Ex-NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal: ‘I identify as black’
SPOKANE, Washington — Rachel Dolezal — fresh off of stepping down as head of the Spokane NAACP chapter over criticism that she’s portrayed herself as black, even though she was born white — stood by that self-assessment Tuesday, insisting, “I identify as black.”
Dolezal did not deny her biological parents are white or that she has changed how she looks at herself over the years in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. And she admitted not having corrected various published reports over the years labeling her as transracial, biracial and black.
At the same time, Dolezal — while admitting she might have conducted some interviews differently — insisted she’d do the same thing again overall when it comes to how she has portrayed herself racially.
“My life has been one of survival,” she said. “And the decisions that I have made along the way have been to survive and to carry forward in my journey and life continuum.”
The comments were Dolezal’s first since she announced her resignation Monday as head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, amid allegations she lied about her race. The idea someone might misrepresent themselves by claiming they were black, then earn a leadership position in one of the nation’s top advocacy groups for African-Americans, stirred a social media firestorm when the news broke last week.
Some defended her by pointing to her activism and efficacy as a leader, while adding that someone shouldn’t be barred from being a civil rights leader because they’re white. Others blasted her for lying and charged that she’d diminished the real struggles of African-Americans by claiming she had suffered hurtful racism like them, even though she grew up white in Montana, and had used that identity to advance her career as an activist.
Asked if she’d have been as effective had she presented herself as white rather than African-American, Dolezal said Tuesday, “I don’t know. I guess I haven’t had the opportunity to experience that in those shoes. So, I’m not sure.”
Dolezal’s parents, who haven’t talked to their daughter for years, aren’t buying her story.
They played a big part in driving the story by painting her as dishonest and deceptive to reporters. Talking Monday night on CNN, her mother Ruthanne Dolezal went so far as to characterize her daughter as “irrational and very disconnected from reality,” while her father, Larry, said her actions aren’t those of “a normal sane person.”
Such criticism continued Tuesday, with the Dolezals lambasting more of what they called their daughter’s blatant lies on the “Today” show.
“She’s still dodging the question about acknowledging who she is in reality,” Ruthanne Dolezal said. “(The NBC interview) was disturbing because the false statements continue. And as much as we’re concerned with Rachel’s identity issues, we’re also concerned with her integrity issues.”
Dolezal: I ‘don’t put on blackface as a performance’
Dolezal calmly made her case Tuesday morning, answering questions from NBC’s Matt Lauer on specific criticisms while standing by her actions overall.
One of them was her pronouncement a few months ago touting an appearance by someone who she described as her dad — along with a picture of a black man, not Larry Dolezal. Rachel Dolezal explained that she’d formed a close connection with a man in northern Idaho, who is the man in the photo, and she considers him her dad.
“Any man can be a father,” she said. “Not every man can be a dad.”
As to whether or not she’d altered her complexion to look less white and more black, Dolezal said she has “a huge issue with blackface” and “actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visual representation.”
“I certainly don’t stay out of the sun,” she added. “I also don’t … put on blackface as a performance.”
While she and her birth family are estranged, Rachel Dolezal says she has the full-fledged backing of her sons — one of whom was one of the four black children who had been adopted by her parents.
“One of my sons yesterday (told me), ‘Mom, racially you’re human and culturally you’re black.’ I do know that they support the way I identify. And they support me.”
Felt constrained by ‘biological identity thrust upon me’
The clues can be found in her 5-year-old self-portraits, Dolezal explained. She recalled using brown crayon, rather than peach, to portray herself, and drawing herself with black, curly hair, not the straight, blonde locks she grew up with.
Her parents have admitted Rachel Dolezal connected early with African-Americans, saying promoting diversity was part of her upbringing. She’d go on to attend college in Mississippi and then — after submitting an art portfolio with pictures of black people — her graduate studies at Howard University. (She sued Howard University at one point, claiming she was discriminated against because she was pregnant and white. The lawsuit was later dismissed.)
In an interview with MSNBC, Dolezal denied being a con artist while insisting she’s being true to herself after having been “socially conditioned (to) be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me.”
“I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn’t have the personal agency to express it,” she said. “I kind of imagined that maybe at some point (I’d have to) own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity. (But) I wasn’t expecting it to be thrust upon me right now.”
Her biological parents, though, doubt this has been a lifelong thing.
“She did not ever refer to herself or draw pictures (like the described self-portraits) or do anything that indicated she thought she was black,” said Ruthanne Dolezal.
Ripped online as a ‘fraud’ who disrespects black culture
Dolezal’s story has generated a ton of buzz on social media, and it continued Tuesday.
The reactions to her “Today” interview were largely negative, with even NAACP President Cornell Brooks — head of an organization that, in its statement, has generally supported Dolezal — stating that “just because one appreciates African American culture, it doesn’t mean you can disrespect the culture.”
That’s exactly what some think Dolezal has done. Steve Perry, a CNN education contributor and founder of Hartford, Connecticut’s Capital Preparatory Magnet School, said he resented the “cartoonish approach” of a woman he called a “fraud.”
“Why not just be a White woman who supports Black ppl?” Perry tweeted. “#RachelDolezal has a cognitive dissonance that is straight stunning & self serving.”
One Twitter user ripped what she called a “SPECTACULAR display of White Privilege,” while another opined that “rachel dolezal will never be black because she can stop being black.”
There were also a few, including Perry and Brooks, who believe the story was distracting from bigger issues that impact more people, including in black communities.
Some referenced this vitriol in the context of Caitlyn Jenner, whose transition from Olympic champ Bruce Jenner to a woman was widely applauded.
“So #CaitlynJenner is brave, but the Internet wants to burn #RachelDolezal at the stake,” one man wrote. “Are we bound by our bodies or not? #MakeUpYourMind!”
Rachel Dolezal challenges assertions that she’s been deceptive, insisting, “It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of being black or white.”
She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity.
“The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”