The Science of Race: Why Rachel Dolezal Can't Choose to Be Black

naacp leader rachel dolezal
Former Spokane NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal speaks with "Today Show" host Matt Lauer about allegations that she lied about her race (Image credit: screen shot from the Today Show)

The media and the public have been buzzing about the bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who says she identifies as black despite being born white.

In a "Today" show interview that aired yesterday (June 16), Dolezal hinted at a mismatch between her appearance and how she saw herself from a young age.

"I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black, curly hair," Dolezal said in the interview.

But just how common is it for people to have such discord between internal and external definitions of their race and ethnicity?

While many people feel some internal tension regarding their race or ethnicity, especially during adolescence, the lengths Dolezal went to in order to cover up her birth race are incredibly unusual, experts said. [Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors]

"Kids will take on hip-hop culture or Latino culture based on their neighborhood, the schools, their community composition — but it's not something that would be lasting, because it wouldn't be reinforced" by people around them, said Anita Thomas, a health and psychology researcher at Loyola University Chicago who studies racial and ethnic identity.

Race vs. ethnicity

Ethnicity is a complicated mix of customs, traditions and behaviors that are rooted in heritage, Thomas said. Most people get cues about their ethnicity from family, society and the media. And most people don't identify with all of the canonical traits ascribed to a given ethnicity, such as enjoying spicy food or having a close-knit extended family, Thomas said.

Though ethnic identity is often confused with racial identity, the two concepts are very different, said John Cheng, a historian of comparative racial and ethnic studies at Binghamton University in New York.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, scientists believed "a race was the equivalent of a subspecies, so that it had meaningful biological utility. But no scientist has believed that since the 1950s," Cheng told Live Science.

In fact, race has no biological meaning, several experts said. Populations with different ancestry may have different prevalence of certain genes, including the relatively small number that produce traits stereotypically associated with a race, such as silky black hair in Asian people. But that handful of genes is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more genes that are invisible to bystanders showing up at different rates in populations of different ancestry. For instance, certain genes associated with heart failure risk are more common in African Americans, but society doesn't consider those genes a sign of being black. There are no black or Asian genes that define someone's race, said David Freund, a historian at the University of Maryland in College Park, who studies the history of racial "science," conflict and identity.

"Race and ethnicity are both 100 percent invented by modern societies," Freund told Live Science. [The Best Genealogy Software for Tracing Your Family Tree]

Just because race is constructed by society, however, doesn't mean its real-life consequences are nil or that race is malleable, he added. Race is a hierarchical system of classifying people based on four or five visible characteristics — such as skin color and hair texture — in order to confer certain privileges to one group and to disempower and discriminate against another, Freund said. And crucially, society plays a big part in defining race; few people have the option of choosing their racial identity, he added.

Racial mismatch

People commonly feel some discord between their internal and external ethnic or racial identity. For instance, expatriates may acquire some of the cultural habits of the local people, Thomas said.

And children who are surrounded by people of other ethnicities and races may "try on" different ways of dressing, eating or acting, but if the people around them don't encourage it, they mostly "grow out of it," Thomas said.

Many children who are adopted by parents of a race different from their own continue to feel an ethnic or racial difference from their families, and instead identify more closely with their birth race or ethnicity, Thomas said.

"A lot of the research on transracial adoption — and particularly with international Asian adoptees — really talks about the fluidity of ethnicity," Thomas told Live Science. "But most of the adoptees would say, 'I always knew I was Korean; I always knew I was Chinese.'"

Passing as black

Historically, African Americans who were light-skinned may have passed as white, to escape oppression or even, as in the case of the early NAACP leader, Walter White, to infiltrate white supremacist groups to get information on their plans for lynchings or other terrorist acts, Cheng said. Given the oppression faced by people identified as black, that's understandable to most people, Cheng said.

But Dolezal's case is counterintuitive because she is "passing" in the opposite direction. She appears to have much darker skin, wears traditionally African American hairstyles, and has identified as black and biracial in a few situations, according to news reports.

"This case is really unusual — and actually, to be honest, really quite weird," Freund said.

Clearly, her identity as black seems to be deeply held, as she could have just said she was white but supportive of African American causes and made the controversy go away, Thomas said.

"But it's so much of how she sees herself that that disconnect can't be bridged for her," Thomas said.

Either way, the deception is problematic because most people don't get to choose their race, Freund said. Dolezal is probably benefiting from her African American identity without having experienced a lifetime of racism, and she can shed her black persona if it becomes inconvenient, Freund said.

"She can hide in her whiteness at any moment if she wants to," Freund said.

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Tia Ghose
Managing Editor

Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.