SPOKANE, Wash. — Rachel Dolezal faced tough questions about her racial identity long before her career as a civil rights advocate and expert on African-American culture was derailed by this week’s revelations that she grew up “Caucasian.”
More than a decade ago, Howard University’s lawyers questioned whether she had tried to pose as African-American when she applied for admission to the historically black college in the nation’s capital.
Dolezal had accused the university of denying her a teaching position because she was white. During a deposition, Howard’s lawyers asked whether she had tried to mislead the admissions office with an essay focused on black history and identity, according to court documents reviewed by The Assoicated Press.
“I plunged into black history and novels, feeling the relieving release of understanding and common ground,” she wrote in the essay. “My struggles paled as I read of the atrocities so many ancestors faced in America.”
Dolezal resigned her NAACP post this week after her parents accused her of posing as black despite her Czech, German and Swedish ancestry. She now faces a swirl of criticism about other statements she has made.
On Wednesday, an independent investigation by the city of Spokane concluded that she acted improperly and violated government rules while leading the city’s volunteer police oversight commission.
The report found that Dolezal violated the city’s workplace harassment policy when she “engaged in conduct that humiliated, insulted or degraded” a city worker; abused her authority and showed bias against police by “participating publically and vocally in protests of recent officer-involved shootings.”
Spokane Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart said they’re “deeply disturbed by the facts.”
The city’s Ethics Commission, meanwhile, is investigating whether she lied about her race on her application to the oversight board by presenting herself as the daughter of a black police officer from Oakland, California, when she sought the appointment last year.
A dozen years earlier, Dolezal’s lawsuit against Howard was dismissed before reaching trial. A court said she failed to prove her claims and ordered her to pay the university’s legal costs.
In her admissions essay, she described her family as “transracial,” writing that “at the early age of three I showed an awareness of the richness and beauty of dark skin when I said, ‘Mama, all people are beautiful but black people are so beautiful.'”
During the deposition, Dolezal said she was “talking about black history in novels.”
Lawyers pressed her to say if she had ever misled anyone into thinking she was black.
“I don’t know that I could lead anyone to believe that I’m African-American. I believe that, you know, in certain context, maybe someone would assume that, but I don’t know that I could convince someone that I’m a hundred percent African-American,” she responded.
Asked to explain what she considers her own race to be, she said, “if you have to choose to describe yourself and you’re able to give terms like a fraction or whatever but an overall picture, I consider myself to be Caucasian biologically.”
Asked by NBC’s Matt Lauer this week if she is an “an African-American woman,” Dolezal said: “I identify as black.”
Civil rights leaders in Spokane openly worry about the damage all this has done.
“I think it is a setback,” said Virla Spencer, 36, who is black. “It’s sad we have to focus so much on this when there is so much more work to do.”
Spokane, a city of 210,000, is 90 percent white, and about 2 percent black. The Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi organization, was for decades based nearby, north of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Its members exported violence and crime throughout the region.
Dolezal, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, resigned Monday as president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, saw her biography removed from the website of Eastern Washington University, where she was as a part-time African studies instructor, and was fired as a freelance newspaper columnist.
Several NAACP members said Dolezal, 37, is still welcome.
But former Spokane NAACP President James Wilburn disputed the contention that Dolezal had greatly improved the Spokane branch of the NAACP during her six months as president.
“It’s a poke in the eye of other leaders who had been working in the trenches and doing things,” Wilburn said.
Dolezal, who appears quite fair and with straight blond hair in childhood photos, now presents a light brown complexion. She told an NBC interviewer that her dark curly hair is “a weave.”
She told the “Today” show that she started identifying as black around age 5, when she drew self-portraits with a brown crayon, and that she “takes exception” to the contention she tried to deceive people.
But Angela Jones, an NAACP member, said it was the “ultimate betrayal” for Dolezal to describe herself as African American in the black community.
“She has to heal,” Jones said. “I have to heal.”