Feeling Black, Reproducing Whiteness: A Sensory Analysis of Rachel Dolezal’s Identity Claim
Sophia Seawell is a feminist with a passion for writing and journalism. She received her bachelor’s in Gender and Sexuality Studies from Brown University and her master’s in Gender and Ethnicity from Utrecht University. She currently works as Communications Associate at Mama Cash, the world's first international feminist fund.
When Spokane, Washington anti-racist activist Rachel Dolezal was ‘outed’ as white in June 2015, her identification as Black became the subject of national and international debate, centering on questions of identity categories, appropriation, and allyship. Much of the critical interrogation of her claim came from Black communities, who took to digital, print and social media to problematize her narrative. However, much of this debate – from both sides – inadvertently or explicitly fell back onto essentialist definitions of race, attempting to establish why Dolezal could not legitimately claim a Black identity. This articleb endeavors to break from this line of argumentation, and instead approach the case through the lens of revealing whiteness. Rather than working to prove that Dolezal is not ‘authentically’ Black, I propose looking at how racist ideology is at work in the discourses she mobilizes to validate her claim. By drawing on feminist and critical race scholars such as Sara Ahmed, bell hooks, and Linda Martín Alcoff, I undertake an analysis of Dolezal’s narrative of identification specifically through the lens of the senses in relation to her emphasis on ‘feeling’ Black. In conclusion, this article illustrates the way in which whiteness – and thus white supremacy – is reproduced in her desire to become the Other, and how this rejection of one’s whiteness insidiously poses a threat to effective solidarity.