#AskRachel: Civil rights activist masquerading as black sparks 'trans-ethnicity' debate

Rachel Dolezal (image from http://spokanenaacp.com)
The curious case of Rachel Dolezal, president of a US association for the advancement of colored people and a professor of African-American Studies, who had pretended to be black for nearly a decade, has triggered hot debate on race and ethnicity.

The #AskRachel hashtag, created after the Dolezal affair, has sparked a myriad of questions that the black community shared on Twitter for Rachel (or, rather, anyone not pretending to be black) to answer. Critics, meanwhile, have been speculating about Rachel's role as the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Dolezal, 37, who also serves as chair of Spokane's independent police ombudsman commission, is facing an ethics probe, after it appeared she identified herself in her application to the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission as white, African-American, and Native American when applying for the job.

Dolezal filed numerous police complaints of racial discrimination and harassment recently after she allegedly received hate mail. “We are gathering facts, looking at city code, to determine if any city policies in relation to boards or commissions were violated,” Spokane’s City Council President Ben Stuckart told Reuters.

According to police records, however, the hate mail package Dolezal reported receiving did not bear a date stamp or bar code. Postal workers reportedly told investigators that it was very unlikely or next to impossible that the package could have been processed through the post office, but if so it must have been put there by someone with a key. Dolezal received a key to the post office box earlier this year, when she became the NAACP president. Asked if she had put the package there herself, she replied, as cited by Spokane's Spokesman-Review: “That’s such bullsh*t. What mother would terrorize her own children?”

Dolezal has described the ongoing debate about her origins as a “multi-layered” issue.

“That question is not as easy as it seems,” she told the Spokesman-Review. Dolezal's birth certificate shows she was born to a white, Christian, Montana couple of European and Native American descent. According to Dolezal’s mother, Ruthanne, the family’s ancestry is Czech, Swedish and German.

“There’s a lot of complexities … and I don’t know that everyone would understand that,” Dolezal said. “We’re all from the African continent,” she added.

Dolezal told Spokane's KREM2 broadcaster earlier this week: "If I was asked I would definitely say yes, I do consider myself to be black."

Ruthanne Dolezal told the Spokesman-Review that she not been in touch with her daughter in years, saying Rachel began to “disguise herself” about 7-8 years ago, after the family had adopted four African-American children. According to her mother, it was the adoption that sparked Rachel's interest in “people of color.” About that time Dolezal also showed an interest in portrait art.

“Rachel is a master artist and so she is able to disguise herself and make her appearance look like any ethnicity. She could accomplish the work that she set out to do in the beginning by being herself and being a white woman who is an advocate for the African American,” her mother told the Guardian.

Dolezal holds a Master's degree from Howard University. When she applied, her portfolio was awash with “exclusively African American portraiture,” and the university “took her for a black woman” and gave her a full scholarship, her father, Lawrence Dolezal, told the Washington Post.

“You’ve got a white woman coming in that got a full-ride scholarship to the black Harvard,” he explained. “And ever since then she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.”

“But unfortunately, she is not ethnically by birth African American,” he said, adding, “there seems to be some question of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity.”

Dolezal is also a part-time professor in the Africana Studies Program at Eastern Washington University, a biography on the university website states. She is credited with re-energizing the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, according to the Spokesman-Review.

The NAACP said in a statement that racial identity was not a qualifying criteria for civil rights group leadership and that it "stands behind Ms Dolezal's advocacy record."

"NAACP Spokane Washington Branch President Rachel Dolezal is enduring a legal issue with her family, and we respect her privacy in this matter,
" NAACP, the largest African-American civil rights organization in the US, has added.