By Charlotte Alter
June 12, 2015

When the parents of civil rights activist Rachel Dolezal said that their daughter has been pretending to be African-American, the revelation opened up a charged debate on the nature of race and identity.

Dolezal, president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP and professor at the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University, has identified herself as a black woman for years. But Thursday night, her parents told a local TV station that Dolezal is not black or even biracial, but fully caucasian. “We are definitely her birth parents,” her father Lawrence Dolezal told the Washington Post. “We are both of Caucasian and European descent.”

The Dolezals said their daughter, who could not be reached to comment for this story, became interested in black culture when they adopted her black siblings while Dolezal was a teenager. After doing racial justice work in college, she went on to get a full scholarship to Howard University, a historically black university.

The revelation has raised many questions, among them: Can we decide our racial identity for ourselves? Imitating other cultures is fairly common among white teens, says Anita Thomas, an associate professor of counseling psychology at Loyola University Chicago, “because they feel like white identity is generic or doesn’t have substance to it.” Most people outgrow that feeling once they reach adulthood, Thomas said.

Thomas also says the desire to be part of a different culture could be linked to the way different heritages are presented in school. “Part of it is our attention to diversity, where we’re really focused on the most superficial aspects—diversity days are about things like food, role playing, clothing that’s different from American style,” she says. “Whiteness doesn’t seem as rich or as full, and doesn’t seem to have as much history associated with it.”

For many people, Dolezal’s apparent choice to live as a black woman is extremely offensive. “In this moment as a black woman, I know that I’m having a visceral response to what I’m seeing and reading,” says Yaba Blay, teacher-scholar of Africana Studies at Drexel University and author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. “Why is it that you as a white woman have access to blackness, but we as black people will never have access to whiteness? Why is black the category that you can come dance in?”

Blay was careful to point out that we don’t know all the details about Dolezal’s alleged choice, and there could be another side to this story. But if it’s true, she says, Dolezal’s decision to live as a black woman goes beyond cultural appropriation. “You can dabble in it, you can put on the clothes, you can speak the slang, you can dance to the music, but when black men are being assassinated in the streets, are you signing up for blackness then?” Blay asks.

Of course, Dolezal has done more than just dress up– in her role as NAACP president, she has been a leader for racial justice in Spokane. But Blay points out that with the NAACP’s long history of support from white people, Dolezal could easily have fought for justice without the masquerade.

“When we talk about race, we’re talking about culture—we’re talking about the way were raised in this experience,” Blay says. “How could you wake up and ‘feel black’ because how could you know what that feels like?”

Scholars speculate that Dolezal’s choice may be a symbol of a increasingly fluid approach to self-identity. “Race is a social construction, and this is a perfect example of that. ” says Charles Gallagher, Chair of the Sociology and Criminal Justice program at La Salle University. “What bothers people is the way she went about it.”

Gallagher says he uses a thought experiment to get at this issue in a class he teaches on race. He is a white man of European descent, he says, but recently learned he has has the sickle cell trait, which is usually found among people with African ancestors. He asks his students: Can I be black? “My black students will say, ‘No. Have you ever been stopped by a police officer? Have you ever been profiled?'” he says. “Yes, it’s a social construction, but it’s real in the way that people treat you.”

 

Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com.

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