No one questioned whether she was black, said David Smedley, an associate professor of sculpture and coordinator of Howard’s sculpture program, who was her thesis adviser at the university. “She was a blue-eyed blond woman.”
In fact, the Smoking Gun reported Monday afternoon that Dolezal sued Howard University in 2002 for discriminating against her for being white. She claimed retaliation based on her race, gender, pregnancy and family responsibilities, saying she had been denied teaching positions and scholarship aid. She also complained that some of her artwork had been removed from an exhibition because black students were being favored. A judge, and subsequently an appeals court, found no basis for her claims.
Dolezal resigned Monday from the presidency of Spokane’s NAACP chapter in the midst of a heated controversy over whether she had lied about her race; last week, her parents said she is a white woman who is claiming to be black. A reporter for a Spokane station, KXLY, asked her whether she was African American; she said she didn’t understand the question and walked away.
In the days since, an intense national debate has unspooled over the nature of racial identity, how people define themselves and the narratives people create about their own lives. The hashtag #transracial immediately popped up, echoing the conversations on transgender issues.
In graduate school, often a place where people question themselves and imagine their futures, Rachel Dolezal stood out as a quirky, unusual character, a couple of people said — but not deluded or deceptive. In art school, Smedley said, quirky is normal.
She didn’t have any affectations of speech or manner then, Smedley said, and it would not have been terribly unusual if she had.
Several people at Howard said it’s not uncommon to see white people on campus — or elsewhere in the black community — taking on black slang, fashions and hairstyles. (There’s slang for that, too.)
Dolezal went on to work as an artist, academic and activist, teaching art classes at North Idaho College from 2005 to 2013, and since 2007 has been a part-time instructor in the Africana Education Department at Eastern Washington University. “Africana studies courses provide understanding and appreciation of the universal African diaspora today and historically from an Afrocentric world view,” the school’s Web site explains. “They also give students the opportunity to evaluate the influence of African culture on the entire human civilization.”
Rachel Mann, a spokeswoman for Howard, responded by e-mail to questions about the lawsuit Monday evening, “Howard University considers this matter closed and has no further comment.”
At Howard, Dolezal painted portraits of black people, often with universal themes such as loneliness, and created a sculpture of a black man’s torso falling forward “into the vortex,” her thesis chair remembered. She painted on egg shells, once, to create an unusual surface; other times she used leathers, and told him about her childhood in Montana, and how she knew about tanning elk hides, he said.
“I remember Rachel as a gifted, highly intelligent and sensitive person who came to us as a fully formed and quite an excellent artist,” Smedley said. “Yes, she appeared then to be enamored with black people and black culture. I found this somewhat unusual, but I do not think this odd, as many people are infatuated with African Americans, especially those who gravitate to the arts.”
He added that he hoped people would judge Dolezal on the good she has done and on the merit of her professional and volunteer efforts. “I hope this outweighs this possible glitch in her emotional or psychological well-being,” he said.
He does not question now that she has been dishonest about her ethnicity in recent years, he said. But “I do not believe she intends harm, or did so with malice.”
In a follow-up e-mail he wrote that issues of race also harm the white majority. “‘White’ people who have inherited a privileged place in society seemingly have just two choices: stay ignorant, accept and continue to justify the delusion that America is and always has been great and democratic; or do some research and then feel the heavy guilt and shame upon discovering the ugly truth about the systemic unfairnesses that their ancestors perpetuated.
“Neither of these are healthy, and I suspect that this isn’t the last time we will see another white person chose to switch sides.”
Smedley said he’s sorry for the impact all this must be having on her family and people caught up in the story. He hopes everyone doesn’t get caught up in vilifying her. “We may end up seeing this as the catalyst to a conversation we wouldn’t have had if she didn’t do this,” he said. “I don’t know.
“She may in the end come up with a beautiful and eloquent answer — this was all one big performance art piece.”