Rachel Dolezal: Why would a white woman misrepresent her race as black? Psychological insights from a mental health expert.

Rachel Dolezal- Now and Then.NAACP official Rachel Dolezal of Spokane, Washington has recently come under tremendous media fire for misrepresenting her racial identity as African-American for approximately the past 10 years.  Her biological parents have publicly made statements that the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German with some “faint traces” of Native American heritage as well. Her parents have also provided journalists with a copy of her daughter’s Montana birth certificate listing herself and Larry Dolezal as Rachel’s parents as evidence to validate her identity.

While CNN has yet to get comment from Rachel Dolezal directly (as of the production of this article), she has alluded to a family fight over alleged abuse, according to the Spokesman-Review.  She has also recently refused to directly answer a newspaper journalist’s questions about her racial heritage, and said she wanted to talk to local NAACP leadership first. “I feel like I owe my executive committee a conversation,” she said.  Public response to this controversy been mixed, with some reflecting a sentiment of confusion, others with speculation, cynicism, or support.  Many want to know:

“Why would a white woman pretend to be Black?”

As a mental health expert with a wide range of treatment experiences in various settings, I can offer some psychological insight regarding what might lead someone like Rachel Dolezal to identify as a member of an oppressed racial group.  Based on the information that has been made publicly available through news media sources such as CNN, I can begin to hypothesize what may be some possible reasons behind a person’s choice to racially align themselves with an African American/black racial identity in spite of having a Caucasian/white racial heritage.

In my experience as a mental health professional over the past 15 years, I have worked with a number of individuals who’ve had the unfortunate experience of discrimination, abuse, trauma and crime.  The emotional trauma of victimization is a direct reaction to the aftermath of experiencing discrimination, abuse, trauma, and/or crime.  Abuse victims can suffer a tremendous amount of physical and psychological trauma.  While some are emotionally resilient and manage to overcome the real adversity they experience, others are less so, and experience higher levels of emotional pain and suffering.  In some cases however, a person’s understanding of themselves as a ‘victim’ is not in response to actual or significantly measurable experiences of abuse, trauma or discrimination.  This can occur as a result of a personality pre-disposition that develops early on in some people, as a way for them to psychologically cope with receiving what they feel is ‘unfair treatment’ from others.

Sometimes, a person’s perception of what is ‘fair and unfair’ can be very distorted.  It may be that they are highly sensitive to feeling slighted, and/or develop a sensitivity to early criticism.  They may have difficulty coping what many other people are capable of accepting as the normal ups and downs of life.  When someone’s personality develops in this way, they can feel entitled to ‘better treatment’ than they are receiving, and when they don’t get it, they feel it’s because others are purposefully mistreating them. In their minds, it’s this perceived ‘mistreatment’ that leads them to developing an identity as a ‘victim’ as a way to process their experience of being chronically wronged.

Over time, someone who has developed emotionally in this way may be drawn towards people and experiences that reinforce their experience of being mistreated in the world.  They may even provoke people and/or manipulate circumstances so they can claim they were wronged.  Over time, they may come to rely on garnering sympathy from others as a way to benefit from the emotional support of those who are sympathetic to their experience.  Receiving this type of support can reinforce their pattern of identifying as a chronically mistreated person. Taking on the ethnic identity of a member of a systematically socially oppressed racial group could give someone an opportunity to not just experience real discrimination and racial prejudice, but also garner emotional, social and political support from equal right’s activists.

Rachel Dolezal grew up in what her parents called a diverse environment, with family friends of various ethnic backgrounds, and four adopted siblings who are black. She was “always interested in ethnicity and diversity” growing up, her mother Ruthanne said.  Media sources have pointed out a clear discrepancy between early photos of Rachel Dolezal as a blonde, fair skinned white woman and recent photos that reveal she has chosen to alter her physical appearance by darkening her skin and adopting an afro-like hairstyle with a kinky/curly texture as a way to portray herself as having an African-American racial heritage.  Many people are sounding off that Rachel Dolezal “has been dishonest and deceptive with her racial identity.”  What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Rachel Dolezal: Why would a white woman misrepresent her race as black? Psychological insights from a mental health expert.

  1. Timothy Clancy

    Your analysis makes sense, but is there anything else going on with a person who not only identifies with the oppressed group but becomes a public leader and activist in the cause of that group?

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