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Shawn Vestal: Rachel Dolezal doing plenty of talking, but not in Spokane

In this image released by NBC News, former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal appears on the “Today” show set on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, in New York. (Anthony Quintano / AP)
In this image released by NBC News, former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal appears on the “Today” show set on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, in New York. (Anthony Quintano / AP)

Rachel Dolezal says she never lied to anyone.

She says she always thought of herself as black and never considered what she was doing a form of blackface. She says that people simply never asked her the right questions. She says she didn’t owe people a long conversation to explain. She says that race doesn’t exist, that it’s a social construct and she doesn’t believe in it, but that she identifies as black and has since she was a child. She says that when she was a girl she imagined she was an Egyptian princess who had been kidnapped by her parents. Who were white.

“I’m sure it’s hard to make sense of for people from the outside, but for me it’s been like a consistent, organic process of coming into who I am,” Dolezal told The Guardian of London newspaper recently. “As long as I can remember, I saw myself as black. I was socially conditioned to discard that.”

One might have thought that Dolezal’s “outing” earlier this year as a white woman who passed for years as black – while rising to leadership positions in Spokane’s NAACP chapter and police ombudsman commission, directing Black Lives Matter demonstrations, and filing reports of hate crimes that were never substantiated – might have driven her underground.

But while she has kept a low profile and declined interview requests locally, she has jumped at the chance to explain herself at length to media outlets elsewhere. That was her pattern from the start, when she went to New York City to be on the “Today” show after the story broke. More recently, she has given lengthy interviews to Vice and The Guardian, talking about her upbringing, her family, her view of racial identity, and what she sees as the unfairness of people in Spokane who have turned their backs on her.

“Locally, it feels like I am invisible. People don’t want to associate with me. This great leader that won all these awards no longer exists. It’s just like this disgust, and that was really hurtful, really hurtful,” she told The Guardian.

I asked Dolezal this week if she would be willing to answer questions about what happened, and to discuss the fact that some people in Spokane believe she has undermined the causes she was working for and now assume she fabricated several hate-crimes reports. She said she didn’t want to do an interview if I wanted to “sabotage” her.

The pieces in Vice and The Guardian focus on the slow evolution of her view of her own identity and how she came to identify herself. It is clear she feels betrayed and victimized. She says that, in retrospect, she would not have changed the way she did things, and she hints that perhaps she was undone by the forces of complacency and racism that she was unsettling with her activism. She said, “It was meant to take me down.” She seems oblivious to how much strength and succor she provided to the forces of complacency and racism.

“Is there a place in the world where I can be me?” she asked. “Is there a place for me here? Are my kids better having me here? I want to be able to be free to be me. Don’t we have the right to be 100 percent who we are?”

Dolezal described growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home in Troy, Montana, which she called the “armpit of the world.” She said it was an abusive and repressive home. She said she grew up around hunting and raising livestock, and that she and her brother played “chicken head baseball.” She said, “I cried myself to sleep every night.”

She said when she was a girl drawing pictures of herself, the peach crayons “didn’t resonate with me.” She said her parents adopted four children of color for the tax benefits. She said she made a book for her adopted sister Esther called “Ebony Tresses” about the beauty of her natural hair. She said she began doing Esther’s hair, and then did the same for her adopted brother Izaiah. She said he began to look on her as his “chosen” mother.

She left home and went to college in Mississippi, where she became close to the family of a black artist, Spencer Perkins. Another mentor did her hair in braids. She said, “Because it was Mississippi, white girls don’t do that. A lot of people started responding to me as if I was biologically biracial. I kind of let the chips fall where they may.”

Bit by bit, she said, she began to actively participate with what she called “creative nonfiction.”

“People were: Is she black? Is she white? What is she? What are you mixed with?” she says. “Usually I’d say my dad is black because to say that neither one is black creates this really long conversation. I don’t know that person. I don’t feel like I owe them that long conversation. They’re going to be looking at me as if I’m crazy.”

She said she has put together a chosen family. Izaiah has lived with her as her son. She has referred to various supportive people as parents. One of those people was a North Idaho man, Albert Wilkerson. She posted a photo online of herself and Izaiah with him, identifying them as her son and her dad.

She said she understands why people may have been confused about this.

She said she considered it “harsh” that many saw what she was doing with her hairstyle and darkening her skin a form of blackface – a physical appropriation of the history and suffering of black Americans – to get attention. She said sometimes she wore bronzer or spray tanner to darken her skin – “a glow” – and sometimes she didn’t. She said it was like any other cosmetic practice. Like getting a nose job or a perm.

She said she didn’t do it for attention or fame. She was photographed for the recent articles in her home, with her children, at her baby shower. She’s pregnant now, and she said she’s going to name her son Langston, after the great African-American poet Langston Hughes. A volume of Hughes’ poetry happened to be sitting on a chest in the middle of her living room for her interview with Vice.

She says the way she sees herself has not changed. She says, “I really feel it hasn’t affected it at all because I wasn’t identifying as black in order to make people happy or make people upset or whatever. I wasn’t seeking fame. I was being me.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vestal13.