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An Expert Weighs in on the Strange Case of Rachel Dolezal

An interview with Nikki Khanna, a sociologist at the University of Vermont who specializes in racial identity.
(Photo: rachel.dolezal1/Facebook)

(Photo: rachel.dolezal1/Facebook)

Rachel Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, made headlines this week after allegations surfaced that the civil rights activist had been lying about her race. Speaking to Dolezal’s biological parents, a local television station determined that the 37-year-old had been falsely passing as a black woman.

Dolezal has yet to comment, though she told BuzzFeed News on Friday that an official statement is forthcoming. In the meantime, BuzzFeed and other news outlets have combed through her online listings, from a university profile (she’s also a "quarterly" professor in the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University) to social media accounts, hoping to find evidence that the NAACP leader was in fact trying to mislead her community about her race. The NAACP, which has a long history of mixed race and white chapter leaders, is standing by Dolezal. "One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership," the organization wrote in a statement. Racial passing is a fraught issue, made more difficult by the fact that there are no objective definitions of race.

To find some unique perspective, Pacific Standard spoke with Nikki Khanna, a sociologist at the University of Vermont who specializes in racial identity.

Your research looks at how Americans’ racial identities develop over time. What is your initial reaction to the case of Rachel Dolezal?

To me this seems like a unique case. In my work at the University of Vermont I primarily look at multiracial people. Those individuals have some ancestral tie to different racial groups, and I see a lot of fluidity in how they identify themselves. For example, someone who has a black father and a white mother might in some cases identify as white and in some situations as black, and that might change over their life course. I think what makes this case different is that it seems like, at least from what we know so far, she doesn’t have any ancestral link to any African-American or black person.

How do we define race?

One of the things about race that’s really interesting is that it really is a fiction. It’s a myth. One of the first things I teach my students in race relations courses is that there really is no biological basis of race. Genetically, we’re very similar to each other regardless of race, and many of my students are surprised by that.

If race is subjective, how do we assign racial categories as individuals or as a society?

Race isn’t real, but we make it real. We attach meaning to what it means to be black or white or Asian in our society, and because of that we oftentimes police the boundaries of different racial groups, about who belongs and who doesn’t belong. Even the biracial people that I talk to often find that their identities are challenged. In our country we do tie the concept of race to ancestry, and for her not to have that ancestry is going to be very problematic. From what I’ve seen many are up in arms.

Race, in many different countries, can be something ascribed to you by other people. In Brazil, there’s much more flexibility in race compared to the U.S. In Brazil, race has little to do with ancestry; it has everything to do with skin color. Full siblings might be classified differently because their skin color is different. But in this country we do think about race as being based on ancestry. I think that’s why it’s going to be hard for Americans to swallow this particular case. We tend to, as Americans, think about race as being something that’s stable, that doesn’t change. Which is why it’s perplexing that a woman would be born white and at some point in her life just start self-identifying as black.

How does racial identity develop?

I usually study this within the context of mixed-race people who are oftentimes trying to make sense of who they are racially. Racial identity can change over their lifetime and is influenced by a number of factors; for example, what racial mix they are, do they live with both their parents, their interactions with those different racial communities. It’ll be interesting to know more about [Dolezal’s] background and how she came to her decision to self-identify as biracial. For example, if she grew up and had a lot of contact with African Americans, maybe that shaped her sense of self in some way. Maybe it’s rooted in family issues, maybe there’s some sort of identity confusion, maybe she just felt such a strong allegiance that she made this decision to self-identify that way.

What is the threshold for when interest in another’s culture become offensive?

I think that for many people, they might feel an allegiance toward a particular ethnic group or a closeness with a particular race or ethnic group, and even fight on behalf of members of that particular group. I don’t think anyone begrudges the fact that she might feel ties for that particular group and she might adopt some of the cultural aspects of a particular group. She’s gone above and beyond in that she’s even fighting for that group, which I think is commendable. But there’s a difference between that allegiance and closeness and false representation. If she had just been honest and said, "Yes, I’m white, but I care about the issues in the African-American community and I’m going to fight for those," that would’ve been fine for most people. I think it was that misrepresentation of her background that’s problematic.

The issue with appropriating another’s culture arises when you do so without recognizing where that culture comes from, and the history of that particular culture. And appropriating it because you think it’s cool or it’s fun, its something really fleeting for you; whereas for someone else that is their life. It’s something that is much deeper for them. I think recognizing that is really important. I think we can certainly appreciate others’ cultures, and we can certainly participate in others’ cultures as well, but I think we’re a long way from accepting people that just decide or wake up one day and claim a particular culture as their own without having some sort of connection to it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.