People preferentially imitate others who are similar to them or have high social status. Such imitative biases are thought to have evolved because they increase the efficiency of cultural acquisition. Here we focused on distinguishing between self-similarity and social status as two candidate mechanisms underlying neural responses to a person's race during imitation. We used fMRI to measure neural responses when 20 African American (AA) and 20 European American (EA) young adults imitated AA, EA and Chinese American (CA) models and also passively observed their gestures and faces. We found that both AA and EA participants exhibited more activity in lateral frontoparietal and visual regions when imitating AAs compared with EAs or CAs. These results suggest that racial self-similarity is not likely to modulate neural responses to race during imitation, in contrast with findings from previous neuroimaging studies of face perception and action observation. Furthermore, AA and EA participants associated AAs with lower social status than EAs or CAs, suggesting that the social status associated with different racial groups may instead modulate neural activity during imitation of individuals from those groups. Taken together, these findings suggest that neural responses to race during imitation are driven by socially learned associations rather than self-similarity. This may reflect the adaptive role of imitation in social learning, where learning from higher status models can be more beneficial. This study provides neural evidence consistent with evolutionary theories of cultural acquisition. Hum Brain Mapp 35:1723–1739, 2014. © 2013 Wiley-Periodicals, Inc.