WASHINGTON – A controversy is raging over whether a prominent Washington state civil rights activist and Howard University graduate who claimed she was African American is actually white.
Rachel Dolezal, 37, is the president of the Spokane NAACP and has claimed to be the victim of a number of hate crimes. As questions were raised about the veracity of some of her reports this week, a white couple from Montana came forward to claim that Dolezal is their daughter.
Earlier this week, KXLY4 asked Dolezal about a photo posted to the NAACP chapter's Facebook page of a black man identified as Dolezal's father.
"I was wondering if your dad really is an African American man," Jeff Humphrey, of KXLY4, asked Dolezal.
"That's a very … I mean, I don't know what you're implying," Dolezal said.
"Are you African American?" Humphrey said.
"I don't understand the question," Dolezal said. She walked off-camera as Humphrey asked: "Are your parents, are they white?"
Dolezal did not return requests for comment.
In a telephone interview with The Washington Post and others, Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal of Troy, Mont., said Rachel Dolezal is their daughter, and that they are Caucasian.
"There seems to be some question of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity," Lawrence Dolezal said. "We are definitely her birth parents. We are both of Caucasian and European descent — Czech, German and a few other things."
The Dolezals provided family photos of Rachel as well, as what they said was her birth certificate.
Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal, a Christian couple who adopted four young children — two of whom are black — while Rachel was a teenager, said her decision to misrepresent her racial background, if that's what she's doing, may be related to her family and social justice work.
"The adoption of the children definitely fueled her interest as a teenager in being involved with people of color," Ruthanne Dolezal said. "We've always had friends of different ethnicities. It was a natural thing for her."
Lawrence Dolezal said his daughter was involved in Voice of Calvary, a "racial reconciliation community development project where black and whites lived together," while at Bellhaven University in Jackson, Miss.
"You speak and sound and act and take on the mannerisms of the culture you live in," he said. When Rachel applied to Howard University to study art with a portfolio of "exclusively African American portraiture," the university "took her for a black woman" and gave her a full scholarship.
"You've got a white woman coming in that got a full ride scholarship to the black Harvard," Lawrence Dolezal said. "And ever since then she's been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that's where she transferred her identity."
He added: "But unfortunately, she is not ethnically by birth African American. She is our daughter by birth. And that's the way it is."
In telephone interviews with The Post, two of the Dolezal's adopted sons confirmed she is white as well.
Ezra Dolezal, 22, compared his sister's decision to conceal her race to black face.
"Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist," said Ezra Dolezal, who described himself as "25 percent black." He added: "You really should not do that. It's completely opposite – she's basically creating more racism."
Zach Dolezal, 21, said when he visited his sister in Spokane, he was told not to speak of Lawrence and Ruthanne as their parents.
"It's a farce, really, is what it is," he said, adding he thought Rachel had posted a photo of a black couple from Spokane on her Facebook page whom she referred to as her parents.
The Dolezals, it should be noted, are a family divided. Parents Lawrence and Ruthanne and brothers Ezra and Zach do not speak with their sister. She obtained custody of her 21-year-old brother Izaiah.
Izaiah, who is black, lives with Rachel Dolezal in Spokane — and Rachel says he is her son, the family alleged.
"Izaiah always was her favorite child," Ezra Dolezal said. "… She turned Izaiah kind of racist. Told Izaiah all this stuff about white people, made him really racist toward white people."
More than Rachel's claims of African American heritage, the custody of Izaiah seems to have driven the Dolezals apart.
"I can understand hairstyles and all that," Zach Dolezal said of his sister's alleged attempts to appropriate black culture. "Saying her brother is her son, I don't understand that."
Rachel Dolezal did not return requests for comment. However, she dodged questions about her race this week following allegations that some hate crimes she had reported were fabricated.
"That question is not as easy as it seems," Dolezal said after being contacted by the Spokane Spokesman-Review at Eastern Washington University, where she is a part-time professor in the Africana studies program. "There's a lot of complexities … and I don't know that everyone would understand that."
She added: "We're all from the African continent."
The Spokane NAACP has offered limited response to the allegations about Dolezal's race.
James Wilburn, past president of the Spokane NAACP who was replaced by Dolezal, said Thursday that a few members of that group discussed her background before her election late last year.
"It was discussed among close members to me, and we kept it like that," he told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.
Postal workers, meanwhile, told police that hate mail Dolezal said she received at the NAACP's post office box in Spokane was not processed by a post office, as it had no date stamp or bar code. Postal workers suggested the mail was put there by someone with a key to the box. The Spokesman-Review noted, however, that similar mail was sent to that newspaper and the Spokane Valley Police Department postmarked from Oakland, Calif.
The city of Spokane is also investigating whether Dolezal misidentified her race in an application to the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, on which she serves. Dolezal said she had several ethnic origins on the application, including white, black and American Indian.
"We are gathering facts to determine if any city policies related to volunteer boards and commissions have been violated," Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart said in a joint statement, as the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported. "That information will be reviewed by the City Council, which has oversight of city boards and commissions."
Social media has responded to the controversy with the hashtag "#RachelDolezal."
"#RachelDolezal figured if Bruce Jenner could do it … what the hell," conservative radio host Wayne Dupree wrote. (Such controversial comments comparing Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner found a home at the hashtag "#transracial.")
In the past, Dolezal has spoken fondly of her time in the nation's capital.
"The only place I've ever lived where I felt like I could relax and just be myself was Washington, D.C.," she told the Easterner, a student-run publication at Eastern Washington University, last year. "I am in love with the East Coast area, because it is much more international and you can find cultural company and kind of blend into the mix of people better than areas where there is either an absence of a strong black community or an extreme divide that sets up rifts equivalent to segregation."
She added: "Probably one of the reasons I love D.C. the most, though, is because I was at Howard University. As a school that exists to promote Black values … it is definitely an oasis."