The parents of one of Spokane, Washington's most prominent civil rights activists have outed their own daughter as a white woman, prompting a flood of social media jibes about the outspoken activist's heritage and race, which she alleged in official documents was African-American.
Rachel Dolezal, 37, is not only the head of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she has also spoken publicly about the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere across the US, and currently chairs Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman Commission (OPOC).
But Dolezal's activism and motivations, as well as an incident where she says she received graphic hate mail, have been thrown into question since her estranged parents told local Spokane TV channel KREM 2 News that their daughter's heritage was in fact German, Swedish, and Czech, with a touch of Native American ancestry.
"Rachel has wanted to be somebody she's not. She's chosen not to just be herself but to represent herself as an African-American woman or a biracial person," Mrs. Dolezal told the station. "That's simply not true."
Since the revelations, the city is now investigating whether Dolezal broke any ethical codes by claiming she was mixed African-American on her OPOC application.
"We are gathering facts to determine if any city policies related to volunteer boards and commissions have been violated," Spokane Mayor David Condon and city council president Ben Stuckart said in a statement. "That information will be reviewed by the city council, which has oversight of city boards and commissions."
The allegations prompted another local reporter to seek out Dolezal— who is also a professor of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University — for comment. But when confronted with the question "Are you African-American?" Dolezal replied: "I don't understand the question," and walked away.
The NAACP released a statement Friday saying that Dolezal is "enduring a legal issue with her family" and that the organization respects her privacy in the 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," the statement reads. "In every corner of this country, the NAACP remains committed to securing political, educational, and economic justice for all people, and we encourage Americans of all stripes to become members and serve as leaders in our organization."
The irony of Dolezal's alleged secret ancestry was not lost on social media pundits, especially given her numerous complaints to police of racial harassment. Police said they had not found evidence to support her claims.
Former NAACP chapter head James Wilburn came to her defense, telling local media that Dolezal's race was not a qualifying factor for the role, and that a white woman had previously held the position.
"It is traditional to have a person of color in that position, but that hasn't always been the case in Spokane," he said. "That is probably a result of the fact that only 1.9 percent of the population in Spokane is African-American."
Yet it was more difficult for some to ignore the hypocrisy of Dolezal's previous comments in media about racial appropriation. In one review about the 2011 film The Help, Dolezal offered her comments on the author of the book that inspired the film, who is a white woman.
"Follow the money trail," Dolezal said. "A white woman makes millions off of a black woman's story."