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Rachel Dolezal, ex-NAACP leader: ‘Nothing about being white describes who I am’

In an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s "Today" show, Rachel Dolezal talks about why she identifies as black. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rachel Dolezal, a civil rights leader whose identity has sparked a national debate on race, explained her choice to identify as a black woman in a series of interviews with NBC News on Tuesday, saying in one of them: “I definitely am not white.”

Speaking to Savannah Guthrie in an interview for NBC’s “Nightly News,” Dolezal, who was born to two Caucasian parents, said: “Nothing about being white describes who I am.”

“It’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?” she said on the “Today” show.

Dolezal, 37, resigned from her post as president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter on Monday after accusations surfaced that she lied about her race. In a series of interviews with NBC — her first since she was thrust into the national spotlight — she was challenged about her race and the accusations that she had been deceptive for years.

“I did feel that, at some point, I would need to address the complexity of my identity,” she said on the “Today” show. But, she told co-host Matt Lauer: “I identify as black.”

She never corrected a local news report that identified her as a black woman, she told Lauer, “because it’s more complex than being true or false.”

To Guthrie, Dolezal said: “I am more black than I am white.”

“So on a level of values, lived experience, currently, I mean, in this moment, that’s — that’s the answer,” Dolezal said. “That’s the accurate answer from my truth.”

[Black like her: Is racial identity a state of mind?]

Dolezal rose to prominence as a black woman but was outed as white last week by her own parents.

“I don’t see why they’re in such a rush to whitewash the work that I have done and who I am and how I have identified,” she said Tuesday on “Today.” The timing of the revelation, she said, “was a shock. I mean, wow.”

But, she noted of her racial identity: “I’ve had to answer a lot of questions throughout my life.”

Amid an “unexpected firestorm” over whether she misrepresented her race, Dolezal resigned her leadership post with the NAACP’s Spokane chapter, citing concern that the controversy was hampering the group’s larger mission.

[How Rachel Dolezal created a new image and made a black community believe]

But Dolezal did not explain in her resignation announcement Monday why she had dyed her hair, darkened her skin and misrepresented herself as a mixed-race black woman for much of the past decade.

In previous interviews, Dolezal said she considers herself to be black, and she described choosing the black community over white culture during her college years in Mississippi. On Tuesday, she told Lauer that her “self-identification with the black experience” began as a young child, at about the age of 5.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon and the black curly hair. That was how I was portraying myself.”

Rachel Dolezal resigns as president of NAACP Spokane chapter

Washington state civil rights advocate Rachel Dolezal appears on the NBC News "TODAY" show in New York June 16, 2015 in a still handout image from video provided by NBC. Dolezal, who has been accused of falsely claiming she is African-American, said on Tuesday she identifies as black. Dolezal, in an interview on NBC's "Today" show, said she began portraying herself as black as early as age 5 and that her identity was "not some freak ... mockery black-face performance." REUTERS/NBC News' TODAY show/Anthony Quintano/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. NO SALES. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Handout/Reuters/Today/Anthony Quintano)

Her parents, speaking to Fox News after Dolezal’s “Today” show interview, disputed that claim, calling it a “fabrication.”

“That’s false; that did not happen,” said Dolezal’s mother, Ruthanne. “She has never done anything like that as a child, though she was always attracted to black people. We had friends from Nigeria and different places and African American friends that we had in our circle and she was used to relating to people of diversity.”

Said Larry Dolezal: “All we can surmise is that somehow that identity has transferred from being part of a multi-ethnic family to somehow thinking that she is somehow herself multi-ethnic.” The parents adopted black children when Rachel was growing up.

[Rachel Dolezal’s parents dispute claim that she identified as black at an early age]

Speaking to Guthrie for the “Nightly News” interview, Rachel Dolezal said: “Up to this point, I know who raised me. I haven’t had a DNA test. There’s been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents.”

Guthrie noted that “there’s a birth certificate that has your name on it and their names on it.”

Said Dolezal: “I’m not necessarily saying that I can prove they’re not. But I don’t know that I can actually prove they are.”

Looking at a photo of herself as a blue-eyed blonde teenager, Dolezal told Lauer on “Today” that the person in the image “would be identified as white by people who see her.”

Lauer asked if she had done something to darken her complexion.

“I certainly don’t stay out of the sun, you know?” Dolezal said. But, she added: “I also don’t, as some of the critics have said, put on blackface as a performance.”

[Opinion: The damage Rachel Dolezal has done]

“I have a huge issue with blackface,” she continued. “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real connected level. I’ve actually had to go there with the experience, not just with a visible representation, but with the experience.”

In another interview Tuesday, with MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry, Dolezal said she felt a “spiritual, visceral, just very instinctual connection with ‘black is beautiful’ — just the black experience” from “a very young age.”

But, she added: “I was socially conditioned to not own that, and to be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me and narrated to me. And so I kind of felt pretty awkward with that at times.”

“Are you a con artist?” Harris-Perry asked.

“I don’t think so,” Dolezal said.

Born in Troy, Mont., on Nov. 12, 1977, to conservative white Christian missionaries, Dolezal had one sibling, a brother Joshua, until she was 16. Then in 1993, the Dolezals began adopting four children: Zach from Haiti and Ezra, Izaiah and Esther from elsewhere in the United States.

After graduating from high school in 1995, Dolezal attended Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss., where she participated in Voice of Calvary, a “racial reconciliation community development project where blacks and whites lived together,” her father said.

She later received a master’s of fine arts from Howard University. Ironically, the Smoking Gun reported Monday, Dolezal sued Howard in 2002, charging that the historically black school had discriminated against her because she was white, removing her art from an exhibition “to favor African American students.”

[Dolezal sued Howard for racial discrimination. Because she was white.]

On Tuesday, Dolezal told Lauer that her scholarship was rescinded and she lost her teaching assistant position at Howard, too, because, she recalled being told, “other people need opportunities and you probably have white relatives who can help you with tuition.”

“I thought that was an injustice,” she said.

Noting that her two sons were in the “Today” show studio, Lauer asked Dolezal how they would identify her.

One of them, Dolezal said, had told her a day earlier: “Mom, racially you’re human. Culturally, you’re black.”

She added: “They support the way I identify.”

But, she said, her parents’ revelation (“She’s clearly our birth daughter, and we’re clearly Caucasian — that’s just a fact,” her father, Lawrence, has said) sparked a broader conversation about identity that, Dolezal said, could prove productive.

“As much as this discussion has somewhat been at my expense recently in a very sort of viciously inhumane way … the discussion is really about what it means to be human,” she said. “And I hope that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”

Abby Phillip and Leah Sottile contributed to this post, which has been updated.

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Rachel Dolezal's father discusses her resignation as president of the Spokane, Wash. NAACP chapter. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
The parents of Rachel Dolezal say they don’t know what caused their biological daughter to call herself African American. (Video: The Washington Post)