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 after recent 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 university in the nation’s capital.
Dolezal, the Spokane NAACP leader who resigned this week after her parents said she had been pretending to be black but was actually white, now faces a swirl of criticism about past and recent statements. And on Wednesday, Spokane leaders asked her to resign from a police oversight panel, citing misconduct.
At Howard University, Dolezal had accused the school 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 Associated 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.”
On Wednesday, an independent investigation by the city of Spokane concluded that Dolezal 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.
Spokane Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart said Wednesday that Dolezal and two others should remove themselves from the five-member commission after an independent investigation found they had acted improperly and violated government rules.
KHQ-TV says Dolezal sent a statement saying she was “deeply disturbed” by the leaders asking her to resign from the commission. She says she stands by her work to promote civilian oversight of police.
“I urge the people of Spokane to take a close look at the timing and intentions of the investigation and request for my resignation,” Dolezal said in her statement.
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.
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 a part-time African studies instructor, and was fired as a freelance newspaper columnist.
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 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.