WATCH ABOVE: Rachel Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP leader who resigned Monday amid a storm of controversy around her claims that she is black, addressed allegations on the Today Show on Tuesday morning.
Rachel Dolezal’s assertion that she identifies as a black woman, despite being born into a white family, has some questioning whether a person can be “transracial.”
In an interview on the Today show Tuesday, Dolezal said she has identified as black since the age of five when she drew self-portraits with brown crayons.
But, she said, her identity is not as simple as “black or white.”
“This goes back to a very early age with my self-identification with the black experience, as a very young child,” she said. “I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and black curly hair, and you know, yeah, that was how I was portraying myself.”
She took exception, however, to Matt Lauer’s question of when she “started deceiving people.”
“It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of are you black or white,” she said.
Self-identity has been a topic of widespread discussion of late after Caitlyn Jenner revealed to Vanity Fair that she was a woman. Most of society has accepted that people can identify with a gender other than what was assigned to them at birth – but can a person identify with a different race? Many commentators have said no.
Meredith Talusan, a feminist writer and trans advocate, wrote in The Guardian that the “fundamental difference” between Jenner and Dolezal is that the former NAACP leader actively chose to identify as black whereas “transgender people’s decision to transition is almost always involuntary.”
“Her decision to occupy that identity is one that was forged through her exposure to black culture, not a fundamental attribute of her existence,” Talusan wrote.
Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University told People that there is a “biological reason” some people identify with a certain gender.
But others suggested that if Jenner can identify as a woman, then Dolezal should be able to identify as black.
And New York University professor Ann Morning told CBS that racial identity is more fluid than it used to be.
“We’re getting more and more used to the idea that people’s racial affiliation and identity and sense of belonging can change, or can vary, with different circumstances,” Morning said.
Dolezal claimed Tuesday she began identifying as black when she was a child. She grew up with four black adopted brothers and was briefly married to a black man.
But her story seems to shift – when shown a photo of herself as a teenager she said “in that picture, during that time, no,” she was not identifying herself as an African-American.
She suggested Tuesday that she was first identified as transracial, then bi-racial, and finally a black woman when she was working in North Idaho. She admits however, that she never corrected them.
She also sued Howard University in 2002 –as a white woman – claiming discrimination from the historically black school at which she completed a master’s degree.
Ezra Dolezal, Rachel’s adopted brother, told Buzzfeed in an interview published Monday that he believes the lawsuit was one of the reasons she decided to identify as black.
“She used to tell us that teachers treated her differently than other people and a lot of them acted like they didn’t want her there,” Ezra told Buzzfeed. “Because of her work in African-American art, they thought she was a black student during her application, but they ended up with a white person.”
He said her deception started in 2011 when she “began applying makeup to her face to appear ‘darker and darker’ and perming her naturally straight, blonde hair.”
“She puts dark makeup on her face and says she black,” Ezra told Buzzfeed. “It’s basically blackface.”
He went on to discredit many of the claims Rachel allegedly made since moving to Spokane and beginning to work for the NAACP including suggestions she lived in South Africa, hunted with bows and arrows, and was abused as a child.