The revelation in the summer of 2015 that NAACP Chapter President Rachel Dolezal was a white woman who identified as black sparked a national debate about racial identity. This complex issue is the focus of the keynote presentation and panel discussion kicking off the Blackboard Jungle 9 Symposium on Thursday, March 31, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in the Dudley H. Davis Center.

Nikki Khanna, associate professor of sociology and author of the book Biracial in America, will give the keynote presentation titled, “The Rachel Dolezal Phenomenon: Transracial Identity.” She will take part in a panel discussion following her lecture with Alec Ewald, associate professor of political science, and Randall Harp, assistant professor of philosophy.

The free lecture, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, precedes a full schedule of symposium workshops and panels on April 1. This year’s Blackboard Jungle 9 program, “Intercultural Dialogues: The Power of Open Spaces”, is dedicated to creating open spaces where all members of the UVM community can participate in authentic dialogue, valued reflection, and expanded learning to promote inclusive excellence for everyone.

Khanna, who has written extensively on race and ethnic relations with a focus on biracial and multiracial Americans and racial identity, was quoted in various national media including USA Today when Dolezal stepped down as president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter in Spokane, Wash., following allegations that she had lied about her racial identity.

“I think the case of Rachel Dolezal and her white-to-black racial ‘passing’ is fascinating on one level and bizarre on another,” said Khanna. “What is most interesting to me, though, is that she is forcing a conversation about race – what race is, what race means in America, and how we, as a society, define these categories of belonging. The concept of race is actually slippery and much more flexible than most of us realize, and her case brings this to light.” 

Beverly Guy-Sheftall, the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies at Spelman College and founder and director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center, will be the keynote breakfast speaker on April 1. Damon Tweedy, author of Black Man in a White Coat and assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, will be the luncheon keynote speaker. A full day of panels and workshops designed to support UVM faculty, staff, and all others seeking to develop skills, knowledge, and a deeper understanding of diversity that supports excellence in teaching, service, and research is planned.

“Blackboard Jungle is one of my favorite events of the year because it’s an opportunity for our UVM community to engage in important dialogue and feel energized about our work,” said Wanda Heading-Grant, vice president for Human Resources, Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. “I believe in what we do here around inclusive excellence and BBJ is just another example of our commitment. We have a wonderful lineup of speakers and topics this year.”

For a full schedule of events and to register, visit Blackboard Jungle 9.