In her first national television interview, Rachel Dolezal answers the question on everyone’s mind: “I identify as black,” she told Matt Lauer on the Today show Tuesday morning.
“The timing of it was a shock,” she said. Dolezal’s parents told a local newspaper their daughter was white less than a week ago.
Dolezal has not always presented herself as black. “I would say visibly, she would be identified as white,” said Dolezal using the third person to discuss a photograph of herself as teenager (below).
But did Dolezal identify as black as a teenager? “In that picture, during that time, no,” she told Lauer.
Lauer told Dolezal her father wonders why she can’t do the community-based work she does as a white woman. “First of all, I don’t see why they’re in a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done,” Dolezal retorted.
The term “whitewashing” has been used to describe individuals who do not identify with being of color. It has also been used to describe the incidence of white actors cast in non-white roles.
Dolezal says she has been identifying with the black experience since she was about five-years-old. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair,” she said. “That was how I was portraying myself.”
She takes issue with being portrayed as a liar: “It’s a little more complex as me identifying as black, or me answering a question of are you black or white?” Blackness was projected on to her, Dolezal explains. The media, she says, first called her “transracial,” then “biracial” and finally “black.”
“I certainly don’t stay out of the sun,” Dolezal said when asked about her skin tone. “I also don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.”
Dolezal says her racial identity is not a “freak” performance of blackness, but a “very real” and “connected” experience. “Not just a visible representation,” she says, adding that her black identity was cemented when she was granted full-custody of her son.
In 2002, Dolezal sued Howard University for racial and gender discrimination. Dolezal explains that her full-tuition scholarship and teaching position were taken away from her because of her race. “I thought that was an injustice,” she says.
Dolezal says she would make the same choices despite the media attention. “The discussion is really about what it means to be human,” she said.
But would Dolezal’s impact in the black community be the same if she identified as white? “I don’t know, I guess I’ve never had the opportunity to experience that in those shoes.”
UPDATE: Larry Dolezal, Rachel Dolezal's father, told TMZ that he never saw his daughter draw self-portraits with brown crayons instead of peach.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.