Rachel Dolezal resigns as president of NAACP Spokane chapter

Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal appears on the NBC News "TODAY" show in New York June 16, 2015 in a still handout image from video provided by NBC. Dolezal, who has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American, said on Tuesday she identifies as black. Dolezal, in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, said she began portraying herself as black as early as age 5 and that her identity was "not some freak ... mockery black-face performance." REUTERS/NBC News' TODAY show/Anthony Quintano/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Handout/Reuters/Today/Anthony Quintano)

It may be hard for many to relate to the stunning 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 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, an area suffering from high incarceration rates and aggressive policing. Goffman explains that her identity as a young white woman was initially an “encumbrance” for her research, “one that I had to invest significant time and effort to overcome.” Yet later, after growing more comfortable as a white woman in a majority-black environment, Goffman 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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