On Thursday night, a story on local news in Spokane, Washington exploded onto the internet with the viral power of The Dress plus an added layer of gravitas and political volatility: a white woman named Rachel Dolezal has been pretending to be black—or at least something other than 100 percent lily-white—and running a chapter of the NAACP since January.
On Friday, she told the Spokane CBS News affiliate "I do consider myself to be black." She also said "It's more important for me to clarify that with the black community and with my executive board than it really is to explain it to a community that I quite frankly don't think really understands the definitions of race and ethnicity."
In addition to presenting herself as a black civil rights leader, and claiming she was black since 2007, and teaching university classes on race relations, Dolezal has cast herself as the victim of an extensive campaign of hateful comments and intrusions into her life. Much of the harassment now appears to be either exaggerated or completely fabricated.
Dolezal has now had a full background check conducted haphazardly by the internet. Her birth certificate is available for public perusal, as are her wedding photos, along with photos from her childhood in which she appears to have blond hair and a noticeably different skin tone. Her Facebook history has also been mined for questionable posts.
Her older posts aren't currently available, but some of her activities have been preserved by scrupulous internet users.
In January of this year, the Spokane NAACP posted an announcement about her father attending the ribbon-cutting of a new local office, and attached a photo of Dolezal standing with an older black man.
A month after 12 Years a Slave was released, in November 2013, she posted a set of tips for black people who wanted to see the film in a theater.
She's also been criticized for taking some risks with her appearance that would be bold if she were black, but coming from a white woman are insensitive at best, and just plain racist at worst.
The story actually broke on Wednesday, when a TV reporter named Jeff Humphrey from Spokane's ABC News station conducted a somewhat drawn-out interview with her. He began by discussing her history of social justice work and the racially-motivated harassment she's experienced, before building to questions about her background. Watching it, you can see Dolezal's slow realization that she's being interviewed by someone who knows her secret, which is that her parents are both super white.
Humphrey finally confronts her point-blank about it eight minutes and 15 seconds into this video:
In the clip, after asking if her dad made it to the ribbon-cutting ceremony in January, Humphrey—picture of her "father" in hand—says, "I was wondering if your dad really is an African-American man." Dolezal, dumbstruck, says that she doesn't know what he's implying, so Humphrey clarifies: "Are you African-American?"
"I don't—I don't understand the question of—I did tell you that yes that's my dad. And he was unable to come in January—" she says, before taking her microphone off and walking away.
Now Dolezal is being investigated by the city of Spokane, Washington, for violating a code of ethics relating to information she provided when she applied for a local police oversight commission and checked off the box marked "black" for her race.
It's worth noting that violating a code of ethics isn't illegal, and Dolezal hasn't been charged with a crime.
The NAACP appears to be standing by her, having issued a supportive official statement:
NAACP Spokane Washington Branch President Rachel Dolezal is enduring a legal issue with her family, and we respect her privacy in this matter. One's racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership. The NAACP Alaska-Oregon-Washington State Conference stands behind Ms. Dolezal's advocacy record.
Dolezal is "credited with re-energizing the Spokane chapter of the NAACP," according to the Spokesman-Review.
The initial Spokane ABC News investigation, however, hadn't questioned her efficacy as a leader. It was looking into her claim that someone had sent her racially-motivated threats. Hate mail she claimed she had received in February hadn't been on the Postal Service's radar, leading inspectors to the conclusion that an envelope she claimed had been mailed to her P.O. box had actually been put there by someone who opened the box with a key.
The envelope in question was one of a series of letters from someone called "War Pig (Ret.)" who rambled incoherently about race, crime, and the new world order. The letters are bizarre, and while the postal service concluded that some seem to have been planted there, others apparently originated in Oakland. One letter from "War Pig" includes an apology. The letters reportedly didn't contain threats according to a police report, although they did contain printed out photos of lynchings, and references to some famous hate crimes from the 1970s.
Then, in April, an older couple, possibly lost, walked into Dolezal's house from an unlocked side door and told her son they were supposed to dogsit for someone. Dolezal posted a very freaked out message on Facebook about it:
"I'm furious. Furious. Two white adults broke into my home while I was testifying at City Council tonight. Scared my 13 year old son to death. So glad he's unharmed. Another police report… Reviewing surveillance footage. This is scary.
In a police report, Dolezal's son said, "No, I wasn't scared at all. They looked confused. They looked like normal, middle class white people."
Later, Dolezal may have synthesized the two events in a Facebook post, which referred to, "War Pigs, the group that has been sending death threats to [her] and possibly involved in home invasion and other security breaches at [her] residence," according to Inlander, the local alt-weekly.
The confusion over hate mail and threats calls into question no fewer than 12 other instances in which Dolezal claimed to have been targeted by racists. Some of those have involved nooses supposedly being dropped around her home. Police have investigated those incidents but have never identified a suspect. Filing a false police report is a "gross misdemeanor" in Washington.
Then her estranged parents opened up about it. Dolezal's mother told CNN she "has not explained to us why she is doing what she's doing, and being dishonest and deceptive with her identity." Dolezal's parents adopted four African-American children who became her adopted siblings when she was fully-grown, and that was when Rachel started to "disguise herself," according to the Spokesman-Review. They say their lineage is Czech, Swedish, and German.
In 2000 she married a black man named Kevin, and in 2007 she began calling herself "black." Then she slowly lost contact with her parents.
On Friday, when asked what she'd like to say to her parents, she told CBS "I don't give two shits what you guys think. You're so far done and out of my life."
During her work with a group called the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) in neighboring Idaho, members of local civic organizations associated with the HREI had become suspicious of Dolezal's background. According to the Spokesman-Review, at some point someone hired a private investigator.
Kurt Neumaier, a board member of one of those civic organizations, the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, dealt with complaints from Dolezal during her three years at the HREI. He told the Spokesman-Review that he doubted the validity of a number of Dolezal's complaints.
For instance, she claimed that someone had drawn a swastika on the door of the HREI at a time when the security camera had "mysteriously turned off." There were other complaints, he said, but "None of them passed the smell test," he told the Spokesman-Review.
Dolezal gave statements to the Spokesman-Review when they contacted her. They weren't apologies. In response to questions about what her race was, she said, "That question is not as easy as it seems." In what the Spokesman-Review thinks is probably a "reference to studies tracing the scientific origins of human life to Africa," she also pointed out that "We're all from the African continent."
Some early tweets about Dolezal were supportive, going so far as to call her " transracial." In the light of day, that viewpoint doesn't appear to have prevailed. According to Britt Middleton at BET, there are some obvious contradictions involved:
The sobering reality is that, unlike white people, we can't paint the brown on for as long as it serves us. We have been enslaved, beaten, belittled and even killed over our Blackness. We've also become stronger advocates for equality because of it.
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