Rachel Dolezal has sparked a national conversation about some of the most sensitive issues in American life — race, gender, identity and cultural inheritance. Chances are, however, it is not the teachable moment the self-made civil rights activist once dreamed about.
Dolezal, 37, resigned Monday as president of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP chapter amid revelations that she is a white woman posing as black. Her charade was exposed last week by her white parents, who live in Montana and have not seen their estranged daughter in years.
Dolezal’s story raises questions about the power of race in a nation that has been publicly debating the issue since Eric Garner and Michael Brown died last summer in altercations with police, giving rise to protests, arrests and the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter.”
Dolezal’s case highlights Americans’ conflicting sentiments about the country’s increasingly multicultural population and about who gets to decide what race people identify with. The swift, loud response to her startling situation swirls around the issue of white privilege and the co-opting of a cultural identity.
This much is known for sure: An ambitious activist in a mid-sized city in a far-flung corner of the Lower 48 last Thursday unleashed a storm of anger and sympathy that spread coast to coast and shows no sign of abating. She was scheduled to speak publicly about the controversy Monday night, but canceled her appearance. Instead, she sent a letter of resignation to the NAACP’s national headquarters and posted a lengthy explanation on the Spokane chapter’s Facebook page.
She spoke about the fight that lies ahead to move “the cause of human rights and the Black Liberation Movement along the continuum ... and into a future of self-determination and empowerment.” She did not address the allegations that she lied about her race. She did not apologize for the controversy.
“Despite the fact that many people have liberal and malleable ideas about race, they’re really stuck in a very black-is-black and white-is-white ideology,” said Baz Dreisinger, author of “Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture.” “When a scenario like this comes around to upend those categories, it’s a shocker ....
“This is very bold,” she said, “and it keeps getting crazier and crazier.”
Dolezal has been lauded for revitalizing Spokane’s chapter of the 106-year-old civil rights organization. But according to court documents obtained Monday by The Times, when she was a graduate student in art at Howard University, she sued the historically black school in Washington, D.C., charging that she was a victim of racial discrimination.
Dolezal — who was married to a man named Kevin Moore and known as Rachel Moore at the time — claimed that university officials removed some of her artwork from a student exhibit in 2001 “for a discriminatory purpose to favor African American students” over her, according to an appeals court’s summary of her arguments.
She also claimed university officials took her scholarship away and denied her a teaching assistantship because she was pregnant. Her claims were dismissed by upper and lower courts alike. A spokeswoman for Howard University declined to comment Monday, calling the matter resolved.
The couple divorced in March 2005, according to court documents. That year, she told the court that she taught science and art part time at a school called River City Christian Academy and was an adjunct professor at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, which is across the Washington-Idaho border from Spokane.
Dolezal recently walked away from a TV reporter who confronted her about her race. The reporter from KXLY in Spokane showed Dolezal a photograph of an elderly black man whose picture was on the Spokane NAACP’s Facebook page and asked whether it was her father. “Yes, that’s my dad,” she replied. Then, when asked whether she is African American, Dolezal replied, “I don’t understand the question,” and walked away.
Dolezal’s mother and father, who adopted three African American children and one Haitian child, say she has passed as black despite not having any African American heritage.
“She may have felt that she had some advantage in her activism by being portrayed as a black woman,” her mother, Ruthanne Dolezal, said on NBC’s “Today” show Monday. “We hope that Rachel will get the help she needs to deal with her identity issues. Of course we love her, and we hope that she will come to a place where she knows and believes and speaks the truth.”
Rachel Dolezal’s father said they had not spoken about their daughter’s race before because they had never been asked.
“We had never been asked to be involved, we had never been questioned before, but just short of a week ago, we were contacted by the Coeur d’Alene Press,” Lawrence Dolezal said on the “Today” show.
“I guess it was part of some investigative reporting that was being done and somehow they got wind of us as her parents as a possibility, so they contacted us to see if we were, in fact, her parents,” Lawrence Dolezal said. “We taught our children, as we raised all six of them, to tell the truth, always be honest. So we weren’t going to lie; we told the truth: Rachel is our birth daughter.”
Rachel Dolezal has not spoken publicly about the uproar; on Tuesday she is expected to appear on the “Today” show.
In an interview Monday with The Times after Dolezal resigned, the NAACP’s national president, Cornell William Brooks, said that the disgraced former chapter leader was widely liked and respected in Spokane, where there is “a great deal of disappointment and pain now.”
Brooks also insisted that “racial identity is not a qualifying or disqualifying characteristic for leadership or membership within the NAACP. It’s just not something that’s a criterion. … It would be surprising to me that it even comes up.”
What is important is the organization’s “institutional integrity,” Brooks told The Times. “Having credibility in terms of truth-telling is critically important.”
When pressed about the fact that Dolezal had lied about her identity, Brooks said: “No. Lying is not consistent with our values.”
Ed Prince, executive director of the Washington State Commission on African American Affairs, said the outrage over the Dolezal case “goes to the heart of white privilege. An African American can never wake up and say, ‘I’m gonna make my hair blond, put on white makeup and go through my day as a white person.’ Not that [Dolezal] consciously thought, ‘If I don’t like it I can go back and be a white lady,’ but she appropriated.”
Jody Armour, a professor of law at USC and author of “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America,” said it was ironic that just a week or so ago there was public celebration about Bruce Jenner’s transition to become Caitlyn, but Dolezal is being castigated for changing her racial identity. Still, that argument can be taken only so far.
“I can’t get up in the morning and tell a police officer, ‘I’m transracial today. Treat me as a white man,’” Armour said. “Michael Brown couldn’t be transracial.... When you walk into prisons and jail cells, you see cellblocks brimming with bodies that are conspicuously black. Those black bodies had no choice in how they were perceived.”
But Camille Gear Rich, a professor of law and sociology at USC, argues that the uproar over Dolezal’s situation is discriminatory in itself and devalues black women — particularly the back and forth on social media about the activist’s mental health.
“Being a black woman is such a stigmatized identity that someone who would opt out of whiteness into blackness is ‘showing a sign of mental illness,’” Rich said. “There are lots of reasons why her decision to become aesthetically black is not a sign of mental illness.”
Among them, Rich said, is that she was raised with adopted siblings who are black, there are reports that she has a son who is black, and she might have acted “to be part of her family.”
“I think her decision is regrettable,” Rich said. “But she is sympathetic.”
La Ganga reported from Seattle and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Tina Susman in New York and Colin Diersing in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.