Black activist who's actually white

Ms Rachel Dolezal's blog posts and interviews often make reference to her "black sons". But her mother says one of the boys is Izaiah, one of four black Americans Ms Dolezal's parents adopted in the 1990s.
Ms Rachel Dolezal's blog posts and interviews often make reference to her "black sons". But her mother says one of the boys is Izaiah, one of four black Americans Ms Dolezal's parents adopted in the 1990s.PHOTOS: FAMILY OF RACHEL DOLEZAL, AFP, FACEBOOK
Ms Rachel Dolezal's blog posts and interviews often make reference to her "black sons". But her mother says one of the boys is Izaiah, one of four black Americans Ms Dolezal's parents adopted in the 1990s.
MR TONY BERG, a neighbour of Ms Rachel Dolezal's. Her parents released a picture of her as a child (above). However, she looks completely different now.PHOTOS: FAMILY OF RACHEL DOLEZAL, AFP, FACEBOOK
Ms Rachel Dolezal's blog posts and interviews often make reference to her "black sons". But her mother says one of the boys is Izaiah, one of four black Americans Ms Dolezal's parents adopted in the 1990s.
MR TONY BERG, a neighbour of Ms Rachel Dolezal's. Her parents released a picture of her as a child. However, she looks completely different now (above).PHOTOS: FAMILY OF RACHEL DOLEZAL, AFP, FACEBOOK

The bizarre news that a white American civil rights activist fooled colleagues - and apparently even herself - into thinking she is black has fuelled the never-ending debate in the United States over race and identity.

Ms Rachel Dolezal, 37, resigned as president of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP - the acronym of a century-old group with the now politically incorrect name National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, after her estranged parents exposed the true colour of their skin, and hers.

The news transformed her from a virtual unknown less than two weeks ago to a woman whose name has now drawn almost six million Google News hits.

Both Lawrence and Ruthanne Dolezal, who did adopt four children who are black or mixed, went on American TV talk shows to show they are obviously Caucasian - a mix of Czech, Swedish and German ancestry.

Darker-skinned

"She was blonde - dreadlocks down to here and white skin. Then a year or two later, I began seeing a darker-skinned woman go into the house. She had changed."

MR TONY BERG, a neighbour of Ms Rachel Dolezal's. Her parents released a picture of her as a child. However, she looks completely different now.

Confessing that they were disturbed that Ms Dolezal had denied that they were her parents, the couple displayed a birth certificate and family photos to show Rachel is their biological daughter - and therefore white.

Mrs Dolezal told ABC News: "Rachel is trying to reject her own reality, her own identity, and by doing that, she does not alter reality."

Her father said: "She is a very talented woman, doing work she believes in. Why can't she do that as a Caucasian woman, which is what she is?"

Indeed, his daughter was not pressured by the NAACP to resign from her post because she is actually white. The obvious concern was that she apparently had misrepresented herself as black - something that certainly raised questions of trust and credibility.

Ms Dolezal had gone so far as to brandish a photo of herself with a black man named Albert Wilkerson, who she said was her father.

She reportedly also went to great lengths to change her appearance. A neighbour, Mr Tony Berg, did a double take one day, thinking someone new had moved into Ms Dolezal's house across the street.

"She was blonde - dreadlocks down to here and white skin," he told The New York Times, drawing a line across his waist. "Then a year or two later, I began seeing a darker-skinned woman go into the house. She had changed."

The TMZ entertainment website reported that Ms Dolezal frequented the Palm Beach Tan, in Spokane, to darken her skin colour.

When asked point-blank whether she was white or black on the NBC Today show, she dodged the question, saying with a smile: "I identify as black."

That answer surprised many friends and colleagues, who said she had left little doubt of her race.

"I thought she was mixed," said Ms Elizabeth Phillips, who was a student in one of Ms Dolezal's African American studies classes at Eastern Washington University.

"She said her dad was black and her mum was white... That's kind of a big thing to lie about," Ms Phillips told People magazine.

Ms Dolezal's uncle, Mr Dan Dolezal, told the New York Daily News that her denials of who her real father is not only upset her parents but also confused Mr Wilkerson himself.

"I think Albert was kind of baffled as well," he told the daily. "When she started calling him Dad two or three years ago, it caused my brother (Mr Larry Dolezal) quite a bit of pain."

Ms Dolezal tried to explain away the deception. "Albert Wilkerson is my dad," she said. "Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad."

In the NBC Today interview, she also traced her belief that she was a black person in a white body to about age five: "I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and the black curly hair."

But, in earlier interviews, she claimed to have been born in a tepee, and that a stepfather and her mother had abused her and her siblings and would "punish us by skin complexion".

Her story took another strange turn when the Denver Post reported that an older biological brother, Joshua, is awaiting trial on charges of sexually abusing a black child. The paper noted that the Dolezals had implied the charges had been trumped up by one of their black children with Ms Dolezal's help - which it said would explain why they "would expose their daughter to such public humiliation and perhaps legal jeopardy".

Others feel the couple were simply stung by something else their daughter said in an interview: "I haven't had a DNA test. There's been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents."

Further complicating the story and opinions of her is the fact that Ms Dolezal got her master's degree from the largely-black Howard University, then sued the institution for, as she put it, "denying her teaching posts and a scholarship because she was a white woman".

Whatever the truth of a case that gets stranger with each twist, Ms Dolezal's has enlivened the debate about race and identity at a time when such issues are in the news in the US and elsewhere.

Ms Dolezal herself said on the NBC Today show: "As much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense recently, and, in a very sort of viciously inhumane way, come out of the woodwork, the discussion is really about what it is to be human. I hope that that can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment."

But the New York Times noted that blacks and liberals have accused Ms Dolezal of an offensive impersonation that is part of a long history in which whites appropriated black heritage when it suited them.

Conservatives, in turn, accused liberals of hypocrisy, for accepting former Olympian Bruce Jenner as a woman named Caitlyn, but not Ms Dolezal as black, NYT noted.

Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative: "So, to recap, if Rachel Dolezal says she is a man, we must all agree, on pain of being publicly censured. But if Rachel Dolezal says she is black, it is fair game to challenge her claim."

Perhaps Jeff Yang, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online, summed up the curious case most succinctly, in a comment for CNN.

"She's an understandable distraction," he said, "and not the first or the last that we'll see as we head to the imminent tipping point of a 'majority minority' America."

zach@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Black activist who's actually white'. Print Edition | Subscribe