Rachel Dolezal, 37, who we recently learned misrepresented herself as an African-American woman while living in Spokane, Wash. the last 10 years, may be a lot of things, but she’s not “transracial.”

The way in which people have used the term transracial has been to mimic how people use “transgender.” GLAAD defines transgender as “a term used to describe people whose gender identity differs from the sex the doctor marked on their birth certificate” — so if Dolezal identifies as African-American, yet her doctor marked Caucasian on her birth certificate, this would be a similar scenario. But not only is this misguided, it’s inaccurate.

Historically, Business Insider (BI) reported, the term transracial referred to interracial adoption, also known as transracial adoption. Dr. Guylaine Hubbard-Brosmer, adoption coordinator for The Independent Adopting Center, explained this basic definition as “an adoptive placement in which the child’s race/ethnicity is different from the adoptive parent’s race/ethnicity.” And as BI found, the #transracial hashtag that’s appeared on Dolezal-related social media posts was up until recently used “in tandem with the hashtag #adoption.”

If not transracial, how do you describe someone who wants to identify as another race? While Dolezal has yet to give her side of the story, there are pieces of her narrative as an African-American woman that may be pyshcologically telling.


Psychology Today traces sadism (deliberate cruelty) and masochism (enjoyment of pain) back to the 19th century German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Ebing, it turns out, named sadism for Marquis de Sade, an 18th century writer known for his erotic literature and a known sexual sadist. In one of Sade’s books, he wrote:

“How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination! In those delectable moments, the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate. The means to every crime is ours, and we employ them all, we multiply the horror a hundredfold.”

When sadism and masochism combine, they become a subset of BDSM, hence the frequent association with sexual gratification. But The Daily Beast suggests parts of Dolezal’s story are sadomasochistic; she claims her parents abused her and her brothers as children with a “baboon whip… pretty similar to what was used as whips during slavery.” And similar parts of Dolezal’s “family history” are “replete with images of grotesque violence… like slavery. Like torture.”

To The Daily Beast, “These are highly choreographed, ritualized sadomasochistic scenes, and to psychotherapists, they’re nothing new.”


The “nothing new” part of The Daily Beast’s theory lends itself to the psychological idea of victimization. Dr. Jill P. Weber wrote in a separate post for Psychology Today, “How a person internalizes a particular point of view about control speaks volumes about their ability to live with a sense of well-being and contentment.”

Weber continued: “If you grew up with parents who continually emphasized effort and personal responsibility, you may have an easier time with life’s ups and downs. On the other hand, if your parental models continually blamed external factors for their difficulty or if you genuinely struggled with events outside of your control (socioeconomic status, trauma, abuse, war, or social unrest) you may be prone to having a high external locus of control.”

If Dolezal’s alleged child abuse were to come out as true (her parents and brother deny these claims), she could be prone to this external locus of control, which means she’d be more likely to believe her successes and failures are dependent upon outside factors rather than themselves. People with high external locus often find they repeatedly endure the same negative consequences, in addition to also being more prone to depression, alcoholism, and obesity.

Racism, however, may be what ultimately motivated Dolezal’s “new life.” BuzzFeed News spoke with Ezra Dolezal, one of Dolezal’s brothers, who said he believes his sister became “hateful to white people” after her teachers and peers at Howard University mistreated her for being white and studying African Art. Ezra said, “because of her work… they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”

He continued: “It’s like what psychologists call self-hating. She had no reason not to like herself being white. She was an awesome artist and she could have accomplished everything she did if she had stayed exactly the same.”


Self-hatred, like an external locus of control, most often stems from childhood, Dr. Stacy Freedenthal wrote for GoodTherapy.org. Experiencing trauma can fuel a child’s negative feelings, and when it’s “at its most extreme, self-hatred can lead people to retreat into substance use, suicidal, and other self-destructive behaviors.”

Understanding how self-hatred forms is the best way to combat it. In fact, the antidote, Freedenthal said, is self-compassion. A 2014 study from the University of Waterloo found self-compassion was the “key to positive body image and coping.”

"Women may experience a more positive body image and better eating habits if they approach disappointments and distress with kindness and the recognition that these struggles are a normal part of life," said Allison Kelly, lead study author of the Department of Psychology at Waterloo, in a press release. "How we treat ourselves during difficult times that may seem unrelated to our bodies and eating seems to have a bearing on how we feel about our bodies and our relationship with food."

The bottom line: We won't know exactly why Dolezal chose to lie about her identity until she says so herself. But when considering the idea someone would want to identify as someone else in order to imagine a scenario different from their own, it does seem to be psychologically possible.