In Rachel Dolezal's Skin
In an exclusive interview, Rachel Dolezal discusses growing up on a Christian homestead, painting her face different colors as a child, and why she’s naming her new baby after Langston Hughes.
Photos by Amy Lombard
On a gloomy Saturday night in Spokane, WA, roughly a dozen people gather in the penthouse suite of the Davenport Grand Hotel for Rachel Dolezal's baby shower. Hip-hop and jazz play on a flat-screen TV, and paper yellow duckies hang on the silver walls. While Rachel's 21-year-old adopted son Izaiah pops a bottle of champagne, Rachel's friends—her ex-boyfriend Charles Miller and several women—eat croissant sandwiches on disposable plastic plates. The women vary in age and race (there's nearly an equal number of black and white guests), but when I ask them how they know Rachel, most give the same answer: "She does my hair."
Rachel does her own hair, too. Today, she wears a black weave. "In the winter I like to have [a weave] because you don't have to wear a hat," she explains. "In the summer I like to wear braids and dreads—that's just me." The women's conversations, though, aren't about hair and instead revolve around the baby. An hour into the party, Rachel's friend passes out pieces of paper for a "baby pool." She asks the partygoers to predict the baby's "weight, birthday, and gender." There's not an option for race. It's undoubtedly a sensitive topic in this room, but no less a loaded one. After all, much of Rachel's story is hinged on the concept that, like gender, race is a social construct.
"We know the gender," Rachel says.
"What if the doctor's wrong, and it's a girl?" I ask.
"The doctor said he's gonna be a proud little boy. You can see the family jewels [in the sonogram] yourself," Rachel jokes. "We wanted a girl. I told [my son] Franklin [the baby] could always be a Caitlyn."
Rachel has been thinking about Caitlyn Jenner a lot. In June, the same month Caitlyn announced her name on the cover of Vanity Fair, local Spokane TV station KXLY outed Rachel—the then-president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, whom the community believed to be a woman of color—as the biological daughter of a Caucasian Christian couple. She immediately became national news, and 2015 became the year of identity according to New York Times critic Wesley Morris. Whereas Glamour and ESPN awarded Caitlyn for her transition, Rachel was vilified and mocked in the press and on social media after telling Matt Lauer, in an interview on Today, that she's transracial, saying, "I identify as black."
She was deemed a cultural appropriator by some; an impersonator—donning blackface when it was to her advantage—by others; and a race traitor by white supremacists.
"I'm the only person equally hated by the KKK and black feminists," Rachel says.
In the summer I like to wear braids and dreads—that's just me.
Although some publications, like Salon, took Elinor Burkett to task for questioning Caitlyn's identity in an op-ed she penned for the New York Times, other news outlets and social media users have pounced on prominent black celebrities who have defended Rachel's lifestyle. When Rihanna called Rachel "a bit of a hero" in a lengthy Vanity Fair profile, the pop star inspired a day's worth of outraged tweets.
In the aftermath of her newfound infamy, Rachel resigned from her unpaid role at the NAACP; the Spokane City Council voted to remove her from a volunteer Police Ombudsman Commission, and Eastern Washington University declined to renew her quarterly adjunct professor contract. Broke and seemingly unemployable (with the exception of a six-figure Vivid Entertainment porn offer she turned down), Rachel wrote a memoir proposal. She hoped she would receive an advance big enough to support herself and her two sons for as long as it takes to weather the storm, but she says publishers refused to sign her. Today, she says she remains out of work besides doing black women's hair part-time and estimates a third of her friends have stopped speaking to her.
"I've struggled with depression to the point where I wonder if it's even in my kids' best interest for me to stay around," Rachel says. "I feel like I'm a liability to my own children."
In the midst of all of this, she discovered she was pregnant. (Rachel declined to discuss the baby's father.) She chose to keep the baby: "I couldn't handle any more loss." The trauma from her public lambasting led her to decide to name the child after the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
"I'm naming him Langston because of Langston Hughes' 'Mother to Son' poem," Rachel explains. "Life hasn't been easy for me at all, but I keep going. I'm still climbing, so don't you sit down and stop. You keep going, and I want that to be a lesson for all my sons."
Though Rachel has rarely publicly discussed why and how her life her "hasn't been easy," news outlets have reported on Rachel's parents' extreme Christianity and the court case against her biological brother Joshua, who was accused of sexually molesting a young black girl. Rachel was a witness in the case, which also brought up an earlier sexual abuse accusation against Joshua. Rachel alleges her parents outed her in retaliation. Larry and Ruthanne declined Broadly's request for comment but have previously denied this accusation. (In July, a prosecutor in Clear Creek County, CO, dropped the charges.)
Besides this, most coverage has revolved around how Rachel Dolezal's identity has made others feel. But what made Rachel feel black? How did Rachel Dolezal become who she says she is?
Spokane is a sort-of-big town with a small-town feel. Originally rich in natural resources, it experienced a mining boom in the late 19th century, with its gold, silver, and lead attracting prospectors. Exploitation of mines by large corporations led to an economic depression in 1910, from which the city never fully recovered. Its winters are long and extremely overcast. It's always gray. Crime rates far exceed the statewide average, and, aside from Bing Crosby, some of the most notable Spokanites are two serial killers and a serial rapist. Now, the Spokane Police Department has been the subject of national scrutiny for its use of excessive force and officer-involved shootings.
Read More: At Home with Rachel Dolezal
"Spokane sucks. It's the armpit of America," Rachel's son teenage son Franklin says.
But this is the place she has chosen to call home for three years. Although Rachel and her friends say she has hovered above and below the poverty line her entire life, she maintains a pretty two-bedroom house. She sleeps in a bedroom, Franklin lives in the basement, and baby Langston will reside in the room where Izaiah lived before he went to college.
Pumpkins line her front steps in autumn, and inside her walls are adorned with her own artwork: a portrait of Pariah, the character in the Spike Lee–produced movie, over the fireplace; a drawing of the KKK chasing a black girl above Rachel's bed; and a painting of her adopted son Izaiah as a baby next to the dining room table. In the living room, a Langston Hughes poetry book lies on a chest.
In a pink shirt and shorts, Rachel's baby bump shows. Her skin looks dark (she says she uses self-tanner, bronzer, and tans when she can in cloudy Spokane), and her weave seems messy in a purposeful way. "In the winter, I like to have [a weave] because you don't have to wear a hat," she explains.
Asking Rachel about her body makes me uncomfortable. I rarely ask female subjects about their clothes, hair, or makeup. In normal circumstances, it would be sexist and completely unnecessary to dedicate paragraphs of a profile to a woman's beauty regimen. But this isn't a normal circumstance, and Rachel's appearance is integral to who she is.
When Langston grows up, she will have to explain her look and racial identity to him. Rachel takes me to the room she's prepared for him, where she stores a pile of photo albums and scrapbooks she will one day show her unborn son. Within the pages is Rachel's large family. Looking through the pictures, she discusses her chosen family (her biological son Franklin, adopted son Izaiah, adopted sister Esther, and friends) and her biological family: her older brother Joshua Dolezal and her parents, whom she calls by their names, Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal.
As she recounts her childhood, it quickly becomes clear that her identity issues are rooted there.
Rachel rejects the version of her upbringing that Larry and Ruthanne have shared with reporters. One of the only things Rachel and her biological parents agree on is that she was born in 1977. In his memoir, Down from the Mountaintop: From Belief to Belonging, Joshua Dolezal said someone had written on his birth certificate that he was delivered by "Jesus Christ" and that Ruthanne gave birth to Rachel in a teepee. In previous interviews, Ruthanne has denied these allegations, but Rachel supports Joshua's claims. She shows me a photo of the teepee where she and her brother say she was born, and she pulls out what she says is her original birth certificate, which indeed says that Jesus Christ delivered her. Her baby book, which she lets me flip through, also says Jesus oversaw the birth.
Rachel grew up in Troy, MT. She describes her hometown as "population 3,000, economically depressed, the armpit of the world," echoing her biological son Franklin's description of Spokane. She was raised in a religious household—her parents are fundamentalist Christians and Young Earth creationists. YEC takes a strict, literal interpretation of Genesis, believing that God created the earth in six days roughly 6,000 years ago, everyone is descended from Adam and Eve, and Noah housed dinosaurs on his ark. According to Joshua's memoir, parishioners would speak in tongues.
Both Joshua and Rachel describe their childhood as growing up on a Christian homestead. They say the family hunted for food. (In one of her old photo albums, Rachel shows me a picture of a dead bear lying on a bed, game meat ready to be processed.) Men, they say, hunted, while Rachel and Ruthanne wrapped the steaks and salted the hides.
In one image, Ruthanne and an elementary school–age Rachel wear modest white dresses covering all their skin except their hands and faces while Larry and a young Joshua appear shirtless. "The first dick I ever saw was Larry's and then Joshua's. [Larry] was like a nudist," Rachel says. "[My sister] Esther and I always joke we've seen all the family penises." But the children were raised with a double standard and, from a young age, Rachel says, she learned to feel guilty about her appearance and body.
"If this doesn't look cultish, I don't know what does," Rachel says looking at pages of photos. "[It] looks like a horror movie."
Rachel says her family lived outside of contemporary culture—they didn't have cable TV, and magazines were prohibited—but she took solace at school, where she read books obsessively, played sports, and painted. Her earliest memory, she says, is drawing a self-portrait with crayons sometime during her first few years of school.
"In terms of drawing myself, my self-portrait, I instinctively felt my skin color was brown. That looked better in the picture," Rachel says. "The peach crayons did not look—I don't know. They didn't resonate with me. When I got to kindergarten, there were no black kids in the class. Everybody was drawing these white-looking faces, and you learn about peer pressure, [that] you don't do [the wrong color]. I remember people saying, 'Look, this isn't your skin color.'" Rachel has told this story before in previous interviews to public skepticism, but in her baby book, she shows evidence of an early identity crisis: picture after picture of a young blond Rachel painting her face different colors, particularly silver.
"I loved painting my face as a child," she says.
Rachel tried painting and drawing at home, but claims her parents would "whoop" her for expressing her creativity. (Larry and Ruthanne have previously denied abusing their children.) "I was so creative and had this soulful way of being that was always being punished," Rachel says. "I would just be me, and it was wrong." The suppression, Rachel claims, extended to her use of her body.
"If I moved, tried to dance or something, that was not OK as a female," Rachel says. "Basically if you're having fun, you're sinning, is what I learned growing up. If I was being me, it was probably wrong. I figured out, as a child, how to censor and repress myself by the time I was 13. I literally cried myself to sleep every single night. I'd lie in bed and cry into my pillow so that nobody heard."
Rachel remembers feeling different from her biological relatives, but says she could relate to Joshua through baseball. The family would cook and kill their own chickens (as a girl, plucking the feathers was one of her chores), and afterwards, she and Joshua would use the skulls as balls and play "chicken head baseball."
In the early 1990s, while Madonna was wearing cone bras and The Real World debuted on MTV, Rachel says Larry and Ruthanne forbid her from wearing pants. She was in the seventh grade. "If you had yard work, you had to wear pants under your dress," Rachel says. "You can't cut your hair, you couldn't wear make-up, you couldn't wear pants—which separate the legs of the woman and, you know, you're asking for [men] to rape you at that point."
Like most children, Rachel believed what her parents told her. She says she increasingly felt guilt and dissociated from her own body—feelings that only intensified at school. She was one of the few conservative Christians in class, and panicked when her secular friends started engaging in the devil's work, like playing with Ouija boards. Oh my god! Rachel remembers thinking. I can't go to their house. As a teen, she even stopped playing her beloved baseball out of fear of God. "I felt like I was sinning to play baseball, because [it required] wearing pants."
Feeling as though her salvation was in jeopardy by spending time in the secular world, Rachel—by then in middle school—opted to be homeschooled. While her parents worked the farm, she taught herself a secular curriculum. Around the same time, Rachel says, Ruthanne became obsessed with the anti-abortion movement. "We watched The Silent Scream [a short antiabortion movie] every year," Rachel says. "It was horrific—little baby parts being torn up. As a kid I had nightmares about babies being murdered." In his memoir, Joshua claims Ruthanne called him "a survivor of the holocaust of the unborn" since she delivered him after the Supreme Court made its landmark decision on abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973. He says his mother had him debate a pro-choice student in middle school. For the debate, he says, Ruthanne and Rachel made paper dolls symbolizing all the fetuses that had been aborted since abortion had been legalized. Joshua writes:
My mother and sister set themselves to cutting out chains of human profiles, dozens of stick people holding hands. My team and I were to tape these figures around the room before the debate to supplement a diagram distributed by the National Right to Life showing the number of casualties in each of the American wars compared to the number of abortions since 1973. Each figure represented ten thousand casualties. The Revolutionary War had a single stick figure for the roughly 4,000 colonists killed. There was a long row of figures for the Civil War, slightly more for the two World Wars combined, three figures for the Korean War, and six for nearly 60,000 US deaths in Vietnam. All told, this came to more than a million casualties. For the number of abortions since 1973, there were rows and rows of stick figures representing many millions, and the contrast was meant to be jarring.
Rachel claims Larry and Ruthanne became so radically anti-abortion, they no longer wanted to pay taxes because they believed taxes help fund the procedure. In the early to mid-1990s, households could earn a $1,500 deduction per adopted baby. According to Rachel, they adopted three babies within eight months for the tax benefits: first Ezra, then Izaiah, Zachariah, and Esther. Ezra and Izaiah were born 17 months apart, Izaiah and Zach five days apart, Zach and Esther eight months apart. None of the children are white.
"Ruthanne's dad cried when they found out Ezra, the first adopted kid, was part black," Rachel says. "They were like, 'He's Jewish, not black.' I was like, 'That's not a Jew 'fro. He's part black.' They never could find his biological dad, so they made up this story that it was maybe in his blood."
Ruthanne suffered from chronic fatigue, Rachel says, which put most of the burden of raising the children on Rachel when she was only 17 years old. "I was getting up at 5 AM and going to bed at 10 PM to get all my schoolwork done and take care of all the babies," Rachel says. "I wasn't an angst-y teenager. I was taking care of babies." As part of the Dolezals' homesteading lifestyle, Rachel changed her adopted siblings' cloth diapers and made them baby food by hand.
Rachel shows me a picture of Esther as a toddler. She's wearing a baby blue dress and holding a homemade, black Raggedy Ann doll. Rachel says that little Esther's exposure to black culture was limited to Br'er Rabbit books and children's biblical stories. To boost Esther's self-esteem, Rachel crafted a handmade book called Ebony Tresses, about how Esther's natural hair was beautiful. "My hair is powerful, coiled, and comely," Rachel writes. "Glistening with oils and sculpted with care." The book ends with a paper doll. You can change the doll's hair with paper hairdos including natural, cornrows with beads, twists, individual braids, and head wraps.
"The [doll's] dress isn't too long or too short, so the parents would still let her play with it," Rachel explains. "I tried to make her skin tone and features and body and hairstyle so [Esther] would relate to it."
As Esther grew older, Rachel started doing her hair, along with the hair of Sarah, a black girl who was adopted by a neighboring white family. "I just researched it," Rachel says. "No one else knew what to do with her hair. I figured it out and started braiding her hair." Rachel also styled Izaiah's hair. As a young child, he started viewing Rachel as his chosen mother.
"I remember when I was kid, she was doing my hair and dressing me, making sure I was looking good, taking care of me," Izaiah says. "I do not have the luxury of the standard nuclear family. The mother who gave birth to me is not the one who raised me, but I still acknowledge her as well as I acknowledge Rachel as my mother."
"I was actually a teen mom to him," Rachel says.
Rachel continued to educate herself about hair—and black culture in general—throughout high school. She fell in love with More Than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. In it, authors Spencer Perkins, an African American scholar, and Chris Rice, a Caucasian Christian, proposed that white people move into a large house in a black neighborhood in Mississippi. The authors hoped to teach readers that they could create a harmonious world where blacks and whites enjoyed living together. "It struck a chord with me," Rachel says. At the end of high school, she was moved enough by his work to get in touch with Spencer—who was then living in Jackson, MS, near Belhaven University—and asked, "Will you be my mentor if I go to school there?" Painting was still her first love, and she intended on pursuing art, but she wanted to take up African American studies as well. "We should meet and talk first," Spencer told her.
When she arrived in Jackson shortly after calling Spencer, Rachel says, she met with Spencer and his biracial family, consisting of his wife (who's white) and their three kids. "I arrived [at Belhaven] with my homemade dresses," Rachel says. "[I looked like] Little House on the Prairie: no make-up, super cultish looking." She says she hit it off with Spencer and his wife. "They became my family," she says. She enrolled in Belhaven, a private, Christian university. Although she was excited to finally live on her own, out from under Larry and Ruthanne's control, she worried about her siblings.
"But at the same time I couldn't stay there," Rachel says. "I was like, 'I got to go make a better world while they're growing up.'"
Rachel and her college friends describe Belhaven as predominantly white. "We were very limited in numbers," says Carl, one of Rachel's black classmates. "We had more of the black students on campus due to the football team being there, but [whites] still outnumbered [blacks] for the most part."
At his request, Carl's name has been changed.
Rachel spent her weekdays studying, and on the weekends she attended services at Voice of Calvary Fellowship, where Spencer and his family worshipped. The Christian church preached both Christianity's basic principles and a philosophy of races to solve their differences.
"[It's] a race and reconciliation and social justice church," Rachel explains. "It was kind of the bridge from where I come from, this religious stuff, to the social justice advocacy. The Voice of Calvary was perfect." Rachel says she attended church so often with Spencer, people assumed she was his daughter.
"This whole thing of, "Who's your dad? Is he your real dad?' it's not new," she says. "It's been, like, 20 years of digging through this shit." When she passed for black, she says it "felt like confirmation."
It's so hard to explain this to people: I don't feel white.
The church became Rachel's community, and she developed a very close bond with its parishioners, particularly with Kelly, an older woman with whom Rachel would choreograph praise dances to be performed at services.
Kelly's name has been changed.
Eventually, Rachel became like a big sister to the woman's children and moved in with the family.
"Rachel lived with my family for several months when she attended Belhaven," Kelly confirmed in a Facebook note. "My children adored her, and Rachel even referred to my husband as her dad and me as her mom. It was clear that that wasn't accurate. I was too young to have a daughter her age, but we had that connection. You know how we do! We meet a person that we develop a close relationship with—black or white—and we choose to identify them using terms of endearment, because they become more than just an acquaintance."
Although the church had a racially diverse congregation, Rachel says she only hung out with black parishioners. "Even white people that were all about reconciliation, and this or that, they were all still white," Rachel says. "I wasn't white! It's so hard to explain this to people: I don't feel white. I didn't hang out with anybody white in Mississippi." Even at school, she says, she sat at the black kids' table in the cafeteria.
Three of Rachel's black college friends agree that Rachel mostly socialized with black people. Her friend Siobhan, who asked only to be identified by her first name, attended church with Rachel. They had met while volunteering at the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center, a black history museum in Jackson, MS. "I was intrigued with her art," Siobhan says. "I also wondered how she had enough time and energy to be involved in so many activities. She never seemed to sleep." Siobhan remembers Rachel painting a 15-foot mural in downtown Jackson, celebrating "the renaissance campaign theme of Harvey Johnson, Jr., who was elected as the first African American Mayor of Jackson, MS, in 1997."
Carl says Rachel organized activism on campus. He remembers Rachel running the black students association, convincing Belhaven to implement its first African American studies course, and leading the charge in getting the college to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a holiday. "She was very instrumental in getting [the] holiday as a day of service and not just a day off," he says.
Carl and other students assumed at first that Rachel was a light-skinned black girl. "I [had] seen her around campus a few times. I didn't really know too much about her. I knew that she was an artist. I knew that she was heavily involved in our black student association," Carl remembers. When he saw Rachel a second time, he says he asked a friend, "Who was the light-skinned girl you were talking to?" He says the friend said, "Oh, that's Rachel, and she's not light-skinned. She's white." Carl thought little about Rachel's racial identity.
"I think her efforts and her heart were in the right place," Carl explains. "A lot of people kind of take that as, 'Well, she's appropriating black culture, she's trying to be something she's not, how can she identify herself as this when she's clearly not.' I understand that. I get it, but at the same time this is [who she is], and this is the way she's always been."
Her struggle was tear-jerking real.
A few weeks later, Carl says, a mutual friend set them up for homecoming. "My black girlfriends hooked me up," Rachel says. "They got this dress with a split right up, did my hair, my makeup. I had red lipstick on. They were like, 'Damn, you're so hot!' I was feeling myself. I was dancing. They were like, 'She has rhythm!'" This was one of the first times Rachel wore sexy clothes. She remembers the night as an evening of belonging.
Kelly, the woman she lived with, though, remembers the pain and confusion Rachel's identity brought Rachel. "I [had] numerous conversations with Rachel about her race...about how she knew in her heart that she was supposed to be born black. She felt that she had a stronger connection to the black race. Her struggle was tear-jerking real," Kelly says in the same Facebook note. "We cried together many times." Still, she says, even though she tried to understand how Rachel felt on the inside, she also used scripture to try and convince Rachel that her racial identity issues were just a phase.
"But for the most part," Kelly adds, "What I hear is that most people are chiming in on [her] appearance...or 'You cannot compare gender to race.' What about the inner feeling or heart of the person?" she asks. "Even in the comparison of transgender to transracial, there should be a consideration of how that person feels inside. I am not trying to reduce the situation to a mushy feeling; I am talking about a feeling of connection or belonging."
In 1998, Rachel's life started to unravel. After her mentor, Spencer, died during her junior year at Belhaven, she fell into a deep depression. It was around this time, while working at the UPS store, that she threw herself into her first serious relationship, with another UPS employee named Kevin Moore.
"He was the quiet one [at UPS]," Rachel says. "Everybody else was like, 'Hey, girl! Look at those thighs!' I was saving myself for marriage, and I started dating him."
Kevin belonged to a Pentecostal church, where—much like at the services Rachel attended with her biological parents—people would speak in tongues. Rachel found his spirituality comforting. After dating for two years, the couple married in 2000. The newlyweds then relocated so that Rachel could pursue an MFA at the historically black Howard University—where she had been awarded a scholarship—in Washington, DC, while Kevin enrolled in the nearby Northern Virginia Community College for an associate's degree to became a physiotherapy assistant (PTA).
Rachel was ecstatic to attend Howard. "I was so excited about going to Howard because everything in undergrad was all technical," Rachel says. "When it came to critique, the students were like, 'Why are you painting a black person? Why can't you just paint a white person? We can't talk about that. We're not going to talk about the image or the subject. We're going to talk about the brush strokes.'" Kevin, she says, rejected her interest in black culture. She claims he wanted her to bleach her hair and look as white as possible.
"My dad is an Oreo," Franklin says.
During her first year of grad school, Rachel became pregnant with Franklin. To make ends meet, the couple relied on her scholarship and financial aid. "We had a thing of raw oats in the cupboard," Rachel says. "We were so poor, waiting for the financial aid to kick in...after the summer." She claims she went into the art department office and that the chair of the art department at the time told her, "You have white relatives, so they can pay for that." In 2002, Rachel sued the university for discriminating against her for being white and a woman. The lawsuit was dismissed.
After Rachel's racial identity made headlines in June 2015, news of the lawsuit resurfaced. It was cited as an example of Rachel identifying as white when it benefits her and only passing for black for financial gain. Today, Rachel says the lawsuit was actually gender-based, claiming the professor had also told her, "You should come back when you're in shape and have a one-year-old." (Neither Howard University's art department nor the professor returned Broadly's request for comment.)
At the time, there was a heightened level of paranoia in Washington, DC, where Rachel and Kevin were living. "I was pregnant when the plane hit the Pentagon," Rachel says. "We're in DC during the anthrax scare, the DC sniper. The big canopy tarps [were] over the gas stations when you drove in because the sniper was killing people at gas stations." After she graduated from Howard, Kevin scored a job in Bonners Ferry, ID, and Rachel went with him in 2002. Despite the allegations of discrimination against the university, she missed Howard. In Idaho, Rachel says, Kevin became possessive and controlling and robbed her of her freedom. He wanted her to stay at home and take care of Franklin.
"I was stuck at home," Rachel says. "I couldn't even go to the grocery store [alone] because [Kevin believed] someone was going to look at me and want me. This all came from an admiral at the Pentagon being interested in me when I was doing an art project [there]. Kevin got so infuriated over that. [He wanted] to kill him."
As an undergrad in Jackson, Rachel felt like she had gained freedom and a sense of self. But as Kevin's wife, she says, she had lost her newfound autonomy. Living a life of restraint was familiar to her, considering her childhood. However, with a new baby and all that went with it, she ignored her instincts and stayed.
At one point during her marriage, her older brother Joshua came to town for a visit. He wanted to take her on a day trip, but Kevin had forbidden Rachel from speaking to her brother. Rachel says he told her, "You're not going anywhere until I get home."
When she told Joshua what Kevin had said, her brother asked, "How do you live like this? You're too special for this."
In 2005, she'd had enough and filed for divorce. (Kevin Moore's office did not return Broadly's request for comment.) Citing their religious beliefs, Rachel says, Larry and Ruthanne, took Kevin's side in the matter.
"I would say the divorce was my crossroads," Rachel says. "[Because] God hates divorce, in order to leave the marriage, I kind of left my family and organized religion at the same time—partly because the marriage itself was very structured around [being a] submissive wife. It was not a happy marriage. It was [a] duty to God."
Rachel and Franklin moved in with Larry's gay brother and his boyfriend, whom Rachel says Larry and Ruthanne called "the sodomites." Rachel says Larry kept a stable relationship with his brother, although he opposed his lifestyle. Despite having cut off ties with her biological parents and brother, Rachel has remained friendly with her uncles.
Single again, Rachel started doing her own hair in braids and other styles she had previously done for her sister Esther. And she started tanning. When people assumed she was black or biracial, she stopped correcting them. She didn't just leave her marriage, her parents, and her religion—she also left behind the guilt that those three institutions made her feel about her body.
"If it's not in the Bible you can't do it—that mindset precludes you from discovering your identity," Rachel says. "My childhood was characterized by a lot of guilt. I was atoning for existing. It was so refreshing and freeing to finally feel like I didn't have to atone for that any more. I could let that go."
Finally, she says, she could live an authentic life.
There is apparently no historical precedent for someone being transracial. Ohio University African American Studies professor Akil Houston says the early 90s rap group Young Black Teenagers—made up of four white guys who insisted they're "black on the inside"—is the closest comparison available. "Part of what they were arguing was that race is a state of being," Houston says. "At that point people were thinking, 'These are young people. We shouldn't take them seriously.' But [Rachel] had a position at a university," he adds, implying that she was too educated not to know better.
While some critics have compared Rachel's story to the phenomenon of "passing," Dr. Neal A. Lester, a professor of English and the founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, says passing is more complicated than simply appearing as another race. Following the Civil War, light-skinned African Americans would pass as Caucasian to gain work and avoid discrimination, which included being lynched. "There's nothing in her lived experience [that suggests she was in danger by being white]," he explains. "[S]he would be the [type of] person least likely to be subjected to any hate crimes because she's white and looks white."
But critics have argued that Rachel "passed as black" for financial benefit and career opportunities. For example, on NPR, Ken Chen, the executive director of the Asian American Writers' Workshop, compared Rachel to the white poet Michael Derrick Hudson, who submitted work under the name Yi-Fen Chou with the intention of posing as a minority to increase his chances of getting published. (It worked.) In 2006, Rachel took a job as the director of education at the Human Rights Education Institute (HREI) in Coeur d'Alene, ID. The nonprofit formed in response to frequent Aryan Nation activities in the area and grew after a Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit. For the organization, Rachel created educational programs to teach local schools about diversity. Rachel's work at HREI, according to her friends, was more a mission than a job. Her hours were hellish, and she worked tirelessly, covering the brick walls with painted portraits of labor rights heroes, environmental activists, and civil rights advocates. Since she started living as a black woman, Rachel has primarily worked in similar nonprofit and advocacy jobs and as an adjunct professor—notoriously poorly paid, thankless careers. It would seem that Rachel traded in her white privilege to become a low-income black woman.
"You don't get more money for being black," points out Dashawn Bedford, a Spokane-based Black Lives Matter activist and Rachel's friend. "You get shot, you get stereotyped, you get no funding."
Taking that into consideration, Rachel's identity issues are queer enough to mirror that of gays and lesbians who put themselves at risk—of homophobia, of being mocked or discriminated against, or even beaten to death—by living openly and being who they really are. While it's true that, unlike black people, Rachel had the privilege to choose her racial identity, the question still remains: Why would anyone want to make his or her life harder?
"I wouldn't call her privileged at all," says Rachel's ex-boyfriend Charles Miller. "She grew up in Montana in a very remote place. They didn't have a lot of money. They grew food and were hunting. That's not privilege. Maybe her parents made that choice—there's a certain amount of privilege in being able to make the choice and all—but she's been financially struggling, barely making it since I've known her. She's never had the ability to just go out and buy whatever she wants."
Rachel met Charles, a single dad whose child went to Franklin's school, while living in Coeur d'Alene. They bonded over their love of leftist political figures like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. As they got to know one another, their friendship became romantic, and Rachel explained her identity to him.
"It would be different if someone woke up and said, 'I'm pretending to be black to get a job,'" Charles says. "But that's not the case." While they were dating, Charles met Larry and Ruthanne—who were moving back and forth between Idaho and Atlanta around this time—briefly when Rachel had to drop something off with them. "There was no support or connection there," he says. The more he learned about Rachel's life growing up with Larry and Ruthanne, the more he understood the motives behind her identity.
After a few years, Charles and Rachel broke up because of the complexities of being single parents. They have remained close friends. Over the years, Charles says, he asked Rachel why she didn't explain how she was born biologically white but identified as black. He says Rachel told him she thought people wouldn't understand.
"Like someone who's transgender, it takes a long time to figure out all the different thoughts and feelings and cultural differences and expectations to come to the point of owning it," Charles says. Fearing that no one would understand, "she basically let [everyone call] her biracial or whatever people put on to her."
In 2010, after a roughly five-year absence, Larry and Ruthanne reappeared in Rachel's life. They had been living in South Africa performing missionary work for about five years with their adopted children, whom Rachel claims were physically abused by Larry and Ruthanne, who she says whipped them. When asked about the abuse, Izaiah says, "It was physiological, emotional, mental." In 2010, at age 16, Izaiah sued Larry and Ruthanne for emancipation. He briefly stayed with his birth mother, but ultimately decided to live with Rachel.
When he moved in with her, Rachel sat him down for a conversation about how they would explain their relationship. Izaiah asked if he could call her "mom," since Rachel had raised him as a small child. "It was also going to be easier at school," Izaiah says. "I got you," Rachel told him. She says Izaiah found Larry and Ruthanne traumatizing, that he wanted to act like he had never been adopted and they had never existed. Rachel agreed to pose as his biological mother because she empathized with him. She also knew the agreement meant should would have to alter her look more often. "I knew, internally, that that also meant I had to monitor my experience a bit more because he's not even mixed," she says. But she thought she was doing what she needed to in order to protect a young man she considered her son.
"Adoption is kind of a bad word for Izaiah," Rachel explains. "It reminds him of Larry and Ruthanne. I got custody of him, and that's his emancipation out of that experience."
Rachel had already started a new alternative family in Idaho. Albert Wilkerson, a middle-aged black man who had served as a delegate for Obama, would give guest lectures to the college classes Rachel taught. "We're so alike in terms of cooking, art, and being creative, being educators," Rachel says. "He kind of recognizes that we didn't have family, me and Franklin." (Franklin went to Kevin's house on the weekends.) They would go to Thanksgiving dinner at Albert's house, and he would take Franklin fishing as "Grandpa Albert." Rachel started calling Albert "dad." He was her "chosen family," but she eventually stopped modifying the term with words like "adopted" or "chosen". He was just family. After Izaiah left for college, Rachel moved to Spokane from Couer D'Alene, where she lived in 2013.
Spokane is a primarily white town, and its police department has a bad reputation for excessive force. In 2011, a federal jury found Officer Karl Thompson guilty of using excessive force on Otto Zehm, a schizophrenic man who died after Thompson beat and restrained him at a convenience store.
Rachel discussed these issues in her classes at Eastern Washington University. Da'mony, a black male student of Rachel's, says he views her as a mentor and advocate for black bodies. Rachel helped the students organize vigils and marches for Black Lives Matter. One day, she says, they made signs of every black man who had been killed by cops across the country and read about their lives. In one of her courses, she taught Brown v. the Board of Education. As an assignment, she then made her students teach the court case to local high school students who were struggling to graduate.
"[She was] basically just being a mentor and guidance counselor way before [black students nominated her as the black student union faculty advisor]," Da'mony says. "She would be the epitome of somebody who would help advise us and guide us the way."
In 2014, Rachel says, a friend nominated her for president of the local chapter of the NAACP, hoping she could help build a movement in the town. The job was unpaid and required long hours, but Rachel decided to run because she wanted to boost activism in the community. When she won, Rachel says, the Spokane chapter only had $16 in the bank. She claims she quadrupled member numbers to 200 people, bringing in more money to the organization through the $35 membership fees. Rachel also moved the office to a building on Main Street, which is downtown and closer to city politics; it's where the Peace and Justice Action League, the public radio station, and the Center for Justice are located. By the time she resigned, Rachel says, they had enough money to pay several months of rent. The national NAACP did not return requests to comment. In an email, Naima Quarles-Burnley, the current president of the NAACP's Spokane chapter, declined to release numbers about Rachel's tenure but confirmed Rachel moved the office downtown.
"With regard to the accomplishments of Ms. Dolezal, she was only President of the Spokane NAACP for five months," Naima says. "While she did bring new ideas and new energy, the record does not support that as a single individual she increased the perceived or actual power or influence of the Spokane NAACP."
As president, Rachel began organizing Black Lives Matter protests and hosting a local video show called Moral Mondays, which aired online. Every Monday, Rachel discussed issues facing the community to raise awareness. Through these videos, DaShawn discovered Rachel. He had grown up in Spokane's dangerous Felony Flats neighborhood, but only learned about the city's NAACP chapter through Rachel's videos. He considered her a revelation, an advocate, he says, for the community.
"In the 'hood, they have family members getting beat up by the police," he says. "They're going to get most of their info from the news, and we know the news is not going to give you everything."
Shortly before taking on the NAACP position, in the same academic year, Rachel applied for another unpaid job: serving on the police ombudsman commission. The city set up the committee to oversee the Spokane Police Department and ensure they followed rules.
"I took it really seriously," Rachel says. She believed there needed to be someone pro-black on the commission.
Taking on the two volunteer positions gave Rachel zero financial gain. Every month, Rachel attended city meetings, rode with cops, and met with Spokane Police Department chief Frank Straub. Their meetings were off the record, but Rachel characterized them as strained. Following Rachel's removal from the commission in the summer of 2015, Mayor David Condon asked Straub to resign. Documents obtained by local news organizations show Condon knew Straub had "grabbed" former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton's "ass" and "tried to kiss her." DaShawn believes the cops wanted Rachel out of city politics, not because of any scandal resulting from her racial identity, but because of her growing influence in the town's black community.
"That woman in her role in the community was so on fire," Dashawn says. "I think she only had those positions for like five or six months, but we could already feel the energy. It was catching so much steam."
In the midst of the improvements in the quality of Rachel's life, a dark cloud began to form around her and her family; it was then that one of Rachel's relatives accused Joshua of molesting her repeatedly as a child "in 2001 or 2002." Joshua faced four felony counts of sexual assault, and Rachel became a witness in the case against her brother. She says the victim came to her and told her what had happened.
Rachel claims her brother had also molested her as a child. She says she confronted Joshua about the family member and told him, "Fuck off, and get the fuck out of her life. I won't ever speak to you again." Rachel believes that her parents outed her to the local Spokane news as a calculated way to discredit her testimony at the impending trial, which was thrown out of court in July. The Clear Creek County prosecutor declined to comment, but Norm Mueller, Joshua's attorney, told the Washington Post, "The prosecutor said he could not prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt."
The day that Rachel's racial identity made the local news happened to be Izaiah's 21st birthday. He heard about it when a friend told him, "Happy birthday. Also, have you seen the news today?"
"No. What happened?" Izaiah asked. "Birthday ruined," Izaiah says. "I never got to do my 21 run, didn't get to do any of that." Instead of birthday wishes, his friends called him and accused him of being a liar, Rachel says. The public's reaction infuriated Izaiah.
"I think everyone who has that nuclear family has the privilege of that, and they can't really see outside it or understand somebody else from a dysfunctional, or 'abnormal,' family, if you will," he says.
Rachel's college friends also despised the media coverage. Siobhan called Rachel and told her she was driving from Las Vegas, where she lives, to Spokane. "I couldn't let her go through something like that by herself," Siobhan says. "So I packed a suitcase, rented a car, and started the 16-hour drive through the Nevada desert. No streetlights, no phone signal, no gas stations, and no other cars. It was a pretty scary drive."
"People in Mississippi know the whole story," Rachel says. "They know how I arrived when I came to Mississippi, how I looked, and they follow me on Facebook and everything. They're like, 'Totally organic process. We know who she is.'"
In Spokane, however, many of Rachel's friends have stopped speaking to her. Rachel says she doesn't blame them, but it's still frustrating. "I feel like my life is the perfect metaphor for race as a social construction because people have been arguing about my race forever. What does it fucking matter?" she says. "I identify as I identify and people love it or hate it. At the end of the day, we are a human race. If we could come back to that point, if we even did away with the boxes on the forms and everything, maybe it would be better for people. Why do we need to keep categorizing people?"
Others, like DaShawn and her college friends, have stuck by her, and believe the community has suffered without her. "Listen: If Wendy Williams is down with Rachel [it's acceptable] because Wendy will cut loose," Dashawn says. "If that's what Caitlyn [Jenner] needs to do, if Rachel wants to do this and she's helping people, then let the woman do what she's doing. Only ones that don't want that to happen are the ones who feel like their status or life or well-being will change."
It would seem that those would be the people she has accused of abuse: the Spokane Police Department, her parents, and her brother.
Franklin wishes people would consider him before they attack Rachel. In the kitchen, he peels slices off an orange and eats them without looking at me. In a red sweater and jeans, he looks like any other teenager, but he tells me he knows he's different.
"It's a lot to take in. I'm already dealing with my own demons," he says. "There are no black kids at school. Being black at my school, I'm expected to do more and be more, do more talking, talk different like I'm from the 'hood, be a stereotype. People expect me to talk like a thug and vape."
"I mean, by the time Langston can even start remembering things, this will probably be all dead and done. But I'm going to always have to come back on this [as an adult]," he says. "People don't realize that."
Just like she has throughout her life, to cope, Rachel has turned to art. She draws with pastels in her kitchen, but also keeps a studio in her basement next to Franklin's bedroom. A gray sculpture of a bust she has been finishing rests on a white table, and framed prints of previous pieces line the floor. Her favorite is a collage of a house. The doors are closed, but one door is open, and a solo woman walks through the light.
"It's more autobiographical," she says. "One door open leads to the whole universal...I was my own personal Jesus. I was able to trust my own intuition. I was the only person standing up for myself. In the absence of anyone doing that, I've learned to love myself and trust myself and do what I feel is right. A lot of that has to do with shedding the guilt. Oppression, repression, depression—they are not helpful to me. [Independence] happened with freeing myself of organized religion. That was a driving force in a lot of those energies."
In October, a few weeks before I travel to Spokane, I get dinner with Franklin and Rachel at Granville Cafe in Burbank, CA, a few miles outside Los Angeles. Franklin rests his head on the table most of dinner, while Rachel eats mac and cheese. She's in town for an interview on The Real, a panel talk show—similar in format to The View or The Talk—whose members are all women of color. We're meeting the night before the interview. Rachel is so broke, she wears the same lace-front wig and blue dress to dinner as she wears on the daytime program because she can't afford two interview dresses. Only tabloid-type companies have offered her work, she says, but she wants to return to teaching and activism.
"I do have a high level of commitment and integrity to the cause," Rachel says. "Maybe there's something internationally I could do with human rights."
She has hope. In September, Malcolm X's daughter, Ambassador Shabazz, invited her to appear at a United Nations panel for the International Day of the Girl, and Rachel believes The Real will turn her reputation around. She says they promised to be fair and even to discuss her art.
But it didn't go very well at all. The women on the show attacked Rachel, with no warning. Host Loni Love asked Rachel, "Are you ashamed of being white?" and Rachel's name began to trend on Twitter again for all the wrong reasons. She was surprised and disappointed by her treatment on the show, but maintained a sense of humor about it. "My lace-front wig was better than Loni's," Rachel jokes.
However, the episode upset both DaShawn, and Charles.
"[Her identity is] a real thing for her—in the same way someone that's transgender is wrestling with not fitting in with the skin they were born into," Charles says. "I was really angered, frustrated, and saddened to see the way that people and the mass media projected all these assumptions about her motives. They were really not in line with what her motives really are."
After dinner, I drive Rachel and Franklin to their hotel. Franklin runs upstairs to play video games, but Rachel sits in my car in the parking lot for nearly an hour. She puts her hand on her forehead and looks out the window. Garbage's "Queer" blasts from my stereo; the song seems appropriate. Rachel tells me about a Black Lens News op-ed that compared her outing to a "digital lynching," and looks like she's about to burst into tears. She turns to me.
"Is there a place in the world where I can be me? Is there a place for me here? Are my kids better having me here?" Rachel asks me. She pauses and looks out the window and then turns back to me. "I want to be able to be free to be me," she says. "Don't we have the right to be 100 percent who we are?"
It's a rhetorical question.