Definition of race is fluid in America
Washington — Rachel Dolezal, born to white parents, self-identifies as black — a decision that illustrates how fluid identity can be in a diversifying America, as the rigid racial structures that have defined most of this country's history seem, for some, to be softening.
Dolezal resigned as the leader of the NAACP's Spokane, Washington, branch after questions surfaced about her racial identity. When asked directly on NBC's "Today" show Tuesday whether she is "an African-American woman," Dolezal replied, "I identify as black."
Her parents identified her as white with a trace of Native American heritage, and her mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, has said Rachel began to "disguise herself" as black after her parents adopted four black children more than a decade ago.
Dolezal isn't the first person to make this type of change. Millions of Americans changed racial or ethnic identities between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, even though their choices may have contradicted what their skin color appeared to be, or who their parents said they are.
"It forces us to really question whether or not this biological basis for identity is a smart path to continue down in the future," said Camille Gear Rich, a University of Southern California law and sociology professor who writes about elective race choices.
Americans have become comfortable with people self-identifying their race, Rich said, "but often that invocation of identity based on a biological claim isn't backed up by anything else after the claim is made."
In the past, race was determined mostly by what other people thought a person was. For example, the Census Bureau's enumerators would determine on their own what a person's race was, and classify them as such. By the 1960s and 1970s, census officials were allowing people to self-identify.
Currently, the Census Bureau allows people to choose a racial category, or even multiple categories, to which they think they belong. Last year, a study showed that 1 in 16 people — or approximately 9.8 million of 162 million — who responded to both the 2000 and 2010 censuses gave different answers when it came to race and ethnicity.
Dolezal, 37, said Tuesday that published accounts described her first as "transracial," then "biracial," then as "a black woman." "I never corrected that," she conceded, adding that "it's more complex than being true or false in that particular instance."
She and her parents have disagreed about her backstory. Dolezal says she started identifying as black around age 5, when she drew self-portraits with a brown crayon. Her mother told Fox News that's not true.
Dolezal has gotten support from some in the black community, who say she should be allowed to self-identify as she pleases. However, other African-Americans say she is "passing" — a term mainly used to describe blacks who looked white enough to deny their African ancestry — and should not claim a racial identity that she cannot prove.