While most people might think that Rachel Dolezal, the woman accused of pretending to be black, has very little in common with Caitlyn Jenner, the comparison has been creeping up ever since Dolezal’s story became national news on Thursday.
But a psychologist and racial identity expert tells PEOPLE that being transracial is very different from being transgender.
“I would say being LGBTQ, there is strong evidence that there is a biological [reason behind it],” says Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, where he has researched and studied racial identity. “Caitlyn Jenner is not identifying with being a woman because of the upbringing and cultural conditioning.”
“Most people who are transgender, [when they are] as early as 4 or 5, believe already that at some level that they are a child born with the wrong anatomy. I don’t see this [with Dolezal].
“I think [the comparison] is all an attempt to not really see the issue. The issue is deception, honesty and pretense. You have to get to the bottom of that.”
Dolezal has darkened her skin – something her adopted biracial brother Ezra calls "basically blackface" – and permed her naturally straight, blond hair. She has also claimed to have be a victim of persecution and hate crimes, claims that the Spokane Police Department tells PEOPLE they could not verify.
Another question some have asked is if Dolezal’s alleged deception about her race could be signs of mental illness.
“I guess I would say it’s not a healthy way of doing it. You could make a case,” says Wing Sue, “But the same thing could be said of that newscaster, Brian Williams, it’s the same thing, or as the director of the veterans affairs who claimed he was in the military and it was unmasked he wasn’t, and he had to apologize.”
The Spokane, Washington, branch of the NAACP, where Dolezal serves as president, has stood by the activist, saying that being of a certain race is not a requirement for joining their organization.
But Spokane spokesman Brian Coddington has told PEOPLE that the city is investigating Dolezal for possible ethics violations due to her checking off a box denoting she is black/African American on an application for the city’s Police Ombudsman Commission, which oversees the police.
Dolezal also claimed on the application, obtained by PEOPLE, that she is a professor at Eastern Washington University. But E.W.U. says that isn’t technically true.
“Dolezal is not a professor,” the university said in a statement. Instead, Dolezal is what is more commonly known as an adjunct, hired “on a quarter-by-quarter basis as an instructor in the Africana Education program. This is a part-time position to address program needs.”
“The issue here is honesty,” Wing Sue says, “Deception is being used, and at some level she may believe some of the things she is saying but at another level I think she is very conscious of the statements and actions she is engaged in.”