Rachel Dolezal: ‘I wasn’t identifying as black to upset people. I was being me’

The name “Jesus Christ” is recorded on the birth certificate, within the section identifying the healthcare professional responsible for delivering her as an infant. To uncover the true identity of Rachel Dolezal, who caused a major upheaval by pretending to be a black woman despite being white, one should start by examining her birth certificate, specifically the section that lists the names of her parents. This crucial information can be found in the lower right-hand corner.

Ruthanne and Lawrence, the Christian fundamentalist parents who raised Dolezal, dictated a strict interpretation of the Bible in their harsh and simplistic approach to life, which included a strong belief in creationism. It is unclear whether Dolezal, born in her rural Montana home in 1977, was directly blessed by God as their son or not.

Dolezal spent years envisioning that it was all a terrible error.

She says, “Alright, let me go back to my childhood and remember this one thing I had. I used to imagine these scenarios in my mind where I was actually a princess adopted and kidnapped by my parents in Egypt.”

As Dolezal later years slipped from under the yoke of fundamentalist self, she was well on her way to becoming the person she regarded as the true American black. By the time she finally claimed her parents, who she later revealed wasn’t her biological parents, she didn’t let go of the idea that she was maybe a princess from ancient Egypt.

Dolezal as a baby. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

She adopted a black son who turned out to be her brother, and introduced him to the world as part of an African-American “dads” series. She created a new family and revised her history, while also altering her appearance over time.

She was swiftly interpreted as a “race faker” – a question she didn’t understand, saying she was stunned in her reply. All of it came toppling down when she was asked in a television interview this year on June 11.

The African American community was deeply hurt by the wave of mockery and anger. Some individuals, like Dolezal, mentally unstable, chose to identify as black, even though they are not of African descent.

She was accused of exploiting the long history of suffering of black victims by portraying herself as a girl of European heritage with a distinct tint to her skin and elaborate braided hair extensions, which changed her appearance to that of a woman with blackface.

Her acquaintances currently decline to communicate with her. She relinquished her position in African studies at Eastern Washington University and was compelled to step down as the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Spokane. Dolezal forfeited a significant portion of what she cherished, as the community she had advocated for extensively betrayed her in a matter of days.

Dolezal as a baby, being held by Josh, her biological brother. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

Dolezal, who also does some hairstyling work, is now limited to supporting her adolescent son with the assistance of food stamps and has rejected undesirable opportunities in reality TV and pornography – as she is unable to secure employment. Additionally, she is expecting a newborn baby.

She expresses, “Instructing me to end my own life, instructing me on what actions to take, instructing me on what thoughts to have, individuals informing me of my past identity before the chaos, reconstruct, recall, reorganize I am attempting.” “I do not desire people to associate me with. I feel invisible within my local community. This esteemed leader who has won numerous awards no longer exists. It was truly painful, extremely hurtful, and I find it revolting, just like this situation.”

She is steadfastly committed to remaining wedded firmly above all else, even though she appears dark and mysterious. People were confused because they didn’t ask the right questions. She denies lying to anyone. She weeps over the injustice of the collective judgment against her. She infuriates her critics so much that she refers to it as her “glow,” still displaying her radiant complexion and lustrous hair in the modest living room of her Spokane house.

She asserts, “No aspect of my identity can be encapsulated by whiteness.” “If someone were to inquire about my self-perception, I undoubtedly identify as black. This is not a matter of exploiting or altering my identity for personal gain, convenience, or to astonish or please others,” she affirms. This has been a lifelong odyssey for me. By that, I mean it has not been a simple resolution. To me, my emotions and self-perception hold greater significance than my innate characteristics.

Rachel Dolezal in 1996 with her parents, Lawrence (left) and Ruthanne (right), her brother Joshua, and four young children the family had adopted. Photograph: Zuma/Rex Shutterstock

‘Ever since I can recall, I perceived myself as black’.

She says, “In my lunchbox, there was homemade bread with elk tongue sandwich. I ended up being really embarrassed about the clothes we wore to school. We even carved little elk antlers into buttons. We spun the dog’s hair into yarn to make sweaters. As a child, Dolezal’s parents defined her with a religious fervor for homemade clothes.”

According to Dolezal, discipline was customary, especially for inadequate grades in school. “We all received spankings on our bare bottoms. She instructed us to bend down, touch our toes, and be struck with this paddle they possessed.”

According to Dolezal, a few of the Dolezal kids were confined to a chamber with solely a mattress and a Bible.

“I would cry myself to sleep at the age of 13 because I felt like I didn’t have anywhere to go,” she comments.

However, even if Dolezal couldn’t avoid her family, she had begun to believe that she didn’t belong to it.

She states, “I was closing off internally. I was suppressing myself. I was continually undermining myself to fit in with religious and cultural norms. I felt extremely unhappy. It was a town predominantly inhabited by white individuals. I was socially indoctrinated to ignore that fact. Throughout my entire life, I identified myself as black. However, for me, it has been a continuous and natural journey of discovering my true identity. I understand that it may be difficult for outsiders to comprehend.”

They claimed to have saved children from Haiti and began adopting three black babies, one from Haiti and three from the US, instead of being from children.

Dolezal at a rally for immigration rights, earlier this year. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

“They acted as a mother figure for them. Nourishing them, teaching them how to use the toilet,” she expresses. “I ultimately had to stitch reusable diapers for all the children since we lacked the funds to buy disposable ones.”

After she splashed across the news, there was no shortage of people who made the connection between her adopted black siblings and her own identity shift. In a rush to explain, Dolezal started by taking an interest in African American history and literature, and then she braided her hair for the first time.

According to her, the presence of siblings did not directly alter her identity. However, it provided her with a chance to become more open and allowed her to engage in activities such as reading and styling hair, which were more socially acceptable. It also made sense to other people who assumed that her identification as black was a result of her family adopting black siblings. However, this was not the main factor. For her, the crucial aspect of connection occurred when she began to blossom and the adoptions provided her with a purpose to advocate for reading certain books.

Spencer Perkins and his father John Perkins were African-American civil rights activists and religious leaders in Jackson, Mississippi. They were enrolled at Belhaven College, close to the Dolezal High School where Spencer finished high school. Their involvement in the community’s racial reconciliation and development efforts promoted Christian values. James Baldwin was also listed as a prominent figure in the same community.

She said, “I really wanted to do what I wanted. It had a connection to social justice work, civil rights work, and community development work. It had a connection to the black community. It had more to do with what I had been raised with than what I had. That’s why it makes me feel comfortable with my parents, because that’s a good piece of my Christian upbringing. It had to do with where I was coming from and where I wanted to go. It had two different parts.”

Rachel Dolezal’s birth certificate, on which Jesus Christ is cited as being the medic in attendance. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

Joanie became Aunt, John became Uncle, “but as part of the family, Dolezal soon formed relationships with the Perkinses beyond herself. She sought out Spencer as a mentor in college, where she studied art. She said Spencer became like a father figure to her. She soon regarded herself as part of the Perkins family. She speaks of other members of the family.”

In the predominantly black neighborhood of Jackson, Donna Dolezal, a “lovely young woman,” shared a message on Facebook in June, connecting with a couple named Donna and Sam Pollard.

During our discussions, I recall her expressing her emotions, she penned. “Her struggle was truly moving. On numerous occasions, we shed tears together as I earnestly listened, attempting to comprehend her innermost sentiments. I even made an effort (using religious texts) to persuade her that it was merely a passing stage she was experiencing, despite her unwavering belief that she was destined to be of African descent.”

She expressed, “I don’t think Rachel Dolezal was intentionally trying to be deceptive.” She mentioned, “It was clear that there was a connection between us, but it wasn’t accurate to say that I was her daughter because I was too young.” Pollard noted, “Even Rachel referred to me as her mom and my husband as her dad, something that I observed.”

Pollard was the initial female to weave Dolezal’s hair.

Dolezal states, “Individuals began reacting to me in a distinct manner. Please refrain from doing so, Caucasian females. It was as though I possessed a mixed racial background biologically, causing numerous individuals to alter their reactions towards me. I somewhat allowed the consequences to unfold naturally.”

Franklin, a son, was the one who brought the couple together. It was not a successful match. They decided to relocate to Idaho, where the husband, an African American, was from, and got married.

She says, “He constantly asked: why are you studying black history? Why are you engaging in this?”. Nicole Kidman was his ideal of beauty,” she explains. “My spouse disapproved of me wearing any hairstyles associated with black culture.

Dolezal leading a Black Lives Matter rally with students in 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

The biological parents, the individuals she adamantly declines to address as Mom and Dad, instigated the ultimate separation with Dolezal’s choice to pursue a divorce in 2004.

I was identified as Black in 2006. I owned who I was, but I won’t say that I was coming out personally. I wanted to style my hair in the same way as other people’s hair, and I wanted to learn how to style my own hair. So, when I got divorced, I started returning to myself and returning to how I wanted to style my hair. My marriage felt like being told what to do and being confined, like being in a round prison. She says she hates divorce because I lost my entire family, according to God.

She no longer identifies as Dolezal, but refers to it as a necessary collection of small and large bits of creative nonfiction that others are now tasked with interpreting.

She says, “I’m crazy if they’re going to look at me like that. I don’t feel like I owe them a long conversation. I don’t know that person. This really creates a black atmosphere, but I usually say that my dad is black.” What mixed race are you? What race is she? Is she white? Is she black? People were.

Additional modifications of the truth were necessary. Despite this, she did take him in as her son, but eventually started referring to herself as his mother. When he was 16, Izaiah, one of her adopted siblings, moved in with Dolezal, further building their new family.

One of Dolezal’s first self-portraits, age five. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

Mom still refers to me as Izaiah. Let’s figure out what we can say about the situation. You used to live in Chicago with your dad, but now you’re living with your mom. Your brother’s name is Franklin. Dad looks like you, and I look like Franklin. She says it’s true. “We assume that people who know both of us would assume that I’m his biological mom,” I say. But who really cares about the same time?

She said, “I referred to him as Dad.” He requires a grandfather and you seem to require a father. He somewhat observed that Franklin and I were without any family. While employed at the Human Rights Education Institute, where Dolezal held the position of education director until 2010, she encountered Albert Wilkerson, a previous serviceman and retired law enforcement officer. After Dolezal relocated to Idaho, she welcomed a new paternal figure.

During the occurrence of the storm, it transformed into a key piece of proof pointing against her: in the month of December, she uploaded a photograph of herself, Izaiah, and Wilkerson on her Facebook profile, accompanied by a description “Me, my eldest son Izaiah, and my father.”

I may see why people have been confused. I called him Dad because that’s how I described him. She says he would introduce himself as Rachel’s dad to my colleagues at work. Nobody asked if he was my biological dad. Nobody asked who your biological parents are.

‘The criticism was intended to bring me down. It succeeded.’

Afterward, a couple of weeks later, the case was dismissed, however, her parents refute that was their intention, in which her younger sister alleged her older brother of sexual misconduct, her biological parents approached the nearby newspaper, Dolezal’s universe crumbled.

She was asked by the black student union at Eastern Washington University to give the keynote speech at their graduation ceremony, but she had already won a series of awards earlier in the year, including the Business Leadership Women’s Prize, so she was a highly respected professional.

Dolezal, in 2009, standing in front of a mural she painted at the offices of the Human Rights Education Institute in Idaho, where she was education director at that time. Photograph: Nicholas K Geranios/AP

In the face of police discrimination, she had been a strong advocate where she was compelled to step down from Spokane’s police accountability commission, lost her position at the university, and was required to step down as president of Spokane NAACP. Prominent figures joined in as African-American scholars she admired accused her of being deceitful or, even worse, a bigot, social media exploded with mockery and disdain as she struggles to speak through her tears while expressing her astonishment at the intensity of the negative response.

She wipes away tears with her hand. She tells her mom, “People were sending text messages. I also want to protect my kids. I had a really tight circle of close friends. I had been sharing photos with my Facebook friends. I lost contact with three of my friends. Within 24 hours, everything I had worked for was gone. It was really hard.”

Twitter responded with a mocking meme, #AskRachel, posing questions that were supposedly limited to African Americans to answer.

Furthermore, a week later Dolezal found out that she was expecting a baby.

The termination was a surprising question. It was unexpected, but I’m not the initial individual to be taken aback by a pregnancy. It is a different part of a fresh beginning. It provides us all with something to concentrate on that is not tainted by all the other chaos. We will depart in June, leaving behind all the funk that occurred in June.

However, Dolezal cannot depart during the month of June. She is determined to clarify her situation.

She states, “Regrettably, it successfully accomplished that.” “It was intended to bring me down. It doesn’t sound like someone who possesses good character,” she states. I would wonder, what is this individual up to? If that story had been given to me about someone else, absolutely, I would be angry. I was alleged to be dishonest and deceitful and to have worn blackface right from the start.

Amid the barrage of criticism, there were those who sought to explain Dolezal’s actions by drawing parallels with those who have changed their sexual identity, such as Caitlyn Jenner. Some drew parallels with individuals who have changed their sexual identity, seeking to explain Dolezal’s actions amidst the criticism.

Franklin and Izaiah. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

She says, “I really feel the need to come up with a better vocabulary.” I don’t believe in the idea of ‘transracial’ because I don’t think it’s like me. I might admit that it’s a useful word for some people who are stepping forward along the staircase of understanding identity.

It’s an unexpected argument from a woman who has built an academic career around race and a life claiming to be black.

“I believe that race is not a biological reality, but rather a hierarchical system created to leverage privilege and power between different groups of people,” she says. “Race is a fiction invented as a means of oppressing certain human races, such as white, black, and others. It is not something inherent in our DNA, but rather a socially constructed concept that people operate on autopilot.”

However, her race was significant enough for her to identify as black.

To combat racism, we would need to genuinely release the notion of race as a prevailing mindset that has persisted for 500 years, given that there are individuals who genuinely perceive race to be a genuine concept. Racism undeniably exists, so when you express doubt about its existence and challenge its reality, it can elicit strong reactions from certain individuals.

Race, gender, religion. All these aspects of identity are what define individuals and allow for a diverse society, “she remarks. If someone transitions from being a teenager to an adult as a woman, what does that mean? Caitlyn Jenner has been acknowledged as a woman. However, Caitlyn Jenner has not always been treated or perceived as a woman. One’s identity should not be solely determined by their age or the circumstances of their birth, she emphasizes, but rather by their personal experience of being transgender.

Dolezal with students leading a parade for Martin Luther King Jr Day, 2014. Photograph: Courtesy of Rachel Dolezal

As a teenager, Laing fled to Swaziland with her Zulu partner and faced social rejection from the white society, despite having legal white classification. Sandra Laing, a South African lady, came into this world as a black individual to a white household during the apartheid period and is the person Dolezal relates to.

She expresses that it appears to be a constant challenge to discover one’s role in society, embracing and embracing that role, and having the freedom to rejoice in it. This involves breaking free from the constraints of societal expectations, being labeled and confined by various individuals, categorized in various ways, and facing misunderstandings and isolation. These themes personally strike a chord, as they reflect one’s own experiences. Ultimately, it is a narrative.

‘Wearing blackface is not supportive of the black community. That was a rather severe accusation’.

She describes the experience of being African American as a historically specific and particularly black border or date. She acknowledges that in the US, black Africans are recognized as one group, but she has made a point of not describing herself as African American, instead being derided by Vanity Fair for making a distinction.

She states, “I lack that, which I am aware of. Ancestors who resided here amidst the era of child slavery, biologically linked to those ancestors, if we are referring to individuals who possess African American heritage within a relatively brief period.”

One of the things that has infuriated some of her critics is that she claims that her recent years of experience in identifying as black drew upon her true childhood, but unlike African Americans, she made the choice to grow up black in the US without experiencing the trials of what it is.

She is writing about issues related to race. She holds the position of the leader of the commission responsible for overseeing police accountability, specifically addressing cases of police brutality. Additionally, she serves as the president of the NAACP. At the college, she teaches courses on African American studies. She was perceived as a radical activist advocating for black empowerment. People viewed her as a mixed-race woman with lighter skin tone, and this perception extended not only to her appearance but also to her identity as a radical activist. In romantic relationships, she has encountered situations where white men exoticize her or where black men perceive her as a light-skinned black woman. In terms of salary, mine was $36,000, while the job description remained the same. In contrast, his salary amounted to $70,000. When a white male colleague left and I applied for a job, I was referred to as a “colored girl” by others. Furthermore, law enforcement officers categorize me as “black” on my traffic tickets. Due to my appearance as a light-skinned black woman or biracial person, I have personally experienced instances where I am treated differently.

This area is where she is most hesitant to talk. Despite facing strong criticism, she has chosen to darken her skin using makeup and spray tans. It is important to note that this perception is not shared by those who knew her best. Other critics have constructed a picture of Dolezal consciously going into the world as a fraudulent individual, deliberately making herself appear black.

“I was out the door, unsure if I should give myself time to glow; depending on how much time I had, certain days of the week could feel darker or lighter. No one had ever asked me why I was asking about why people’s noses change or why women airbrush their freckles. Everything is according to how I feel beautiful and how I do my makeup and hair,” she says. “Sometimes, I don’t use bronzer spray.”

Dolezal says she has been putting in braids and weaves for 20 years, plenty of different hairstyles for women to go. Similarly, she doesn’t address the issue head-on. But whether she was consciously trying to look black is a question she does not answer.

Is it cultural appropriation to get perms in order to obtain straight hair in black culture, or to get curly hair in white culture? Women have been getting perms to alter their hair, so does this mean that it is appropriation to change your straight hair? I think we need to discuss these things in the context of what is authentic and the intention behind it. Is it cultural appropriation or a way to pay compliments and imitate?

She finds the accusations of “Blackface” to be even more painful, as many people perceive her attempts to change her appearance as a physical form of claiming to be black.

I would never make a mockery of most of the things I take very seriously. Blackface is not trying to undo white supremacy. Blackface is not working for racial justice. Blackface is not pro-black. Blackface is not working for racial justice. I didn’t expect you to look like a light-skinned black woman because of all that blackface. That was a pretty harsh accusation.

She asserts, “I would have had the same thoughts if I had simply read the script or heard all these accusations without being introduced to people through a certain lens. I still don’t understand where the criticism comes from.”

She doesn’t give much ground. Could she have done anything differently? Because they feel misled, is it also because they feel betrayed by her, her colleagues and friends? It may be fair criticism from the backlash of people who didn’t appreciate or know her hard work within the black community.

While trying to answer their questions and protect our family’s privacy, instead of getting into the business of revealing the details of my identity and personal matters, I could have told more people that I didn’t want to answer their questions. But on June 11, I had the opportunity to speak for myself. When my kids were all grown up as adults, I planned to explain my decisions and discuss my past at a much later time.

Dolezal answered their questions, so people did not feel deceived in the end, despite her act of concealing information and distorting the complete truth, which led to a feeling of resentment among those who were lied to.

She declares, “The viewpoints haven’t altered my life trajectory, and I possessed a mission before anyone formed a perspective regarding me. I don’t believe I would have altered circumstances, considering all the particulars of each interaction. I have contemplated extensively on it.”

Dolezal is unable to face up to her own part in creating the difficult situation, believing that she deserves what others in the community have worked hard for and giving herself time to identify with them.

Despite the pain behind her determination, she refuses to be forced to embrace an identity. As she wipes away her tears, she does not believe that she deserved little humanity compared to others.

“I have not changed my identity, but there have been some real experiences. It has been incredibly difficult for my children. It’s really hard to navigate public spaces. Of course, not having a job has really affected me in practical ways,” she says. “I was being myself. I wasn’t seeking fame. Identifying as black didn’t make me upset or happy because it hasn’t really affected how I feel.”