Rachel Dolezal, Ex-N.A.A.C.P. Official: ‘I Identify as Black’
By Richard Pérez-Peña
In her first interviews since being accused of misrepresenting her racial background and stepping down as an N.A.A.C.P. official, Rachel A. Dolezal did not back down on Tuesday, stating “I identify as black,” although she has white parents.
When Matt Lauer of NBC’s “Today” show asked, “When did you start deceiving people?” Ms. Dolezal would not concede that she had done so.
“I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’” she said.
In a second interview on Tuesday, on MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry asked, “Are you a con artist?”
“I don’t think so,” Ms. Dolezal said.
The furor around Ms. Dolezal, 37, began last week when her parents told reporters that she has no black ancestry, only white with a trace of Native American. On Monday, she stepped down as president of the N.A.A.C.P. chapter in Spokane, Wash.
But in her interviews Tuesday, the closest Ms. Dolezal came to admitting any fault was to say on “Today,” “There are probably a couple interviews that I would do a little differently if circumstances, in retrospect, I knew what I know now.”
She traced misconceptions about her background to local news media reports that first identified her as “transracial,” then as biracial and then as black. “I never corrected that,” she said — even as she insisted that there was nothing to correct.
In fact, her role has not been so passive — she has identified herself as black or partly black on many occasions, including on an application for appointment to a Spokane city commission, where she checked boxes for white, black and Native American.
In the “Today” interview, Ms. Dolezal defended publicly identifying a black friend, who is not a relative, as her father. “We connected on a very intimate level as family,” she said. “Albert Wilkerson is my dad.”
Several years ago, she became the guardian of one of her adopted, black younger siblings, Izaiah, now 21. He sees her as his “real mom,” she said, “and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah’s mom.”
She also has a biological son, who is 13, with her former husband, who is black.
In the MSNBC interview, Ms. Dolezal said, “I have really gone there with the experience, in terms of the being a mother of two black sons, and really owning what it means to experience and live blackness.”
That comment cuts to the heart of much criticism of her from black people, who say that no matter how much she identifies with them, she has not lived their experience, and should not claim it as her own.
From 2002 to 2005, Ms. Dolezal was engaged in an unsuccessful lawsuit against Howard University, the historically black school where she obtained a master’s degree in art, claiming that the university discriminated against her because she was white. Within a few years, she was telling people she was black.
Mr. Lauer asked repeatedly whether she had cynically used racial identification as a way to gain advantage, either against Howard or in enhancing her credibility as a civil rights advocate. She declined to answer.
Ms. Dolezal said her identification with black people went back as far as when she was 5 years old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair,” she said.
“That was shot down,” she told Ms. Harris-Perry. “I was socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me.”
She said that began to change when she was a teenager, and her parents adopted four black children, and she wondered, “Who is going to be the link for the kids in coming to the family?”
But when Mr. Lauer showed her a picture of herself from around that time, as a girl with fair skin and straight, blond hair, she conceded that at the time, she did not identify as black.
Now, her skin is several shades darker, and her hair is a mass of tight brown curls. When asked on “Today” about the changes in her appearance, she said, “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun, you know, and I also don’t — as some of the critics have said — put on blackface as a performance.”