What Does Alice Goffman Have in Common With Rachel Dolezal?

A law prof writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education has an answer.


When last we heard of Alice Goffman, the Penn alum whose undergrad field project became the renowned (and controversial) ethnography On the Run, she was dealing with charges that her book’s account of the years she spent immersed in a poor black Philadelphia neighborhood was something less than truthful. That flurry died down, only to be reignited by a long article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week by Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Prior critiques of Goffman focused on her methodology and veracity, and while Campos addresses those, it’s another facet of his argument against the young white sociologist that will ring particularly true for Philadelphians.

Here’s a passage from On the Run in which Goffman describes her reaction upon arriving at Princeton for grad school after her harrowing years in the ’hood:

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.

And here’s Campos’s response to that:

Alice Goffman is the daughter of Erving Goffman, one of the greatest sociologists of his generation. Her mother is the noted sociolinguist Gillian Sankoff, and her adoptive father (Erving Goffman died when she was an infant) is the influential linguist William Labov. Until their recent retirements, both Sankoff and Labov were on the Penn faculty. Goffman grew up, in her own words, “in a wealthy white neighborhood in downtown Philadelphia.” She attended the Baldwin School, an elite preparatory academy, before her years as an undergraduate at Penn and a graduate student at Princeton.

Given her life experience, it seems extraordinary that Goffman could have been transformed, psychically speaking, into a poor black resident of the ghetto living in terror of the police and constantly ready to go on the run.

If you’re at all familiar with the Baldwin School, not to mention Penn—well, yeah, it does seem kind of weird. But recent fracases over who gets to claim blackness—just this week, it was Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King on the rack—lend a particular resonance to Campos’s observation about the arrival-at-Princeton section:

[U]nlike other things in her book, this passage, oddly enough, rings true. Throughout On the Run, the author’s desire not merely to understand but to identify totally with her subjects—to become in every way a part of their world—is palpable.

Campos isn’t decrying Goffman’s behavior on racial grounds; his argument is that academia is far too trusting and lacking in rigor in assessing sociological reporting. Goffman, he says, is “a product of system that uncritically rewards the kind of things she was doing, even when those things may have included engaging in serious crimes, or serious academic misconduct.”

While the lofty arguments and rhetoric continue, one thing’s for sure: The Philly neighborhood in which Goffman lived remains dangerous and mired in poverty.