The race of one of the most prominent faces in Spokane, Washington’s black community is under question after her estranged mother claimed she is white but is “being dishonest and deceptive with her identity.”
Rachel Dolezal, 37, is the head of the local chapter of the NAACP and has identified herself as at least partly African-American. But her Montana birth certificate says she was born to two Caucasian parents, according to that couple, which shared that document and old photos with CNN.
“We are her birth parents,” Lawrence Dolezal told CNN on Friday. “We do not understand why she feels it’s necessary to misrepresent her ethnicity.”
CNN tried to reach Rachel Dolezal for comment by emailing and calling her, but was unsuccessful. The Spokane Spokesman-Review newspaper reported, though, that she has framed the controversy surrounding her racial identity in the context of a family fight over alleged abuse.
One organization that appears to be standing behind her is the NAACP. The group, historically one of the most prominent in supporting causes important to the African-American community, said Friday that Dolezal is “enduring a legal issue with her family” and that “we respect her privacy in this matter.”
“One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” the group said in a statement. “The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”
Challenged about her race
Dolezal represented herself as African-American — along with several other ethnicities, including white and American Indian — in an application for a Spokane police ombudsman commission.
And she has presented the public with a different family photograph posted to the local NAACP chapter’s Facebook page. When she announced her father was coming to town for a visit, she showed herself standing next to an older African-American man.
Dolezal’s public racial identity came under scrutiny on Thursday, when a reporter from CNN affiliate KXLY held up that photo asked her if it showed her dad. She replied that it did.
Then came a follow-up question: “Are you African-American?”
“I don’t understand the question of — I did tell you that, yes, that’s my dad. And he was unable to come in January,” Dolezal responded.
“Are your parents — are they white?” came the next query.
Dolezal walked away from the microphone, leaving her purse and keys, and took refuge in a nearby clothing boutique.
Expert, advocate on black community
Dolezal has built a wide-ranging career as an expert on and advocate for the black community.
She is not just president of her local NAACP chapter; she is also an academic expert on African-American culture and teaches many related classes at Eastern Washington University.
She represents the black community publicly and vocally, including as a spokeswoman on race-influenced police violence. On Tuesday she spoke to Al Jazeera on the topic. And Dolezal has appeared alongside Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who has filed charges against police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man.
The mayor of Spokane appointed Dolezal chairwoman of a police oversight committee to keep an eye on fairness in police work.
After the allegations of faked racial identity surfaced, Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart said they take “very seriously the concerns raised regarding the chair of the independent citizen police ombudsman commission.”
The city is checking to see if she has violated any policies.
Still, what Dolezal has done is more important than what race she is to the NAACP, regional President Gerald Hankerson told CNN. He called the NAACP a civil rights organization first that includes “leaders from all different ethnicities,” adding that it “doesn’t do a genealogy search on what a person’s ethnicity is when they” take a top position.
As to Dolezal specifically, Hankerson told CNN, “We represent all civil rights issues, regardless of a person’s ethnicity. And the quality of the work that she has done to elevate the issues of civil rights in that region is what we applaud.”
Dolezal: Explanation ‘not as easy as it seems’
Rachel Dolezal grew up in what her parents called a diverse family, with friends from various ethnicities and four adopted siblings who were black. She was “always interested in ethnicity and diversity” growing up, her mother Ruthanne said.
Dolezal attended college in Mississippi, then went on to Howard University on scholarship — not having identified herself black then on her application, because there was no such option, though people there may have assumed as much “because her portfolio of art was all African-American portraiture,” her mother said.
It wasn’t until around 2007, her parents said, that Dolezal began identifying herself more with the African-American community, according to her mother.
As to why, her parents don’t know — in part because Rachel Dolezal “has chosen to distance herself from the family.”
“She has not explained to us why she is doing what she is doing and being dishonest … with her identity,” Ruthanne Dolezal said.
While CNN has yet to get comment from Rachel Dolezal directly, she has alluded to a family fight over alleged abuse, according to the Spokesman-Review.
She wouldn’t answer the newspaper’s questions about her racial heritage directly and said she wanted to talk to local NAACP leadership first. “I feel like I owe my executive committee a conversation,” she said.
“That question is not as easy as it seems,” Dolezal told the Spokesman-Review. “There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that.”
The NAACP, it seems, wasn’t about to disqualify her if she’s indeed white.
“In every corner of this country,” the group said, “the NAACP remains committed to securing political, educational and economic justice for all people. And we encourage Americans of all stripes to become members and serve as leaders in our organization.”
Story stirs vigorous debate on social media
The story riled up many on social media, with Dolezal’s name and the term “transracial” becoming top trending hashtags on Twitter.
Some users raised the idea of racial passing, in which a person of one race acts as if they belong to another. Others floated the notion that people could cross over lines of racial identity as they do with sexual identity.
“Hmm interesting article about #racheldolezal. If she identifies as black, can she be transracial?” one user asked. Other users compared Dolezal with Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner, often in a derogatory manner.
But many users, particularly African-Americans, bemoaned that switching race doesn’t work like switching gender, noting that black people can’t pretend to be white to avoid discrimination.
“My prob w/ #Transracial: Black folk cant decide to be white when the cops raid their pool party. But a white woman can be NAACP president,” wrote hip-hop artist Lizzo.
“If #RachelDolezal can do it, so can I. I am now a white American. Give me: good credit, the ability to swim, and police NOT beating me,” PrestonMitchum tweeted.
“It’s not just her appropriation. It’s that she claimed an oppression that wasn’t hers,” wrote user Charles Clymer.
Yet Hankerson — the top NAACP official for Washington state as well as Oregon and Alaska — questioned how much her race should really matter and whether this debate was worth having.
“It’s unfortunate that this has become a trending conversation,” he said, “when there’s a lot more important things that are going on in America that we should be better addressing.”