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'I Identify As Black,' Rachel Dolezal Says In TV Interview

Former NAACP official Rachel Dolezal shared her views on race — including her own — in a live interview Tuesday, the first time she's spoken with the media since reports emerged that questioned her racial identity.

When the Today show's Matt Lauer asked, "Are you an African-American woman?" Dolezal replied, "I identify as black."

The topic of Dolezal's race has prompted surprise, bewilderment and speculation since last Thursday, when her parents said that contrary to their estranged daughter's claims of being of mixed race, Rachel Dolezal is white.

On Monday, Dolezal resigned her post as the president of the Spokane, Wash., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, saying she didn't want her story to distract anyone from the group's mission.

On Today, Dolezal, 37, said she knew that "at some point, I would need to address the complexity of my identity." But she acknowledged being taken by surprise by her parents' statements to the media.

"The timing of it was a shock," she said. "Wow. The timing was completely unexpected."

At one point, Lauer presented an image of Dolezal as a teenager and asked her what she sees in the picture.

"Visibly, she would be identified as white by people who see her," Dolezal said.

Lauer then turned to the subject of Dolezal's parents, who have said their daughter is "a very talented woman doing work she believes in — why can't she do that as a Caucasian woman, which is what she is?"

In response, Dolezal said, "I really don't see why they're in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done, and who I am, and how I've identified."

She went on to say that she began to identify "with the black experience" as early as age 5.

"I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon," she said. "That was how I was portraying myself."

As for charges that she has deceived people, Dolezal said, "I do take exception to that. It's a little more complex than me identifying as black, or answering a question of, 'Are you black or white?' "

Dolezal said that when she was working in northern Idaho, she was identified "as first transracial, and then ... the next newspaper article identified me as being a biracial woman. And then the next article ... was, 'This is happening to a black woman.' And I never corrected that."

Addressing the changes in her appearance since her youth, Dolezal said, "I certainly don't stay out of the sun. I also don't, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance."

She added, "This is not some freak, Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level — I have actually had to go there with the experience, not just with the visible representation, but with the experience."

Dolezal added that her racial identity "solidified" when she gained full custody of her son, Isaiah (who was in the Today studios along with his brother, Franklin).

"He said, 'You're my real mom,' " she told Lauer, "and for that to be something that is plausible, I, you know, certainly can't be seen as white and be Isaiah's mom."

Lauer asked Dolezal about her previous claims that Albert Wilkerson, a black man, is her dad.

"Was that done to enhance your resume as an African-American woman?" he asked.

Dolezal said they had "connected" as family in northern Idaho.

"Albert Wilkerson is my dad," she said. "Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad."

Lauer also asked about a 2002 lawsuit Dolezal filed against Howard University, in which she accused the school of discriminating against her as a white student in graduate school.

"The reasons for my full tuition scholarship being removed, and my teaching position as well — my [teacher's assistant] position were that: 'Other people need opportunities — and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition.' And I thought that was an injustice."

Dolezal said she would do the same things again if given the chance — though perhaps she would handle some interviews differently.

Dolezal said that despite the discussion of her race having "viciously inhumane" aspects that have come at her own expense, the discussion should be "about what it is to be human. And I hope that that can really drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment."

Dolezal's resignation came days after the NAACP supported the work she's done. The group said Friday, "One's racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership."

Noting the praise that she had received for bringing energy to the Spokane chapter of the group, Lauer asked Dolezal if she could have achieved the same result if she had identified herself publicly as a white woman.

"I don't know," she replied. "I guess I haven't had the opportunity to experience that in those shoes, so I'm not sure."

Dolezal's status as a college professor is also in question, says reporter Jessica Robinson of the Northwest News Network:

"Dolezal's bio has also been removed from the website of Eastern Washington University, where she taught Africana studies. A spokesman for the university said she had a contract that expired Friday. He couldn't say if she would be given a new contract."

Revelations about Dolezal's past and her racial identity have dominated many conversations since they were made public. Our colleagues at the Code Switch blog have highlighted many of the best contributions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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