection comes from my first stop–Namibia–where I delivered a presentation of TEN POINTS ON LAW AND RELIGION IN AFRICA at the conclusion of the third international conference of the African Consortium for Law and Religion Studies. For a variety of reasons, “Africa” itself was the first point on the list. We are a scholarly consortium devoted the identification and support of leading and cutting-edge scholarship on law and religion in Africa. Most of the time, that scholarship comes from African scholars themselves, and yet some of these African scholars are deeply immersed in and shaped by scholars and theorists from Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere. Sometimes the scholarship comes from outside of Africa, from European, American, and other scholars dedicated to the study of Africa. In constituting the consortium and its proceedings, there are inevitable questions of balance and representation, coupled with the desire to include the greatest diversity of perspectives possible.

I began the discussion of this point by relaying a story told to me by a leading scholar who had worked at a university whose English department was, at a particular point in time, very excited to fill a faculty position in its English department with the leading candidate from its search. The position was conceived as filling a lacuna in the department’s offerings in the area of African-American literature and would involve teaching a number of courses in that area. There was just one problem. The candidate selected for the position was an African-American male–but his specialty was nineteenth-century British women novelists!

If I remember correctly, the candidate was hired. Presumably, some sort of agreement was reached as to what he would teach. I have often wanted to fact-check this story–to look this person up and find out how it went. But it was a while back, the scholar who relayed the story is no longer living, and Google searches have been notably unforthcoming in turning up evidence. Was the scholar able to teach courses in his area of his research? Or, did his teaching shift toward African-American literature? And was he hired to teach African-American literature because he was African-American himself? While my efforts at fact-checking bore no fruit, I have had the opportunity to tell this story to academics of a wide range of identities and specialties, and it seems to have some resonance. There were more than a few affirming odds when I told it in Namibia.

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As I see it, the story raises profound questions not only of personal identity, but of academic freedom and the nature of scholarly inquiry. The possibility that the scholar in question was forced to teach from presumptions of his identity, rather than the weight of his research seems hard to accept. Are scholars limited to teaching from within the framework of their own experience? Many scholars do derive their curiosity and inquisitive energy from the events and themes that shape their own lives–and there have been many excellent scholarly projects as a result. But isn’t there value in scholarship and scholars who demonstrate a capacity for intellectual empathy that bridges gaps of history, nationality, gender, race, and other forms of identity?

There was abundant media attention this summer to the story of Rachel Dolezal, a professor of Africana studies, a civil rights activist, and president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who was “outed” as a white woman of Czech, German, and Swedish ancestry, after “passing” as black for more than a decade. The story is a complicated on of race, religion, interracial adoption, and a woman’s desire to distance herself from an apparently difficult past. It was widely reported and the subject of debate in a range of media.

Amid the many articles analyzing the Dolezal story, there was one that stood out for its relevance to larger issues of identity and pedagogy in academia. It was, moreover, one that provided a real-life example to supplement the story of the African-American male specialist in British women’s novels. The story, titled “Rachel Dolezal and Academia’s Authenticity Litmus Test,” was published in Al-Jazeera America by Jennifer Wilson, an African-American scholar of Russian and Central European literature–a bio that has some surface similarities to that of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. No one disputed Rice’s credentials to deal with the Russians in the world of diplomacy and foreign policy. But Williams reported a very different situation in academia.

Specifically, Williams observed, “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.” She avowed:

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.

And this avowal prompted the further reflection:

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.

Given the vicissitudes of the academic “job market” across many fields of higher education, it could be hard to tell, in Willams’s case or Dolezal’s. (There is evidence that the field of Russian studies has been endangered in the academy for some time.)

But as several of the comments to the Williams article noted, it is a question worth asking, in academia and in other areas of life. As important as identity is for individuals and for many of the events shaping our world today, are our horizons of empathy and inquiry limited to the “lockbox” of our own identity and experiences? Or are there “transidentity” questions of moral, ethical, social, and political importance that should push us beyond ourselves and into understanding both of differences that divide us and common aspirations that should bind us together? Just one set of questions in a summer of learning.

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