Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP official accused of lying about her race, was unapologetic about her actions Tuesday – saying she has identified as black since she was 5 years old and that her failure over the years to clarify that she was born white did not amount to deception.
“I identify as black,” she said in a live interview on the Today show, her first public comments since the story gained national attention.
Asked when she started deceiving people, she took issue with the word – and said it was more a matter of not correcting people when they assumed she was African-American.
“I do take exception to that, because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, ‘Are you black or white?’ ” she said.
Dolezal said she identifies racially as “human” and culturally as black. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon,” she said of her childhood years. “That’s how I was portraying myself.”
Two of Dolezal’s sons, Isaiah and Franklin, who are black, were in the NBC studio during the interview. Dolezal said she had their full support.
Dolezal has also claimed that a close friend, Albert Wilkerson, a black man, was her father. She defended that characterization on Tuesday.
“We connected on a very intimate level as family,” she said, adding that someone can be a dad without being the genetic father. “Albert Wilkerson is my dad,” she said.
She also had harsh words for her own biological parents, who have gone on record to clarify that their daughter is Caucasian.
“I don’t see why they’re in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done, and who I am, and how I’ve identified,” she said. “This goes back to a very early age with my self-identification with the black experience as a very young child.”
And while some have said her actions are tantamount to putting on blackface, Dolezal strongly rejected that criticism.
“This is not some freak Birth of a Nation mockery blackface performance,” she said, referring to the 1915 silent film in which many black men were played by white actors in blackface. “This is on a very real, connected level.”
Asked about her complexion, which seems to have darkened over the years, she added: “I certainly don’t stay out of the sun.”
Dolezal also spoke about the lawsuit she filed against Howard University in 2002, in which she claimed she was discriminated against because she was a white woman. The school gave her funding to someone else, she implied, because it figured she had white relatives who could afford to pay for her.
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“The reasons for my full-tuition scholarship being removed and my teaching position as well – my T.A. position – were that other people needed opportunities,” she said, “and you probably have white relatives that can afford to help you with your tuition. And I thought that was an injustice.”
While she called some of the discussion about her this week “viciously inhumane,” Dolezal said she hoped something good would come of the experience.
“This discussion is really about what it means to be human,” she said. “And I hope that can really drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and ultimately empowerment.”