Rachel Dolezal appeared on NBC's Today Show this morning to talk about her racial identity. (Photo: ScreenCap)

Rachel Dolezal appeared on NBC’s Today Show this morning to talk about her racial identity. (Photo: ScreenCap)

Rachel Dolezal, who is Caucasian but thinks of herself as an African-American, may be an example of an extreme personality disorder. If so, her case is rare; few academic studies have focused on racial identification confusion.

Dolezal stepped down as head of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP Monday (June 15) after her parents came forward and said she is white.

Her heritage is Czech, Swedish and German with some Native American, the parents said. They produced photos of her as a child that show her with pale skin and straight blonde hair.

Needless to say, she’s come under harsh criticism on social media for “pretending” to be black. But academic research suggests her condition involves more than pretending.

Dolezal may actually believe she’s African-American. She even created a fantasy world to support her belief, including a black father, who was racially persecuted in the South. She also changed her look. She wears her hair in tight curls and her skin is darkened.

She says she identified as African-American when she was as young as five-years-old.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black curly hair,” she told Today’s Matt Lauer, in an exclusive interview.

Obviously Dolezal, 37, had little to gain by portraying herself as African-American except to satisfy her own deep psychological need to identify with an oppressed race.

“It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?” she said.

“This is on a very real, connected level. How I’ve had to go there with the experience, not just a visible representation, but with the experience.”

Oddly, millions of Americans counted in the 2000 census changed their race or Hispanic-origin categories when they filled out their 2010 census forms, according to research study published last year.

The research found that Hispanics, Americans of mixed race, Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were among the most likely to identify their race differently from one census to the next.

But relatively few people who called themselves non-Hispanic white, black or Asian in 2000 changed their category in 2010, according to study co-author Carolyn A. Liebler, a University of Minnesota sociologist.

That makes Dolezal’s case all the more extreme and unusual.

There appears to be very little academic research directly focused on racial identity transference, but broadly she could be suffering from what’s known as a Dissociative Identity Disorder.

It’s defined as a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity, according to medical references. It’s most often seen in people who develop multiple personalities to deal with some trauma and is considered a coping mechanism.

Parents Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal told “Today” that their daughter may be trying to “damage her biological family.”

Rachel also talks about her life in terms of “survival.”

“Overall, my life has been one of survival and the decisions that I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive and to carry forward in my journey and life continuum,” she said.

Dolezal definitely doesn’t meet the text book definition of the disorder, and her behavior may be explained in some other way.

But what makes her situation even stranger is that she could have accomplished almost as much for African-Americans without the need to create an elaborate racial ruse.

So why do it? Let us know your thoughts and be sure to follow IM for the latest developments in this story.