Individuals are claiming greater scope for choice in their racial identities. But how they are seen and classified by others is not necessarily changing in a similar way. Racial appraisals are the way that people classify the race of others, both particular individuals and larger groups. In this paper, I make a case for the study of racial appraisals as a field of sociological inquiry. I map out the different analytical levels and methodological approaches for this field and discuss how these can be used to understand observed race, norms of racial classification, and societal norms of the racial order. I present an example of how societal norms and logics of racial classification can be analysed in real time through survey research, using 2015–16 data on 866 White Americans’ reactions to Rachel Doležal’s racial identity claims. I present an agenda for studying changes in racial boundaries and classification norms through the longitudinal tracking of racial appraisals.