Rachel Dolezal faced tough questions about her racial identity long before her career as a civil rights advocate and expert on African American culture was derailed after recent revelations that she grew up white.
More than a decade ago, Howard University's lawyers questioned whether she had tried to pose as African American when she applied for admission to the historically black university in the nation's capital.
Dolezal resigned as leader of the Spokane NAACP this week after her parents said she had been pretending to be black but was actually white.
At Howard University, Dolezal had accused the school of denying her a teaching position because she was white. During a deposition, Howard's lawyers asked whether she had tried to mislead the admissions office with an essay focused on black history and identity, according to court documents reviewed by the Associated Press.
“I plunged into black history and novels, feeling the relieving release of understanding and common ground,” she wrote in the essay. “My struggles paled as I read of the atrocities so many ancestors faced in America.”
Dolezal's lawsuit was dismissed before reaching trial. A court said she had failed to prove her claims and ordered her to pay the university's legal costs.
In her admissions essay, she described her family as “transracial,” writing that “at the early age of three I showed an awareness of the richness and beauty of dark skin when I said, 'Mama, all people are beautiful but black people are so beautiful.'"
During the deposition, Dolezal said she was “talking about black history in novels.”
Lawyers pressed her to say if she had ever misled anyone into thinking she was black.
“I don't know that I could lead anyone to believe that I'm African American. I believe that, you know, in certain context, maybe someone would assume that, but I don't know that I could convince someone that I'm a hundred percent African American,” she responded.
Asked to explain what she considers her own race to be, she said, “if you have to choose to describe yourself and you're able to give terms like a fraction or whatever but an overall picture, I consider myself to be Caucasian biologically.”
Asked by NBC's Matt Lauer this week if she is an “an African American woman,” Dolezal said: “I identify as black.”
Dolezal, who appears quite fair and with straight blond hair in childhood photos, now presents a light brown complexion. She told an NBC interviewer this week that her dark curly hair is “a weave.”
She told the “Today” show that she started identifying as black around age 5 and that she “takes exception” to the contention that she tried to deceive people.