‘I identify as black’: Former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal speaks about racial controversy

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SPOKANE, Wash. (June 16, 2015) – The former leader of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP spoke publicly for the first time since a controversy about her race boiled over.

Rachel Dolezal announced Monday that she would step down from her position. The move came after her parents, who are white, accused her of lying about her race and portraying herself as black even though she was born white.

The story sparked a discussion about racial identity. In her statement resigning from her NAACP position, Dolezal didn’t directly address the controversy surrounding her. She took the opportunity Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” to talk about it.

“The timing of it was a shock. I mean, wow. The timing was completely unexpected,” she told host Matt Lauer. “I did feel at some point I would need to address the complexity of my identity.”

Lauer showed a picture of a younger Dolezal in which she clearly appears white. She admitted the photo looked like it was of a white woman.

He then asked her directly, “Are you an African-American woman?”

“I identify as black,” Dolezal said. “This goes back to a very early age with my self-identification with the black experience. As a very young child.”

Dolezal said it started as far back as when she was five years old.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon—the black curly hair, you know. That is how I was portraying myself.”

She said she didn’t “deceive” anyone. She pointed to newspaper accounts that referred to her as “transracial” and “biracial.”

“And the next article, when there were actually burglaries, nooses, etc., (the article) said ‘this was happening to a black woman.’ I never corrected that.”

Laure pressed: Why didn’t she correct it?

“It’s more complex than being true or false in that particular instance,” she said. “I’ve had to answer a lot of questions throughout my life.”

Dolezal vehemently denied suggestions she was engaging in “blackface.”

“This is not some freak, ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level. I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just the visible representation, but with the experience.”

She described a black man as her “dad” even though her father is Caucasian.

“Any man can be a father. Not any man can be a dad,” she said.

Dolezal said she hopes the situation opens up a discussion about race and identity. She called the criticism of her “viciously inhumane” at times.

“As much as this discussion has been at my expense…the discussion is really about what it means to be human. And I hope that that can drive at the core of the definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”

She said she’d make the same choices as she made despite all that’s happened in recent days. She admitted there were some interviews she would’ve done differently.

“My life has been one of survival,” she said. “The decisions that I have made along the way including my identification have been to survive and to carry forward in my journey and life continuum.

“I actually was talking to one of my sons yesterday, and he said, ‘Mom, racially you’re human. And culturally, you’re black.’ So we’ve had these conversations over the years. I do know that they support the way that I identify and they support me.”