Author of history of racial passing to speak Thursday at IU Bloomington

Rachel Dolezal sparked outrage and scorn this summer when her parents said the Spokane, Wash., activist had lied about her race. But according to Stanford University historian Allyson Hobbs, the lack of sympathy for Dolezal was both revealing and disheartening.

“The harsh criticism of her sounds frighteningly similar to the way African-Americans were treated when it was discovered that they had passed as white,” she wrote in the New York Times. “They were vilified, accused of deception and condemned for trying to gain membership to a group to which they did not and could never belong.”

Allyson Hobbs

Allyson Hobbs

Hobbs will speak this week at Indiana University Bloomington, launching the 2015-16 speaker series sponsored by the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society. Her talk, at 4 p.m. Thursday in Bridgwaters Lounge at the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center, will focus on her recent book “A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in the United States.”

The talk is free and open to the public.

“We chose Allyson to launch the speaker series because her work fits so well with our fall theme of ‘Boundaries and Inequalities,’” said Dina Okamoto, director of the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society and associate professor of sociology.

“Racial passing is a hidden and understudied social phenomenon which has important implications for both racial identity and inequality,” she said. “We now live in an age when diversity and multiraciality are new realities, when individuals have more freedom to choose their identities. But in fact, as cases like Rachel Dolezal’s have demonstrated, identity choices are still fraught and controversial.”

Hobbs will discuss the challenges and possibilities that faced countless African-Americans who chose to pass as white between the 18th and mid-20th centuries, often leaving behind family and community.

She notes that the significance of passing evolved with changes in race relations. Before the Civil War, African-Americans sometimes passed to escape slavery. After emancipation, it was often seen as an act of betrayal. But during the long Jim Crow era, it became a path to social and economic advancement.

“Although black Americans who adopted white identities reaped benefits of expanded opportunity and mobility,” Hobbs said, “my talk helps us to recognize and understand the grief, loneliness and isolation that accompanied — and often outweighed — these rewards.”

Hobbs is an assistant professor of history at Stanford, where she teaches courses on American identity, African-American history and other topics. In addition to academic work, she has written recently for the New Yorker, the Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. “A Chosen Exile” received the Frederick Jackson Turner Award for best first book in American History and the Lawrence Levine Award for best book in American cultural history.

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