Transracial Identity

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Transracial is the state of one's racial identity or expression not matching one's natural skin color. Though described by ABC affiliate KMGH-TV as "the latest addition to the rapidly changing American lexicon," there have been questions as to its legitimacy.[1]


The concept of transracial identity first gained prominence in 2015 when Rachel Dolezal, a Caucasian woman who self-identified as black, resigned her position as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP due to criticism of her racial identity; she had publicly declared herself to be black.[2] Dolezal had grown-up with four adopted African-American siblings, attended the historically black college Howard University, and married an African-American man.[3] Dolezal explained that her identification with African-Americans began when she was five years old and would draw self-portraits with "the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon." Dolezal went on to note that she was originally "socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me" before deciding to become a black woman. [4]

Though the term "transracial" had previously been used to describe children of one race adopted by parents from another, psychologist Larry Curry has said the Dolezal case gave new meaning to the term while David Goldberg of the University of California's Humanities Research Institute opined that "what the Rachel Dolezal conversation [produced] - interestingly and importantly - is exactly a critical conversation about undoing the naturalized commitments to racial identification."[1]

Dolezal's classification of herself as transracial has been controversial, and viewed by various people as incorrect and offensive.[5]


Ann Morning, a sociologist at New York University, has stated that people can be transracial in the same way others may be transgender. Morning has noted that, "we’re getting more and more used to the idea that people’s racial affiliation and identity and sense of belonging can change, or can vary, with different circumstances."[6]

Peter Gale, a senior lecturer in race and ethnicity at the University of South Australia, told The Sydney Morning Herald that "it was possible for a person to identify as another race." Gale said race was a social construct.[7]

Mikhail Lyubansky, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, has criticized the use of the term "transracial," explaining the process of identification with another race as one of assimilation in which a person historically associated with one culture adopts the characteristics of a different culture so fully that they are indistinguishable in their behavior from those who were born into the culture.[8]

Studies done in the case of transracial adoption have shown that black children adopted by white parents may be more likely to identify with "Caucasian culture" and that this self-identification often poses fewer adjustment difficulties than identification with African-Americans.[9] A 1988 study on the case of Hispanic children adopted by non-Hispanic families concluded that "ethnic identity is a product of the socialization process that is used in reference to individual self-identification."[10]

"Honorary whites"

The concept of "honorary whites," in the United States, describes the designation of Asian-Americans as part of the Caucasian racial group. The term has been criticized for putting other minority groups "on notice regarding who possesses a preferred status in the hierarchy" by making identification with Caucasians a "reward" for assimilation. Nonetheless, scholars have noted that some Asian-Americans attempt to model their cultural preferences and actions to engage in such assimilation, noting that there are serious negative consequences in doing so, including internalized racism and difficulty in achieving positive self-esteem.[11]

Latin-Americanization of Race Relations Thesis

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociologist at Duke University has proposed the "Latin-Americanization of Race Relations Thesis." According to it, Bonilla-Silva predicts a majority of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans will become part of a "collective black" group that shares the common experiences of African-Americans.[12]

Public opinion

Many have been skeptical of the validity of transracial identity or have contextualized it by explaining an adjacent need for self-disclosure. Guardian columnist Gary Younge has observed, with respect to transracial identity, that "it is a cardinal rule of social identity that people have the right to call themselves whatever they want. But with this right comes at least one responsibility: what you call yourself must be comprehensible to others."[13]


The 2014 novel Your Face In Mine, described as "a fearless trans-racial novel [14]" in the Buffalo News, revolves around a Jewish man who lives 47 years as a black person, following plot device "racial reassignment surgery."


  1. 1.0 1.1 "'Transracial' is the latest word in our vocabulary, but what does it mean?", KMGH-TV, 16 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  2. "It Isn’t Crazy to Compare Rachel Dolezal With Caitlyn Jenner", Salon, 15 June 2016. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  3. "Everything You Need to Know About the ‘Transracial’ NAACP Activist", TIME Magazine, 15 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  4. "Rachel Dolezal, Ex-N.A.A.C.P. Official, Breaks Her Silence on ‘Today’ Show and MSNBC", New York Times, 16 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  5. Rachel Dolezal's definition of 'transracial' isn't just wrong, it's destructive. The Guardian. Retrieved on 16 June 2015.
  6. "NYU Professor On Spokane NAACP Controversy: Some People Can Be Trans-Racial", WCBS-TV, 12 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  7. Rachel Dolezal sparks Twitter storm about #transracial identity. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on 13 June 2015.
  8. "Can Rachel Dolezal Really Be 'Transracial'— Or Is White Privilege to Blame?", Yahoo News, 16 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015. 
  9. (2008) A Look at Black Ethnic Identity and Transracial Adoption: A Contextual Perspective. ProQuest. 
  10. Andujo, Estela (December 1988). "Ethnic Identity of Transethnically Adopted Hispanic Adolescents". Social Work 33 (6): 531-535. 
  11. (2012) Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education, Volume 1. SAGE. 
  12. (2012) Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Selected Readings. SAGE. ISBN 1412941075. 
  13. "Is 'Transracial' Identity Real? 11 Opinions That Will Leave You Thinking", Essence, 15 June 2015. Retrieved on 16 June 2015.