SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Rachel Dolezal, who is under scrutiny for recent comments about race, her background and her behavior as a civil rights leader, faced tough questions about her racial identity long before she became a national figure nearly overnight.
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 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.”
The 37-year-old Dolezal resigned as head of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter this week after her parents said she was a white woman pretending to be black. City leaders asked her Wednesday to step down from a police oversight panel, citing misconduct.
An independent investigation by the city of Spokane concluded Wednesday that Dolezal acted improperly and violated government rules while leading its volunteer police oversight commission.
The report says 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 Dolezal and two others should remove themselves from the five-member commission.
Dolezal said in a statement she would not resign, adding that she and the two others had done nothing wrong, Spokane news station KHQ-TV reported. She said they had “done our best each step of the way and double-checked our actions with legal counsel.”
“The work is tough, and certainly there is a degree of expected push-back from the institution, but the level of harassment and sabotage by city government is completely undeserved and inappropriate,” her statement said.
Meanwhile, the city’s Ethics Commission is investigating whether she lied about her race on her application to the police 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. “It’s sad we have to focus so much on this when there is so much more work to do.”
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.
Dolezal, who lives in Coeur d’Alene, told an NBC interviewer that there’s no “biological proof” that Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal are her parents, despite the fact that there’s a birth certificate that lists them as her mother and father.
Dolezal, who appears fair and with straight blond hair in childhood photos, now presents a light brown complexion. She said on NBC 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.
Associated Press writers Kiley Armstrong in New York and Phuong Le in Seattle contributed to this report. Barakat reported from Washington, D.C.