Who can forget Rachel Doležal—the Africana Studies instructor and head of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP who was outed in 2015 as “born white to white parents” after years of presenting herself as a light‐skinned Black woman. By taking up the controversies that have followed Doležal, this paper considers the multifaceted ways that she constitutes a quintessential bad feminist object, even as her “alibi” (which is more a defense) draws on academic feminism's own anti‐essentialist investment in social constructionist theories of race and racial identity. In doing so, I am not interested in condoning or rescuing Doležal from critical condemnation but in exploring the problem of thinking about Rachel Doležal for feminist analysis.
Let's face it: no one really wants to think about Rachel Doležal. Her fifteen minutes of fame were declared exhausted about fifteen minutes after she was “outed” as being “born white” by journalists in June 2015, thereby setting off a media storm about transracialism, a term that had largely been confined until then to describing families with white parents and adopted children of color.1 By the time Netflix released the documentary The Rachel Divide (Brownson 2018), popular interest in the story had evaporated even as the mainstream media—the New York Times, The New Yorker, Forbes, Vogue, The Guardian, Vulture, etc.—used the occasion to try to squeeze a few more ounces of revenue from the spectacle of a presumed white woman still insisting, as she does today, that she is Black. In 2020, when I first picked up a copy of Doležal's 2017 autobiography, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World, the hardback remainder, originally priced at $24.95, was selling for $8.32. If I had waited a year I could have gotten it for $1.99.2
If you have been living under a rock or in a cave or writing your dissertation you may be thinking “Who's Rachel?” but afraid to ask. The popular media story is the most spectacular one and it begins on TV. As president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, Doležal was being interviewed by a local reporter ostensibly about anti-Black hate crimes in the region.3 But when the reporter went off script and turned the conversation to her racial identity, asking bluntly “Are you African American?” Doležal hesitated, face quivering, and replied, “I don't understand the question,” before walking away (Moyer 2015). The refrain “I don't understand the question” became a meme on social media as commentators tried to figure out what precisely Doležal didn't understand about racial identity in the United States, where, since the earliest years of slavery, having a mother designated as Black was the propertied condition in which one was Black. Doležal's mother, Ruthanne, it would soon be widely known, was self-described and phenotypically “white,” and while she would mother four Black adopted children in addition to her two “natural” (and naturally white) ones, she and her equally self-defining white husband Lawrence never described their family as an experiment in US racial formations even if it absolutely met the criteria as a “transracial” one. They were driven instead by pro-life evangelical Christian commitments. (Think Amy Coney Barrett.) In their various media appearances in the days after Doležal's story went national, Ruthanne and Lawrence offered themselves as living proof of Rachel's racial nativity, assuring audiences of the interpretive narrative that was quickly taking hold: that if a woman “born white” claimed to be Black it was not just preposterous but an act of deception and cultural theft, a way of benefitting socially and financially from an identity she not only didn't live but didn't earn (Kim 2015). For Ruthanne, the matter cut even deeper: “Rachel is desperately trying to destroy her biological family,” she explained (Good Morning America2015).
This sentence is worth remembering, as the rivalry between mother and daughter is a central part of the Doležal story, especially given the fact that Rachel would come to adopt one of her mother's adopted children and make a home for a second. Rachel also birthed her own children and talks about herself in her autobiography and in interviews as both a Black mother and the mother of Black sons (see Harris-Perry 2015). While there is no evidence to say that she imagines the constitution of “Black family” in a reverse of the historical institutional racial script—such that Black children make the mother Black—there is much to contemplate about Doležal's insistence that the breast she offers to her children, metaphorically and literally, has no relationship to that of her white mother's. Add to this the accusation by Doležal and her Black sister Esther that Ruthanne turned a blind eye to the sexual abuse and violence inflicted on the children by both white men in the family, Lawrence and his white son Joshua, and we have a story both more typical and more complicated than what “Rachel Doležal” has come to represent. Here, the knots of race and sexuality are entangled in the fraught intimacies that characterize the family as both a political and pedagogical institution, compounding not only the charged affective terrain of secrecy and deception that enfolds Doležal as a media spectacle but the very character, both moral and ideological, of the transracial adoptive family itself. Riven from within by accusations of violence and sexual trespass, the Doležals fractured into two family units over primal scenes asserted and denied, and two mothers emerged into public discussion, each with different claims of providence over the meaning and form of transracial filiation.4
But let me not get too far ahead of myself, especially when I have work to do to convince you—and myself—that there's something important to be gained for feminism and its anti-racist commitments by approaching the media spectacle around Rachel Doležal without relying on the litigating language of the law, as much popular commentary has done, which prioritizes judgement and sets us on a path to prosecute or defend. Nor am I going to consider her race-trading as emblematic or even symptomatic of a trend of born-white imposture, no matter how much the proximity of her “outing” to that of Jessica Krug, CV Vitolo-Haddad, and Satchuel Cole, among others, has underwritten a discourse in popular media commentary about a seeming contagion of white women pretending to be Black.5 It may sound strange to say, but Doležal is actually more interesting and more difficult to contend with than these other figures who used the off-ramp of “white women's tears” and the moral mea culpa of confession to forward their seemingly self-negating but otherwise self-aggrandizing apologies (Hamad 2019; Phipps 2021). Doležal, on the other hand, is to a large extent unrepentant, and while her craving for publicity and celebrity has fueled her ongoing acquiescence to scenes that everyone knows in advance will entail some measure of her humiliation, her story, as Marquis Bey and Theodora Sakellarides (2016: 35) write, “does warrant a discussion—albeit one that significantly differs from current popular discourse.” For these scholars, “what ought to be of greatest interest is how Dolezal's actions speak to the volatility—and the fugitivity—of race, and what can come to be known of Blackness because of her racial inhabitation” (35).6 Their project inspires my own, but as you will see, my destination is not toward arguing with or against their final insistence that Doležal's “Blackness undoes rigid racial logics” (2016: 44). I'm more interested in what is so troubling about Doležal's whiteness and the kinds of pleasure she seeks in trying to be completely done with it. As Bey (2020: 207–8) suggests elsewhere, “I actually do not like [Doležal]. . . . And yet, I cannot . . . not think about . . . what she forces us to think.”7
My project aims to open up the space identified here between the feelings that Doležal arouses—Bey (2020:207) also calls her “annoying”—and the analytic work that grappling with her public presence and persistent claim to Blackness evoke. To paraphrase Bey, I cannot not think about what she forces people to feel: anger, contempt, condemnation, pity, embarrassment, but never as far as I can tell identification, recognition, sympathy, or even real (as opposed to feigned) indifference. To get at these matters, this essay proceeds more or less psychoanalytically, which forgoes the attempt to render a binding decision about Doležal in order to consider the work done by and to all of us with fictions of personhood, including those that have been written directly into the law to naturalize self, family, and race. In leaning into the psychoanalytic, I should be clear, I am not interested in it as a tool for locating mental disorder, though there are no shortages of diagnoses that characterize Doležal as not simply disturbed or crazy but clinically delusional, dissociative, or borderline. But any move from the law's discourse about bodies and blood to the idea of the poisoned mind would simply mean stepping from one toxic brew of biopolitical management into another. When it comes to Doležal, it seems to me, there is danger on all sides. I seek instead to begin thinking about the problem of thinking about Rachel Doležal for feminism's anti-racist agenda by using some of the interpretative habits that psychoanalysis offers, including three of its foundational convictions: that self production is never divorced from fantasy; that the work of analysis begins, methodologically and ethically, with listening to the revelations and obscurities of first person speech; and that there is much to learn by reading between the lines, especially when one is confronted by unreliable narrators in contexts awash in ambiguity and contradiction (which is to say in every context, with every narrator). Add to this the transferential complexity of all relations and it becomes clear that attending to the incapacities of Doležal's speech about race and identity requires attention to the faith feminist scholars put in what we consider our own.
This aim arises in part from the invitation to this special issue of SAQ, which asks contributors to “sit with feminism's ‘bad objects’” in order to consider the affects and desires that continue to define and enliven academic feminist practice. This “sitting with” is of course a rather tall order. It asks us not to condemn and certainly not to try to rehabilitate the bad object but to risk our implication in it, perhaps even to risk being read as no different from it. In the usual scenarios, let's remember, bad objects make the critic politically good by way of critique and negation, through the force of disavowal and disidentification. And Rachel Doležal is the kind of bad object that can make a white girl critic like me good (or at least better than expected) because I can use her as a vehicle for defending myself against the charges of deception, betrayal, appropriation, ignorance, and yes sheer racism that follow her insistence that “I wasn't passing as Black; I was Black” (2017: 148).8 In fact, I would wager to say, because the editors of this issue have already done so, that there is nothing more powerful today in feminist critical practice than taking the figure of the white woman as “the bad object of feminism,” she who must be “cast off from the corpus of feminist theory and politics, in order to save feminism itself” (Nash and Pinto 2021: 884, 887). For white feminist critics, the performance of solidarity with Black women and Black feminism entails “internaliz[ing] and enact[ing] White women as an object of feminist rage” (896). Hence the lure for the white feminist critic, keen to perform an auto-correction to generate her anti-racist credentials, to join the widespread critical and cultural admonition: Rachel, stop. You were passing; you aren't Black.To sit with.
In what follows I am going to take this instruction as both a guide and a caution. As a caution it means trying to rustle up some patience for actually bearing the discomfort of the indeterminacy my dual training in cultural studies and poststructuralist theory taught me was more—much more—than academic luxury. As Stuart Hall (1997: 58) insisted, “There is absolutely no political guarantee already inscribed in an identity.” To love or hate Doležal, to condemn or defend: these bipolar reactions, as an end, do little to illuminate the affective and critical complexity of what she has come to evoke. As a guide, sitting with points me toward engaging what I might otherwise allow myself to ignore. Here I am thinking of all the ways that Doležal enacts a number of distinctly feminist pedagogies. For starters, she relies on personal narrative and self-description as the epistemological ground of her identity claim, which aligns with one of feminism's most cherished axioms: that drawing from and remaking the personal is a key component to social transformation, being both a source of political agency and a profound indication that social categories of identity and psychical processes of identification are not, conceptually or experientially, the same things. In addition, Doležal's rejection of whiteness, the very fact that she refuses to be white, reiterates decades of left leaning anti-racisms, underscoring the political imaginary that seeks, in a world made by white supremacy, for white people to renounce their privilege in being white. No matter how much, in the instance of Doležal, we might want to see her as a violator of these axioms, not their adherent—on the basis, say, of the liberalism of the self-made subject or the structural impediment to white transcendence of a world made to privilege us—the fact remains that this bad object is bad in part because of the ways that she seeks to be good. A woman born white who refuses to be white. A woman born white who uses her body to reproduce Black life. A woman born white who repeats, to the point of literalization, the feminist demand to “internalize and enact White women as an object” of her rage. When Shoniqua Roach (2021: n.p.) dramatizes “the provocation” she finds at the heart of Rafia Zakaria's (2021) influential new book Against White Feminism, no one would suggest that Rachel Doležal answers the call for “everyone and anyone who claims to be a feminist . . . to dispense with whiteness . . . and to become women of color.”9 And yet, no matter how incoherent and unpalatable her attempt, from one perspective, this is precisely what Doležal has done.
To sit with. Here, then, is my strategy for approaching the bad object that organizes this paper. I begin by attending to the story Doležal tells in her autobiography, In Full Color: Finding My Place in a Black and White World (2017), which, as Nathan Rabin (2021: n.p.) remarks in a rare review, is a failure not just of self-explanation but of genre. In his terms, the narrative moves confusedly between “fairy tale” and “superhero origin story,” but reads most tellingly as “dark comedy and . . . a tragedy of self-delusion.” Rabin is surely right about the crisis of genre, but this raises the question of what genre, if any, is available for the story of an ex-born-white woman that not only can amass the power and epistemological privilege that feminism has long given to first person speech but hold in check the authority readers garner in refuting or correcting it. This is not a question aimed at rescuing Doležal's reputation, as I take her to be a perfect example of what Naomi Schor ( 2007: 155) calls a “failed interpretant,” which refers to unreliable narrators or protagonists who misread the “signs” and “signals” they receive, overemphasize details (often by focusing on the wrong ones), and ignore information that is easily available to them.10 But it does call forth the possibility that there's much more at stake for feminism in paying attention to Doležal's rendering of the story than we have considered it useful to explore.
That “more” lives in my essay's title, which offers the language of impasse to configure the contradictions and conceptual limits that attend anti-racist feminist pedagogies aimed at dismantling whiteness today. By impasse I mean something quite other than a stalled conversation or argumentative deadlock, those colloquial uses that bear with them the idea and ideal of a breakthrough that generates consensus and progress. As I see it, the impasse of whiteness is not about disagreements, whether political or theoretical, especially not when the discourse that sets out to parse the failures of “white feminism” circulates so widely as a set of agreements—about historical narration, citational practice, critical affect, organizational form, and racialized subjectivity—that carries the promise to fulfill feminism's emancipatory agenda to finally speak to and for the needs of all women.11 Nor does impasse serve here to reference an interregnum, that time-space of suspension when movement between one organization of life is ending and a new one has yet to emerge into affective or analytic legibility (see Berlant 2012). As I use it, impasse is not a holding space for enduring a present whose potential we cannot possibly know, but a means to evoke how the power and privileges constituted by the structural organization of white supremacy are maintained through incommensurability and incoherence. Think, for instance, of how corporeal schemas write racial identity as a visual logic on the skin even as whiteness is not singularly beholden to an essentialist logic, being available as a political attachment, social norm, or psychic mode of identification to everyone. Or how the theoretical deconstruction of whiteness as a social fiction offers little force when it comes to disrupting its everyday affective and institutional materializations.
In this quicksand, where whiteness operates through the both/and of identification at the same time that its formal legal logic is driven by a history of identitarian either-or's, the imperative to unseat the hold of whiteness on feminism runs into the contradictions that have long sustained it. These contradictions are multiple, but my itinerary in this discussion will lead us primarily to two: the analytic disjuncture that comes from reading white supremacy as an ontological feature of social structure while insisting that the privileges that accrue to whiteness can be self-consciously known and politically undone; and the affective disjuncture that rejects white feminism's fantasies of cross-racial sisterhood in order to forge a liberatory and distinctly reparative vision of an intersectional feminism that eliminates the threat of internal racial antagonisms altogether. In both of these cases, amelioration—real or imagined, theoretical or affective—comes at a fantastical cost, offering white women an impossible agency founded in self-conscious disidentifications with whiteness and the tantalizing specter of not being an object of feminist rage, while situating social antagonisms and structural materialities in feminism as correctable errors. For reasons that I hope will become clear, I take these contradictions as related to the hermeneutic conundrum that Rachel Doležal both embodies and represents. To unravel these matters, let's start by following this bad feminist object to her autobiography's interpretative dead ends.
For many observers, Doležal's story begins with a lie, but I'm inclined to say that it begins with the media's revelation of a lie, which opens up a distinction between who Doležal takes herself to be and the truth-driven narratives of identity that are written into law and lore as biogenetic family. In the clash between subjective assertion and heredity as genealogical commonsense, Doležal's now famous lie is split into two temporal frames, before and after her media descent into public whiteness. In the “before” times, which some commentators cast as nearly a decade long, she lived in Black community as a Black woman, produced Black art, fought for Black political emancipation, and taught Black studies; as Bey (2020: 213) notes, “thousands of people” took Doležal as Black, “from various black laypersons to National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) members to white racists.” In these times, the lie for which she would later be accused was effected largely through substitution and omission: adding a check mark to the option of Black along with white on an application form or providing none at all; designating a chosen father to replace the white one she refused to call her own; and always trusting everyone to draw the conclusion she wanted, without having to say so, based on the political and social communities she assembled around her. As she writes in her autobiography about her chosen father, Albert Wilkerson Jr., “Nobody ever asked me if [he] was my biological dad. They just assumed that he was. . . . Visually, we made sense” (2017: 154). With the media's revelation, Doležal was catapulted into the “after” times or what we might call the era of the alibi, which is our ongoing present. Here she has been asked repeatedly to come clean, admit the lie, confess her privilege, and offer atonement by performing white shame. But she won't. Instead, she insists in interview after interview that “I feel Black,” and “I identify as Black”—an insistence underscored by her main line of defense: “nothing about whiteness,” she writes on page 1 of the autobiography, “described who I was” (1).
Doležal's dual emphasis on feeling and identification is consistent across the different media platforms in which her self-narration appears, but I am especially struck by how the autobiography, as a genre devoted to the task of first person exploration and enunciation, has no interest in delivering a developmental narrative to ground her self-identification as Black. This is the case in part because the structuring alibi Doležal offers is a stubborn anti-narrative one; she does not become Black but is Black, and her Blackness is asserted in the opening pages in a way that offers no argument to dispel the doubting reader's disbelief. “Whenever it came to shade in the skin,” she writes about her childhood, “I usually picked a brown crayon rather than a peach one. . . . I could see that my skin was light, but my perception of myself wasn't limited to what my eyes could take in. The way I saw myself was instinctual, coming from some place deep inside me” (9). What emerges across the next several hundred pages is a recounting of events in which this felt identity is manifested in increasingly literal ways, not as a discovery but as a matter of turning the inside out in order to create both a socially perceived self and a life that coheres with “who I really am” (9; 226).12 As she puts it, “I wasn't trying to be anyone else. I wasn't copying someone else's life as a way of escaping my own. All I wanted was to be the most beautiful shade of myself I possibly could” (155). The language of the visual here is arresting, as it links Doležal's self-declared identity to the tableau of bodily signs that have long comprised the toxic components of race and its fetishizing handmaiden, racial stereotype. But note that she calls her skin tone “light” not “white,” and configures her self as a “beautiful shade,” which points to Doležal's ongoing refusal to accept the discourse of racial being and biological belonging that converge in her parents’ charge that she was “born white.” “Yes,” she says in turning the tables on their authority right from the start, “my parents weren't Black, but that's hardly the only way to define Blackness” (4). A page later, she double downs on her refusal of white family belonging: “We don't get to choose our parents” (5).
In giving an account of herself as Black (or more aptly in failing to), Doležal's story quite strikingly begins and ends in the same place, with a description and defense of an inner truth whose revelation into confident self presentation is the main message the autobiography seeks to sell. As such, the narrative leans heavily into the discourse of possessive individualism that posits an ego driven, internally consistent, and wholly knowable self as the autobiographical narrator who speaks both for and as the author herself. In this mode, the work of self narration proceeds as description, not as a self-consciously engaged construction, even as readers will never be unaware of how desperate Doležal is to deliver a story about being Black that can be believed. At the same time, Doležal's Blackness is absolutely dependent on the sustenance of the Black gaze and the relational affirmation it delivers. Narratively, this relationality is routed initially through the use of familiar mythic tropes about Africa as the birthplace of human life, literally presented as imaginary projections, but as the autobiography moves forward it is sedimented in intimacies with specific Black people. These include Doležal's Black siblings and sons, and less obviously but perhaps most potently in her own self-styling of a visible “look” that conforms, as she tells it, to the Blackness she feels. Think here of how, in the daily ritual of refashioning her blonde whiteness into an image of Black femininity, it will always be her own Black(ened) face that offers its gaze to her in the styling mirror.13
Given these conceptual contradictions in which the “I” is both already constituted as Black and in need of Black recognition, the project she promises in the prologue—to document “the evolution of my identity”—has no coherent emplotment. In fact, we might say that in terms of the theoretically useful distinction between identity (as social designation) and identification (as psychic process) there is no “evolution” to be found (246, 4). The text does not trace a transformation in consciousness—how could it if she always saw her body in her mind's eye as brown? Nor does it formulate pleasure in reversing racist logics by making whiteness the inadequate antecedent, not the destination, for humanity and personhood—how could it if “nothing about whiteness described” her to begin with? In the breach between the language of self possession she draws on and the developmental narrative she fails to tell, the autobiography turns toward the therapeutic discourse of self-help and survival, which presents self-acceptance and self-love as the necessary alchemy to overcome the traumas of physical and psychological abuse along with the guilt and shame that so often accompany them. Here aspiration toward personal freedom is coupled with that of inspiration in order to stage a story that models courage and self-determination for others to follow. This makes In Full Color a totem to suffering, as the narrative is driven by a repetition of scenes that depict abuse and betrayal, first within her family, then in a series of relationships including her marriage to a Black man who wanted her to “act ‘whiter,’” then in a society that rejects her for “who I am” (115, 217).14 The culmination is a charge against a social world that “tried to strip me of my identity” alongside a hope to live someday “as a whole person” and “to solve the many problems emanating from racism and the racial divide” (277). In the end it is the racist fixity of ideas about race that Doležal tags as the source of her social rejection, the faulty agency that catapults her into the media spotlight where she loses friends, jobs, and the continuity of living her life as a Black woman. “If my story can advance dialogue,” she writes in the autobiography's concluding line, “and provide some measure of comfort to those who find themselves drifting somewhere between Black and white, or with no category at all, I'll consider the struggle I've endured simply for living as my true self to be entirely worth it” (277).
I've thought a lot about the way In Full Color is drawn to popular cliché and what it might mean—as opposed to how excruciating it feels—for a literary critic to closely read a text so definitely disinterested in language as a medium of thought or communication. But the autobiography's narrative and explanatory failures, no less than its aesthetic ones, are crucial not only to thinking about the problem of thinking about “Rachel Doležal” but why calling her a failed interpretant requires that we do more than luxuriate in our critical ability to expose her impoverished formulations. For as Schor explains, when it comes to the power relations that reside in critical practice, a failed interpretant is often too easy a mark, allowing the critic to build their interpretative castle without attending to the broader implications of what the interpretant's failure means. In the case of In Full Color, this meaning is less about the rigidity of racial categories per se, as Doležal wants us to believe, than about the contradictions that reside in their animation and inscription as material fictions. As is now widely understood, the anti-essentialist intervention of social constructionist theory—which postulates that racial categories are social, not natural biogenetic truths—does little to explain how the fictions of race materialize a social and psychical reality in what Lauren Berlant (2012) has taught us to call the genres of everyday living. For Berlant, genres are not literary forms available to a sovereign subject to express their already constituted self but pedagogical modes of social and psychic organization through which the very experience of lived experience comes to be registered, narrated, and re/composed. While Berlant's interest, as readers of Cruel Optimism (2012: 6) well know, is in the way the genre conventions of the “good life” fray under the historical conditions of neoliberalism, the approach they offer to understanding genre has a much wider applicability, allowing us to consider how racial fictions take material form through the repetition of conventions and, when conventions fail, through the improvisations that people devise to invent new worlds or to rummage incoherently through the ruins of existing ones.
To read In Full Color along these lines is to pay attention to how genre conventions both shape and distort Doležal's effort to market her story as a model for others, which is to say to improvise a genre she can call her own. Rabin (2021) begins to get at this when he describes Doležal as an autobiographer who cannot figure out which genre her story lives in: fairy tale, black comedy, superhero, tragedy—we can add others—melodrama, fantasy, horror, murder mystery. This is part of what makes her a failed interpretant: the stories she tells—or more aptly the snapshots she offers—recycle a wide range of genre conventions without ever fully digesting them. Indeed, I think of the autobiography as bulimic; it takes up (or takes in) a multiplicity of familiar formulas but delivers mostly messy regurgitations. I don't use this language arbitrarily. In chapter 3, “Oatmeal,” Doležal describes the punishment rituals to which she and her siblings were accustomed—“spankings that could push into the double digits”—and recounts an episode when she tried to fulfill the golden rule of cleaning her plate but the consistency of a large bowl of oatmeal made her gag (2017: 16). “When I tried again, I threw up in my bowl,” she writes, before telling us that her father forced her to finish the now regurgitated breakfast later that day (17). “In the Doležal household, discipline and obedience were to be learned,” Doležal writes, “no matter what the cost” (18). This scene and others like it sketch a childhood of intense labor, strict religious indoctrination, corporeal abuse, and ultimately creative resistance. In chapter 5, “Hustling to Make a Dollar,” Doležal describes how her parents would wring “as much labor out of each child as possible” as predicate for turning the suffering of others toward her own struggle: “I empathized with those whose free labor helped build this country,” she writes in referencing chattel slavery (25). “Punishment for even the most trivial offenses was often decided on a whim” and survival required “inner fortitude and day-to-day resourcefulness. . . . I developed a similar resourcefulness” (26).
In staging analogies of this kind, Doležal seeks to forge a kinship between the cruelty of her evangelical patriarchal home and the white supremacist regime of racialized slavery. In doing so, the empathy she expresses toward the enslaved, recognizable as the very stuff of sentimental fiction and its white liberal affects, acts as a transferential mechanism for establishing her felt identity according to the stock conventions of trauma, struggle, emancipation, and pride that have been framed as the national multicultural narrative of Black American experience—a framing that reached its apex during the Obama presidency (2017: 9).15 The autobiography also draws on, with an important twist, the structural conventions of the slave narrative, with a named ghostwriter, Storms Reback, a white man, playing the part of amanuensis, and a foreword by her chosen dad, Albert Wilkerson Jr., who offers testimony to the autobiographical integrity of the text to come. Using his own story of growing up in the segregated South, Wilkerson is able to authenticate Doležal's Blackness by establishing his own. “I was born in 1938 in Birmingham, Alabama,” he writes at the outset, before recounting a racist incident with a white cop that forces his family north (xiii). Once north, he describes continued discrimination and his growing appreciation for the work of others—he names Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and his own father—“who, by example and by the power of their convictions, fought racial bias and prejudice” (xiv). Rachel Doležal, he tells us, is “such a person” (xiv). In celebrating Doležal's anti-racist activisms, Wilkerson dismisses her parents’ revelation—“What she was accomplishing was much more important to me than what color she was”—and affirms that “she looked Black and her vibe felt Black. . . . Yes, I saw her as Black” (xv). Through the voice of her chosen dad, the foreword performs the role of the text's Black father: Doležal “became like a daughter to me,” he writes, while collecting her Black children, Franklin and Izaiah, into his paternal embrace as well (xv).
As a story of Black paternity—first of fathers and sons and then of fathers and chosen daughters—the foreword is most interesting for what it doesn't say about mothers, especially given the priority of the maternal line in US histories of racial identity. In describing his family's need to leave Birmingham on “the midnight train to Chicago,” Wilkerson uses a royal “we”—“we had to leave town”—but offers no indication whether his mother participated in the exodus or was already gone from the family scene; her existence is narratively absent (xiv). Much the same is true of Wilkerson's wife, Amy, who appears in the autobiography's photo gallery but has no role to play in the foreword and is mentioned only twice in the text, neither of which refers to her as part of Rachel's chosen family (154, 265). While Wilkerson's absent mother is Black, the mother of his children, Amy, is white, and Doležal's comments about her point toward the autobiography's aggressive need to refuse any manner of identification with the figure of the white mother. Remember, Doležal affirms her felt family relation to Wilkerson as her “dad” by noting that no one ever asked her if he was her biological father. “They just assumed he was, based on my appearance and his,” she writes. “Visually, we made sense” (156). And then, quickly, she acknowledges the point that must be brushed aside, because Wilkerson is actually rather dark-skinned. “The fact that his wife Amy was white may have lent even more credibility to the idea, although . . . I never referred to her as ‘Mom,’ and she never called me her daughter” (154). Ditto for Nancy, the white wife of another Black man, Spencer Perkins, whom Doležal also refers to as a chosen father. “I truly felt part of [the Perkins] family, and as a way of expressing this love I called Spencer “Dad,” his older sister “Aunt Joanie,” her husband “Uncle Ron,” Spencer's father “Grandpa Perkins,” and Spencer's mother “Grandma Perkins” (100). In a note on the bottom of the page, Doležal seeks to clarify her omission: “I did not, however, call Spencer's wife Nancy ‘Mom.’ That she was white may explain why neither one of us was comfortable adopting that level of familiarity with each other” (100).
This last sentence, “That she was white,” demoted to the foot of the page, is both an admission and a diversion—or better yet what we could call an under-thought. On the face of it, Doležal wants to posit that she and Nancy are nothing alike: her Blackness and Nancy's whiteness don't mix or, rather, in the language that Doležal uses, aren't conducive to “adopting” the familiarity of affectionate family names. At the same time, of course, Doležal is confessing her proximity to Nancy through negation, offering an explanation that turns against itself through the other word that has gone missing, not “Mom” as Doležal would have it, but “also”: “That she was also white may explain . . . ,” or “That she was a white woman also adopted by Black family may explain . . . ” By casting Nancy's whiteness as the prohibition to “adopting” (such an important word choice) familiarity, Doležal extends her natal alienation from her birth mother, Ruthanne, to the other white mothers who appear in the text. This extension is aided by the “born Black” perspective of Wilkerson, whose paternal voice in the foreword authorizes Doležal's status as chosen daughter, establishes her as a mother of Black sons, and casts the autobiography as “a unique opportunity to reflect on the complex social construct of race and racism . . . from the perspective of a young woman who has personally experienced their profound effects from both sides of the color line” (xvi). “Both sides,” Wilkerson says, but Doležal never talks about being white on the white side of the color line; on the contrary, the entire effort of the autobiography is to establish that she was Black in self conception no matter which side she was supposedly on. For this reason, every instance of proximity to a white mother requires some form of negation, even if, as Doležal admits, the acceptance she receives as Wilkerson's daughter is due in large part to the fact that his white wife Amy is assumed to be her mother.
To see how the white mother's eradication serves as the autobiography's primal scene, let's return to the first chapter, which, you might remember, opens by taking aim at family origins as the locus of racial belonging. “We don't get to choose our parents,” Doležal writes as preamble to the story of her own birth that, she tells us, lived in family lore as an attempted murder (5). “I would continually be reminded throughout my childhood just how difficult my delivery had been for my mother. That I'd nearly killed her weighed me down with a sense of guilt I could never fully shed” (6). The guilt Doležal confesses here is caught up in a grammatical no-man's-land, as the sentences use various verbs in their past tense—would, had, could—but offers the narrator no present tense in which the expressed emotion remains true. Not then “a sense of guilt I have never fully shed,” but a far more distanced account, one that becomes overtly disingenuous as Doležal turns from the story of her mother's near death to a near death experience of her own. This experience involves an accident Doležal had before she was two years old when, “unsupervised in the house, I fell down the stairs that led to the unfinished basement . . . breaking my collarbone and several vertebrae” (7). Rather than rushing the child to the hospital, Doležal's parents maintained their religious belief in prayer and natural healing, which, Rachel tells us, led to ongoing neck pain. “To Larry and Ruthanne, my neck pain wasn't a consequence of their negligence,” but was “God's way of punishing [me]” for being a stubborn child (8). In moving from the specter of matricide to that of infanticide in just a few paragraphs, chapter 1 reinterprets Doležal's anti-maternal aggression into evidence of her second class citizenship, all while casting her white parents as guilty of causing a bodily affliction that would become life-long. “I've lived with chronic neck pain ever since” (8).
We are surely not surprised that Doležal fails to make the interpretative moves that are readily available here: that for Ruthanne and Larry she is and has always been a pain in the neck or, just as pertinently, that her parents and the whiteness of unchosen kinship they represent are for her a pain in the neck. Either way, the opening chapter offers an image of a body that remembers somatically what Doležal's autobiography will consistently refuse, refute, or revise: that the social construction of race as a mode of corporeal inscription and biological belief begins with the mother. Understood in this way, it becomes clear quite quickly that Doležal's proclamation about whiteness in the prologue harbors a specific charge if only we can read between the lines: “nothing about [my mother's] whiteness described who I was” (1; emphasis added).
Nowhere is Doležal's effort to reject the social and psychic meanings of being “born white” more pronounced than in a series of fantasies recounted in chapters 2 and 5. These fantasies, mixing the conventions of fairy tale, captivity narrative, and ethnographic travelogue, simultaneously erase her white skin and deepen her attempts to forge analogies between her incarceration in the Doležal family and trans-Atlantic slavery—all while working to eradicate the figure of the white mother. One such fantasy takes place in the garden where she was often required to work. Covering her arms and legs in mud, she writes, “I would pretend to be a dark-skinned princess in the Sahara Desert or one of the Bantu women living in the Congo I'd read about in copies of National Geographic. In my fantasy, Larry and Ruthanne had kidnapped me, brought me to the United States, and were raising me against my will in a foreign land” (11). A few chapters later, Doležal doubles back to this fantasy but offers a key addition: “My previous fantasy about being a Bantu woman living in the Congo returned. I imagined I was an only child, and my mother was ill or dead, and I had to dig up enough cassava to feed my entire family” (emphasis added, 29). This death dream is the second—and last time—that Doležal will use the language “my mother” (the first I cited in the birth story discussed above). While its use here is not meant to refer to Ruthanne, the shift from being a “woman” to being “an only child” is an important temporal regression, as the adult Doležal is recounting how as a child she would escape “the oppressive environment I was raised in” by calling forth an “imaginary world” (11). This imaginary world features a child whose mother is ill or dead, which enacts Rachel's most robust wish to be rid of the mother whose racial identity is other to the one she invents for herself, while also clearing the space for Doležal, the Bantu princess, to become her imaginary family's new and decidedly Black mother, the one who would “feed my entire family.” Stunningly, in 2010 Doležal manages to convert her fantasy of maternal replacement into living reality when she actually adopts one of Ruthanne's adopted Black sons, Izaiah, thereby turning him from her sibling into her son.
In terms of the conventions of genre, Doležal's murderous relation to the white maternal is a far cry from the sentimental tradition she otherwise draws on to generate analogies between different forms of (predominantly) female suffering. Here we have something more akin to a psychological thriller (without the thrill) or a murder mystery (without the mystery), which does the work of cutting the umbilical cord to whiteness by symbolically erasing the white mother as predicate for Doležal's own claim to Black maternity. This cut is absolutely foundational to the story Doležal tells and it is not surprising that it is performed without a self-reflective engagement with what her fantasies, depictions, and refused identifications with Ruthanne, Amy, or Nancy mean. How could it be otherwise? To succumb to the accusation that she has lied about her born-white nativity would require conceding to what her detractors take to be true: that like her own mother, Rachel Doležal is a white woman who mothers Black children. This recognition is intolerable to Doležal, which makes it difficult to disagree with Ruthanne's assertion that “Rachel is trying to destroy her biological family.” But I've no interest in adjudicating the conflict at the center of the Doležal's family melodrama. After all, there are a lot of reasons to be in favor of the destruction of the white biological family, just as there are a lot of reasons to sit with the twists and turns of the autobiography's attempt to sever all ties to whiteness by undermining or refuting the reproductive agency of white women. What's more, in her aggressive rejection of the idea of racial identity as a genetic inheritance—touted at various points in the autobiography on the grounds that race is a “social construct”—Doležal goes all the way toward refuting family resemblances (she once looked a lot like Ruthanne) by cultivating a bodily presentation that can help erase the once unmistakable impression that she is white (85, 147, 236, 246, 275).16 With the help of makeup, skin toner, wigs, weaves, and braids modeled on styles long associated with Black women, she crafts the kind of visual image that “made sense” to her chosen kinship relations, thereby forging a link between seeing herself as Black and being seen as Black (156).
Still, we must ask, because so many people have asked it, why Doležal's insistence on not being white manifests itself in being Black in the visual domain. Why, if race is a social construct, as Wilkerson and she both tell us, and if identity is an inner knowledge not an outer sign, as she maintains, does she nonetheless work so hard, indeed incessantly, to be seen and to see herself as a light-skinned Black woman? If Doležal has a direct (let alone satisfying) response to this issue, she does not offer it, even as the cultivation of her body's racial signs figure quite prominently in the autobiography's depiction of the need to “embrace my true self” (91). Here again we see how “the evolution of my identity” that Doležal promises at the outset was never meant to refer to an evolution in her racial identifications. The cultivation of the visual evokes instead her growing determination to let her body speak what she takes feeling Black to mean (4). Over time, as she puts it, “I allowed the little girl I'd colored with a brown crayon so long ago to emerge” (91). Hence, in her early twenties, Doležal takes a comment by a Black female friend that “‘to copy is to compliment’” as Black “permission” to begin “to embrace the exterior expressions of my feelings,” which entails copying Black women's hairstyles and adding bronzer and suntanning to her daily routine (91). Doležal is quite cognizant that these practices can easily be leveraged into charges of cultural appropriation, as no entry into the visual register of hair and skin can outrun associations with the racist stereotyping at work in blackface. But she assures her readers that her self construction as Black passes the moral test. “Cultural appropriation is a tricky subject,” she writes, which is why “I dedicated no small amount of thought and reflection to . . . examining my life to ensure that I was making authentic choices, not offensive or insincere ones” (92). Nearly every instance in the autobiography that verges on the matter of ethical conduct is resolved through such declarative assurances of authenticity and sincerity; she has looked inward and no intention to harm has been found. As she puts it, “I wasn't passing for something I wasn't but identifying with something I was” (239).
Doležal is quite clearly, and frustratingly, a literal not an interpretative thinker, which might be an aspect of her inheritance as the child of evangelical parents that she can never shed. What it yields, as I have suggested, is a descriptive flatness, not only anti-metaphorical and humorless, but narratively non-psychological as well. And yet it marries the therapeutic with an effort at prophecy, as Doležal positions herself as a messenger with a story to deliver to aid those who have found themselves misrecognized and socially rejected. Add to this her insistence on a perception that “wasn't limited to what my eyes could take in” and it is not such a leap to say that her Blackness is wrapped in a certain kind of theology, one that is more self-help than religious, more narcissistic than cosmological (9). But she is no theologian, even of the talk show kind. Still, I have to argue that she is not performing blackface, at least not in its historical function as a means to manage racial anxieties by offering white audiences a collective experience in which white bodies “master” Blackness through the intimacies of imitation as ridicule.17 To my mind it is more accurate to say that Doležal mimics corporeal Blackness in order to pass from copy to original. Look again at the quote above: “I wasn't passing for something I wasn't but identifying with something I was” (239). Here Doležal cancels herself twice—“I wasn't . . . I wasn't”—before arriving into a positive grammar of self-affirmation—“I was.” This is a fascinating tongue twister, inviting (as all double negatives do) a reading of the sentence in reverse: I was passing for something I was but identifying with something I wasn't.18 This seems to me to be a far more apt depiction of the psychical ligaments of Doležal's story. It renders her commitment to copying aspects of Black feminine style as part of a pursuit of the authenticity of Blackness, an authenticity she seeks as the counter truth of social definitions of being “born white”; i.e., she “wasn't passing for something I wasn't.” She is thus not passing through Blackness as a way to shore up the security of whiteness, but imitating Blackness to recover what she calls “the essential essence of who I am” (271).
In the end, Doležal's literalist interpretations are no match for the fantasies that enable and subtend them, as social construction becomes a way to tag all racial categorization as the product of malignant cultural fictions while the autobiography resurrects a distinctly humanist discourse of inner truth—an “essence” no less—that finds expression in materializing the signs of Blackness on born white skin. In this incoherence, Doležal's attempts to forge a genre of her own go nowhere. Even the gesture to model herself for others has no generative effect as the transraciality she claims gets configured in contradictory terms. On the one hand transitivity unsettles racial fictions about blood, biology, and the immutability of nature by disarticulating Doležal from assumed identification and belonging to her birth family, which opens the way for a born white woman to refuse her taxonomic classification and stake a claim to identity elsewhere. Race is rendered a “floating signifier,” as Stuart Hall (2017: 64) described it in a now famous lecture nearly three decades ago, bound to histories of meaning making that are socially produced, not naturally given, and hence neither stable nor transcendent. On the other hand, because the social fictions of race are lived through visual economies that remain stubbornly in place—are lived precisely, as Hall notes, in practices that signify the flesh—Doležal's insistence on being read according to what she feels reverts to the body, that domain in which Blackness has been and continues to be scripted as corporeally real—even when, and this is key, Black identity does not always meet the measure of the visible's epistemic demand. In the contradictions that ensue, it is the aporia in the visual economy of race, generated by the violence of sexual bondage that underwrites the law of maternal descent, that enables Doležal to make herself readable as Black. And it is this readability that works, in turn, as the very condition through which Wilkerson and members of the Black community would come to “authenticate” her claim to being Black.19
For Jelani Cobb (2015: n.p.), the gut punch that Doležal's story delivers arises here, where the very experience granted to her by the material violences of the one-drop rule gives her access not only to knowledge that comes from living (as) Black but to the fact that, “at least among black people,” she would be “taken at her word.” In knowing “this ugly history,” he writes, “she understands the exact nature of the trust she violated.”20 Cobb's reading underscores the idea that Doležal is a failed interpretant—a misreader of signs, including the signs that Black experience would have given her—even as it points to the way that race is itself an epistemological, economic, and biopolitical project founded on interpretative fictions that move ably between and around the contradictions that constitute them. Hall (2017: 37) referenced the double dealing at the heart of racial logics (which is to say their instabilities and fabrications) when he noted “how symptomatic it is of racial discourse per se that the physical or biological trace, having been shown out of the front door, tends to sidle around the edge of the veranda and climb back in through the pantry window!” To be sure, Hall's concern, speaking in 1994, was not about a born white girl being able to maneuver cross-racial identifications into a corporeal fiction but the reverse, the way that scientific knowledge of the fictivity of race was unable to defeat, indeed could barely counter, how it was mobilized ideologically to produce not just the idea of race or the racialized subjectivities that live its non-truth but the very structures that hold in place an anti-Black world. By reading Doležal's entanglement in what is symptomatic about racial discourse, Cobb draws attention to what Doležal's failed interpretations reveal. “In truth,” he writes, “Dolezal has been dressed as we all are, in the fictive garb of race, whose determinations are as arbitrary as they are damaging. This doesn't mean that she wasn't lying about who she is. It means she was lying about a lie.” Two lies then, utterly incommensurate with one another, and yet knotted together inescapably in the materiality of the fictions they draw on and reveal.
The incommensurability that Cobb and Hall help us to see is at the core of what I am calling the impasse of whiteness, which I take as both a descriptive and an analytic formulation that links Doležal's failed attempts to refuse whiteness to some of the complexities and incoherences that accompany contemporary feminism's own anti-racist pedagogies. For as much as we might read Doležal's incapacities to secure a credible narrative to house her refusal—“nothing about whiteness described who I was” (1)—there is something illuminating, if unnerving, about the autobiography's insistence that the primal scene for not being white resides in subduing the authority of the white mother and crafting, in citational form no less, new origins grounded in identifications with Blackness. Certainly the book understands, intuitively or perhaps I should say performatively, that the dividing line between racialized fantasy and its social actualization is a thin and permeable one, and while much of what is taken as Doležal's grift is thought to reside here, in the born whiteness of her imagination of Africanist origins, in the curly wigs and braided hair designs, and in the dark(er)-skinned babies she births, Cobb's point is worth sitting with: Rachel should have known better not because she was white but because living as Black should have taught her otherwise. In turning the problem of thinking about Doležal from an emphasis on her essentialized born whiteness and its fantastical and hallucinatory theft of Blackness, Cobb's discussion locates her interpretative failure in the epistemology of having lived in Black(ened) skin.21
Here then is one configuration of the impasse of whiteness that haunts and taunts contemporary feminism, which as you will see leads rather quickly to others. It has to do with the way that whiteness, as we have come to understand it, poses an impediment to knowing much, if anything, about what constitutes it. Its construction is founded on an epistemological prohibition, one whose deconstruction has often led to a smorgasbord of sentimentalities that in liberal form are confession based, tear ridden, and narrated through apology and guilt, which is to say utterly inadequate in their narcissistic response (hello, Karen! Hello, Becky!) to a vast and violent racialized social structure. In academic and popular feminist discourse the recognition of this epistemological prohibition underlies a familiar pedagogy for white women to construct their otherness to whiteness from within. In hyperbolic terms we might describe this pedagogy as a competition in which white feminist scholars try to be less egregiously white than the next white woman, which is why I gestured at the outset of this essay toward the idea that there is no greater gift to the white feminist performing her anti-racism than a born white woman who can't read the cues (might we even call them the anti-racist norms?) of how not to sound or be like Rachel Doležal, the bad feminist object whose repudiation can help restore faith in feminism's capacity to transform the world. On this score, the road from Karen, Becky, and Miss Ann to Jessica Krug and Rachel Doležal, to the entire repudiated cast of feminism's own white (fore)mothers is paved with interpretative gold. And yet, no matter how much the critique of failed whiteness installs the disidentification with whiteness it seeks, its productivity always risks missing its mark. Why? Because the position being sought—to not be white, performatively, politically, or critically—meets its limit in the ongoing failure of consciousness and self-reflectivity to do all the necessary work of unbinding whiteness from the structures of the social that produce and protect it.
In this context, where the epistemological prohibition that defines the operations of whiteness comes to be challenged but not undone by the epistemological profit conferred on self-consciousness, it becomes easier to see why the discourse of “white feminism” in contemporary feminist scholarship offers both relief and anxiety for white feminists seeking to negotiate its pedagogical demands. Relief because the space of negation it enables gives white feminists the opportunity to perform, through the repetition of renunciation, a relation of otherness to the history of white political incapacity that is born in the definitional characteristic of the unself-consciousness of whiteness itself. Anxiety because such disidentifications don't in themselves deconstruct the white privilege that sets them in motion, as their, which is to say my, corporeal whiteness carries a potent specular power that resists my self-conscious resistance to being (taken as) symptom and agent of the production and reproduction of white supremacy. At the level of the signification of the flesh where racial fictions are written as ontological realities, whiteness as structuring condition is in fact indifferent to whether or not I pledge my allegiance or pronounce my disavowal. Or to put it this way, I benefit even if I politically don't want to, because not wanting to—no matter how valuable to anti-racist agendas—offers no embodied experience through which to measure the benefits I do or don't receive. On the contrary, what the impasse of whiteness delivers is precisely this inoculation against the material force of white disidentifications that on their own cannot render structurally real the conceptual and affective deconstruction of whiteness that drives them. This is true whether or not such disidentifications are made in psychical terms, as a mode of self-study that works to uncover the entitlements that whiteness delivers, or, importantly, in citational practices, through the dismantling of white feminist histories as the singular terrain for configuring the past and future of feminism (see Schuller 2021).
To talk about the structural conditions of white supremacy as nonnegotiable at the level of the subject is of course to confront one of the most coveted beliefs in US feminism, which tasks working on the self as the central scene and theme for any kind of social transformation. But this “working on” is asymmetrical in its pedagogical charge and political force, as what white women must seek is how not to be who we were taught/encouraged/indulged to think we are but its opposite, a deconstruction of self constitution and epistemological privilege. Embodied experience for women of color, on the other hand, is conceived in constructionist terms, as the conduit not only for self-making and social revision but as the perspective white women must adopt (but not co-opt) to configure their disidentification in legibly anti-racist terms. Embodied experience thus conditions the epistemological lack that white women must overcome, while it is configured for women of color as the epistemological ground, first, of self-knowledge and resistance against the false representations and discriminating assaults, both literal and metaphorical, that accompany racialized schemas of whiteness as the universal predicate of Being in an anti-Black world, and second, as a pedagogical model for unbelonging to whiteness itself. These asymmetries underlie the painful history in which the feminist anthem, “the personal is political,” has repeatedly failed to produce the suturing effect for feminist solidarity that its citation and circulation intends, precisely because the ground on which the personal is constructed and performed is not, as the phrase is often taken to suggest, the same.
Doležal, for her part, is more than a little bit aware of the impasse of whiteness in the configurations that I outline above, as In Full Color has all the trappings of a failed attempt to configure a method to outmaneuver them. Think here of the way that her frustratingly literalist interpretations focus her disidentification with whiteness on the other within, designated as the white mother whose overnomination in the national story of biological kinship and racial belonging must be supplanted with narratives of new origins, albeit messy and off-putting ones, that render Blackness both psychically prior and the speculative condition of a self-enunciating wholeness. While disidentification initiates the work of white racial deconstruction, Blackness becomes the embodied origin of epistemological truth. In this face-off with the white mother—explicitly configured as those who craft their maternal desire to include mothering Black children—Doležal can tolerate no trace of similarity or sameness, which is why the autobiography's recollection of the scene of her own birth is inflected competitively through the prism of matricide on the one hand and retaliatory neglect and child abuse on the other. It is also why the autobiography does its best to erase all evidence of white mothers. But Doležal's intolerance goes farther, as she implicitly rejects disidentification as the destination of a racially conscious self, which is to say she rejects the very framework of self-conscious whiteness that promises to differentiate the ideological and political commitments crafted by self-consciously white women from their white others. Instead, Doležal transposes the conditions that lead to the impasse—the incommensurability of the impersonality of structure vis-à-vis first-person negotiations—by rejecting the project of trying to be not (unself-consciously) white in order to insist instead on feeling (self-consciously) non-white.
This transposition is what most frustrates many of Doležal dissenters, not simply because of the proliferation of lies that so infamously set it into motion. The matter cuts deeper, as Doležal is far too brazenly committed to securing a certain kind of bodily pleasure and political credibility in rejecting the anti-racist ethos to interrogate what it means, in the past and the present, to be racially white. The con she thus achieves, for those who think of it this way, is wrapped in an unforgivable audacity as she ferries her flat-footed literalism across the impasse of whiteness by seeking—and securing—identificatory pleasure in be(com)ing Black. In these terms, Doležal's most affronting transgression may well be the very literalism of her citational practice, the way she recycles the fictive signifiers of race as an end run around the ethical responsibilities of anti-racist whiteness, which must first see itself as white in order to disidentify with the power and privilege conferred on white skin. When Sophia Seawell (2018: 56) calls for Doležal to stay “with the trouble of being a white ally,” she is clearly trying to help Doležal sort out all these citational mistakes. But I'm not convinced that everything that troubles feminism about Rachel Doležal would be settled if only she would learn to behave. On the contrary, the political desire for born white women to learn—or in some instances to choose (see Schuller 2021: 10)—how not to be unself-consciously white would remain. So would whiteness as epistemological deficit as well as the impossibility of its deconstruction from within the embodied experience that comprises it. And we'd still be drawn, because we already are, to the search for citational solutions that can displace the authority and centrality of white women's single-axis gender obsessions by generating new historical and analytic origins for feminism—origins that can reflect as well as found an emancipatory agenda for a sisterhood, imagined otherwise. As Kyla Schuller (10) puts it, “intersectional feminism articulates a planetary vision in which all have access to what they need to thrive in mind, body, and spirit.”
Counter histories to the whiteness of feminism have existed, of course, ever since feminism became the name for describing and resisting gendered regimes. But my sense is that the very specification of “white feminism” generates new conditions for reconstructing feminism's political imaginary, one that opens to a transformed future by retrieving and institutionalizing an intersectional past that can carry the promise of surpassing the whiteness that has long threatened it.22 In this promise, the problem of whiteness for feminism is negotiated through citational and analytic disidentifications, as the great white foremothers of the movement, no less than of the field, are repudiated for their historical complicity with white racial hegemonies, and the citational economy of the text is made to signify as Black even when its author is white. This is at least one of the ways we might interpret Shoniqua Roach's (2021: n.p.) characterization of the provocation of Against White Feminism as a call to “become women of color.” Still, the metaphoric and the citational don't unwind the contradictions of the impasse so much as give hope for bypassing them. If there is something uncannily familiar in all this—in the pursuit of new origins and a kinship uncontradicted by white privilege—it is audible not because I've been sitting with Rachel Doležal so long that I hear strange permutations of her failed interpretations and disidentifications everywhere. The point is a little more difficult, as there is no single way to address the impasse of whiteness and no final clarity on how the knots—or as the case may be the nots—of whiteness as structure and lived experience can be materially overcome. Rachel Doležal—disconcertingly, tragically, laughably (take your pick)—sought recourse in a literalist escape, becoming a Black woman most fully when the Black community accepted the significations she wrote on her skin. The negotiations offered white feminists via the critique of white feminism are hardly comparable except at the level of the wish they repeat and sustain. If even this similarity is too much to digest, the option remains to stick to the belief that feminism's bad objects are bad for all the right reasons.
The author thanks Julien Fischer, Jennifer Nash, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Samantha Pinto, Zahid Chaudhary, and the audience at Princeton University's Humanities Council works-in-progress event for their generous feedback and edits. She is also grateful to Anne Brancky and Youna Kwak, who organized the 2021 ACLA session on “Bad Objects,” which gave her a venue in the midst of the pandemic to think about Doležal with a community of committed interdisciplinary scholars.
The use of these terms is ubiquitous in the cultural discourse about Doležal. For “born white,” see Svrluga 2015; for an instance of the language of being “outed,” see McGreal 2015; and for “transracial” see Brubaker 2016 and Alim 2016. For the history and political culture of transracial as a referent for mixed-race adoptive families, see Briggs 2012.
In 2017, Doležal was charged with welfare fraud for taking public assistance without revealing that she had received over $83,000 in income since 2015, including an advance from BenBella Books for the autobiography that reportedly barely sold six hundred copies. She was ordered to repay $8,847 and to perform 120 hours of community service (see Arciga 2019). It was lost on nearly no one that being accused of being a welfare cheat is one of white nationalism's favorite stereotypes of Black women.
Among her other roles in Black political movement, Doležal worked at the Human Rights Education Institute, taught courses in African American cultural studies at Eastern Washington University, and served on the Spokane volunteer police ombudsman committee.
Of the four children adopted by Ruthanne and Larry Doležal, two, Ezra and Zach, now defend the parents against the stories that Rachel tells about the culture of work and punishment in the family. See Gayle 2015.
There's also Kelly Kean Sharp, a (now former) assistant professor at Furman University and African American history scholar, who self-presented as Chicana, wrote blog posts about her abuela in Mexico, but who grew up white in LA. On the rash of poseurs, see Flaherty 2020 and Lewis 2021 as well as Cherid 2021, who refers to the practice of whites passing as Black as “blackfishing” (359).
Doležal uses a caron, which is Czech in origin, for the spelling of her family patronymic in the autobiography and its byline. I am using that spelling throughout this essay except where work cited uses “Dolezal.”
In what I think is the only book-length study that takes up Doležal as its primary case study, McKibbin (2021) offers a kind of metacommentary about the move that Bey makes here, where his dislike of Doležal is not an impediment to considerations of what her story reveals about the ideology of racial identity. “What is important to this discussion,” McKibbin writes, “is not debating Doležal's character but rather what her claims can help us understand about our assumptions, beliefs, and practices with regard to race and, consequently, how we are thinking about the possibility of transracial identities. Thus, my focus is not ascertaining the veracity of Doležal's claims or that of any other potentially transracial person's” (4).
To make matters worse for the critic tasked with “sitting with,” Doležal offers this insistence after what many commentators take as a false and harmful analogy: “Just as a transgender person might be born male but identity as female, I wasn't pretending to be something I wasn't but expressing something I already was” (2017: 148). This line is repeated, with an important variation later in the text: “I wasn't passing for something I wasn't but identifying as something I was” (239).
As I read it, Roach is absolutely not endorsing a literalist interpretation of the provocation she finds at the heart of Against White Feminism but trying to underscore the inclusivity that Zakaria seeks in disarticulating whiteness as a political position and faulty feminist philosophy from the white women who routinely embody it. As Zakaria (2021: ix) puts it, “You do not have to be white to be a white feminist. It is also perfectly possible to be white and feminist and not be a white feminist. The term describes a set of assumptions and behaviors which have been baked into mainstream Western feminism, rather than describing the racial identity of its subjects. At the same time, it is true that most white feminists are indeed white, and that whiteness itself is at the core of white feminism.” In these maneuvers, as Roach intimates, Zakaria evokes a universal—and universally progressive—feminism defined by its intersectional commitment to “women of color” as a political ontology.
I am taking enormous liberties in my use of Schor's concept of the failed interpretant. Apologies to the faithful.
The specification of white feminism as a specific historical political entity has of course been around for decades, but in referencing it as a “discourse” here I am attempting to engage the proliferation of scholarly and popular conversation organized around it, including its circulation in ways that exceed the citational through social media and in activist contexts. For some of the most prominent works at the time of this writing, see Beck 2021; Chaddock and Hinderliter 2019; Daniels 2021; Hamad 2019; Schuller 2021, and Zakaria 2021.
It is not possible to read Doležal's emphasis on materializing her felt Blackness without hearing echoes of the most familiar narrative tropes of transition in our times, that of transgender, even if what we might be hearing are simply the reductionist outlines of first person speech conforming to the dictates of a standardized self-representation. But the analogy between transracialism and transgender has been a persistent feature of the cultural maelstrom around Doležal, as Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender within the same few weeks of the summer of 2015 that Doležal's story broke. In the culture war produced nightly by conservative media, with Fox News taking the lead, Jenner and Doležal were yoked together as comparable figures whose identity claims were being treated by the left in supposedly hypocritical ways, as Jenner was celebrated for her bravery in claiming who she really was while Doležal was critiqued for performing an elaborate masquerade. This controversy hit the academy especially hard when Hypatia published an essay by Tuvel (2017) with the provocation “In Defense of Transracialism,” that led not just to mass editorial resignations but to adamant rejections of thinking transracialism and transgender together. For important interventions against the prohibition, see Green 2015 and Stryker 2015. See also Brubaker 2016. On the Hypatia controversy, see Winnubst 2017 and Bérubé 2018.
The Netflix documentary The Rachel Divide (Brownson 2018) is fascinated with the image of Doležal in front of the mirror and returns multiple times to the daily ritual of hair and makeup. See Corey 2018 for a review of the film.
It is important to note that Doležal's (2017: 118) discussion of her marriage to Kevin is the first time in the autobiography that she describes being instructed into whiteness: “Learning that a Black man could be, culturally and philosophically, as white as any white man was a painful lesson for me.” The snapshots of her childhood experience feature no overt family discourse about race, other than in Rachel's depiction of Larry and Ruthanne's efforts to adopt Black children, which Doležal describes “as a way to avoid (or, at the very least, limit) paying taxes to a government they blamed for subsidizing abortions” (45). Kevin, who as far as I can tell has never spoken publicly about Doležal, is depicted not only as patriarchal and anti-Black but also prone to domestic violence. “Kevin grabbed the back of my hair and threw me across the room” (125). In chapter 16, titled “Emancipation,” Doležal describes the end of her marriage. “The divorce was finalized in April 2005. . . . I was truly owning who I was: a woman who was free, self-reliant, and, yes, Black” (129).
The multicultural narrative of American democratic becoming was a main narrative in Barack Obama's presidential campaign and tenure in the White House (see Taylor 2016), and clearly a strong element in the current white nationalist reclamation of US history, which has been fueled most recently by the specter of the 1619 project by Nikole Hannah-Jones (2019), which re-narrates national history through slavery and its legacy. Importantly, Jones's language about the project gives slavery primal agency in the historical aspiration of national democratic completion. She writes, “Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals” (n.p.).
In her historical study, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance (2013), Carla Kaplan offers an important lens for understanding the different cultural narratives that accompany “reverse passing,” as it is sometimes called. Doležal's autobiography both evokes these plot lines and diverges from them. Like Miss Anne, Doležal rejects her biological inheritance and seeks instead to be accepted into the Black community, but her story offers the interesting twist that the family she comes from is a transracial one. Like Miss Anne, Doležal is similarly committed to anti-racist politics and dedicated her labor to projects and organizations that sought to address white racism, but Doležal never did so as a white ally; her anti-racist work was part of her understanding of being Black. And finally, while she too was libidinally invested in Black men, marrying one and having a child with another, Doležal's most distinct racial fetishism was and is profoundly self-centered, as it is on her own body that she writes the identity she claims.
In his work on white minstrelsy, Eric Lott (1995) has diagnosed the affective labor that blackface performs for white audiences as white actors pass through Black stereotype to shore up whiteness not just as an identity but as a sensorium to be shared. See Taylor and Austen (2012) for a discussion of the Black minstrel tradition and the complexities of its performance and reception for Black performers and audiences alike.
Gates (2018) uses the language of the “double negative” to break through the long-standing debate about positive and negative images in the study of Black representation in popular culture. By “taking up Herman Gray's call to analytically shift discussions of identity and media ‘from signification and representation to resonance and experience,’” Gates argues for the critical value of “embrac[ing] the designation of ‘negative’” (16).
In the year after the autobiography was published, Doležal changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo, meaning “gift of God,” though she continues to use her birth name professionally. As Ann DuCille (2020: 168) discusses, the ghost that haunts this name change is Amadou Diallo, an “unarmed and minding his own business” Black man who was “blasted to death by nineteen of forty-one bullets nypd officers fired at him.” In considering “Rachel Dolezal's appropriated namesake,” DuCille points out how the racial profiling that gets “black men like Diallo killed actually aided and abetted Doležal in the racial ruse that enabled her to pass for a black woman.”
The second lie, which undergirds the very structure of anti-Black racism, is to Cobb's mind “far more dangerous” than Doležal's. His point is not to eliminate the pressure on Doležal to address what he calls her “dishonesty” but to grapple with the “vexed criteria being used to exclude her,” which risks homogenizing Black identity while leaving the most dangerous lie intact. In “Incorporeal Blackness,” Bey (2021: 208) pushes this last point to its extreme, granting Doležal her cross-racial bona fides in order to argue for the speculative capacities of Blackness as a “modality of becoming [unmoored] from given ontologies.” As Bey puts it, “Dolezal passes for black, sure, but so then does Cornel West, Toni Morrison . . . and any other ‘black’ person you can name. That is to say, maybe she wasn't ‘born black’—but no one is” (218). The “incorporeal” of the essay's title answers the call to take social construction past its familiar insistence that race and gender are social fictions to the ground of the body itself. “We cannot wish for fundamental, radical change without also putting at imminent risk . . . our deepest tethers to our own bodies” (221).
For Cobb, the privilege that Doležal demonstrates is not found, as other commentators would have it, in the matter of her choosing to be Black as the epitome of white privilege, which Alisha Gaines (2017) tags in the title of her book as “being Black for a day.” His analysis is more scathing, as my discussion here hopes to convey.
Schuller's book (2021: 124) is especially forceful on this point, describing Elizabeth Cady Stanton as “the inventor of white feminism” and offering, in a series of seven chapters, a genealogy of feminism that was intersectional from the beginning. Key figures for this retelling include Frances E. W. Harper, Harriet Jacobs, Zitkala-Ša, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, Pauli Murray, Sandy Stone, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.