How Scientists Explain Rachel Dolezal


Posted on June 12, 2015 at 3:00 pm

CREDIT: Screenshot via KXLY

What started as an investigation into the delivery of hate mail has turned into a deeper inquiry into the racial identity of Spokane, WA’s high profile civil rights leaders — and a discussion about the lengths that people may go to deceive themselves and those around them.

Rachel Dolezal, the head of Spokane’s NAACP and a fixture in the city’s black community, has long identified as African American, even designating herself as such on applications for community leadership positions. However, her estranged Caucasian parents dispelled that notion earlier this week, showing reporters at CNN affiliate KXLY her Montana birth certificate and an old family photo. Dolezal’s parents said their white daughter relates to African-American culture, having attended a majority-black school in Mississippi, marrying and divorcing a black man, and adopting four black children.

Dolezal, who also lectures on African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and represents black residents on matters of police violence, hasn’t directly answered questions about her racial identity, telling USA Today, “It’s more important to me to clarify that to the black community, and with my executive board, than it really is for me to explain it to a community that I quite frankly don’t think understands the definitions of race and ethnicity.” Earlier this week, she walked away from a reporter who asked about a family photograph posted to the local NAACP chapter’s Facebook in which she’s standing next to an elderly black man whom she called her father.

Since news of Dolezal’s deception surfaced, a diverse array of people have taken to social media to respond, speculating about what her motivations may have been. No one knows for sure what may have spurred Dolezal to behave the way she did. But her case may have the makings of what researchers call “self-deception.”

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have suggested that self-deception serves a basic psychological function, perhaps created out of one’s negative view of their appearance or other characteristics. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran wrote in the journal Nature that humans have the ability to keep absolute truths out of their mind so they can lead more pleasant lives, citing studies of people who have “anosognosia” — a condition among people with disabilities who deny their impairment or make up alternative explanations about why parts of their body can’t function.

While researchers acknowledge that self-deception has some benefits, and could even build confidence, they warn that it creates problems when exhibited in excess. Experts say that people who constantly lie become trapped in those untruths to the point that they create a new reality. These fabrications ultimately allow people to avoid uncomfortable parts of their lives. For some, the anxiety of facing the hard truth about the challenges of adult life — including career, money, sexual identity, and marriage — may be too much to bear. Practicing self-deception may also make it easier to lie to other people.

Historians Eugene D. Genovese and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese alluded to the possibility of self-deception among antebellum white slaveholders in their 2013 book entitled Fatal Self-Deception: Slaveholding Paternalism in the Old South. In their book, the duo suggested that slave owner created the narrative of the benevolent master that had shone them in the light as saviors of slaves happy under bondage. This line of thinking, the authors said, allowed white slave-owners to justify the harsh treatment of the enslaved and argue in favor of laws that maintained a violent caste system.

The same might hold true for Dolezal, whose parents said would go to great lengths to assume a new identity as a black woman and build solidarity with other people of color. During the investigation about the hate mail found in the Spokane NAACP chapter’s P.O. Box, authorities said that parts of Dolezal’s statements didn’t add up. For one, the aforementioned packages didn’t have date stamps or bar codes on the envelope. Post office employees say that the only way an unprocessed letter ends up in a box is if someone with a key or an employee placed it there.

The Spokane Spokesman said that Dolezal has galvanized participation in the local NAACP chapter since her election in 2014. Before then, she had garnered a years-long record of civil rights advocacy that includes production of artwork that has sold for thousands of dollars.

While little is known about Dolezal’s motives in lying about her race, there has been some speculation that her denial of her German, Swedish, and Czech roots could be an attempt to mentally break away from her family — with whom she’s currently embroiled in a lawsuit. “Rachel has wanted to be somebody she’s not. She’s chosen not to just be herself but to represent herself as an African-American woman or a biracial person. And that’s simply not true,” Ruthanne Dolezal, Rachel’s mother, told reporters.

Looking further into this case, one may also see signs of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) — a condition that’s characterized by a preoccupation with one’s what they consider slight defects in their appearance. Those with the condition check their appearance and undergo cosmetic treatments to hide perceived defects in a fashion similar to what Dolezal’s parent allege. The Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation says that related ailments include depression, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Those most at risk are teenagers, but the disorder affects men and women equally. A recent UCLA study tied BDD and anorexia to abnormalities in the part of the brain that processes “global” information.

Whatever the case may be, many of Dolezal’s colleagues said they feel deceived by her actions. Spokane Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Shuckert issued a statement in which they pledged to look into the allegations further and see if Dolezal had violated any policies. Regardless of the outcome, Dolezal’s mother said that her lies have thwarted the work that she has tried to carry out on behalf of black Spokane residents.

“It’s very sad that Rachel has not just been herself,” the older Dolezal, told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “Her effectiveness in the causes of the African-American community would have been so much more viable, and she would have been more effective, if she had just been honest with everybody.”