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Rachel Dolezal breaks her silence on TODAY: 'I identify as black'

Rachel Dolezal, the ex-NAACP chapter president who was accused of pretending to be black, speaks to Matt Lauer in an exclusive interview.
/ Source: TODAY

Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP chapter president accused of pretending to be black, tells TODAY's Matt Lauer in an exclusive live interview that she identifies as black — something she started doing at the age of five.

“I was drawing self-portraits with the brown crayon instead of the peach crayon, and black curly hair,” she told Lauer. But she insisted she never deceived anyone as numerous critics have suggested.

"I do take exception to that because it’s a little more complex than me identifying as black or answering a question of, are you black or white?" she said.

But given the fallout she has experienced since the controversy erupted last week, Dolezal said she would make the same choices if she had the chance.

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

Dolezal defended her identification as an African American against comparisons to putting on blackface, as some in her family have suggested, as well as many on social media.

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

When asked about the changes in her physical appearance and whether she darkened her appearance, Dolezal responded: "I certainly don’t stay out of the sun."

Dolezal's interview came less than a day after she resigned Monday from her position as president of the NAACP's Spokane, Washington, chapter amid the controversy surrounding her and claims she made about her race and upbringing.

The firestorm began last week after her white parents confirmed that Dolezal, 37, was their estranged daughter, whom they had not seen in years.

Her parents told TODAY that their daughter pretended to be black, claimed to be born in a teepee and made other false claims possibly as a way to “damage her biological family.”

The couple also insisted they never planned to publicly shame their daughter but when a newspaper contacted them last week to confirm Rachel was their daughter, “we weren't going to lie, we told the truth,” Lawrence Dolezal said. “Rachel is our birth daughter."

He and Ruthanne Dolezal, who are both white, are listed as the parents of Rachel Dolezal on her Montana birth certificate.

"I really don’t see why they’re in such a rush to whitewash some of the work that I have done and who I am and how I have identified," Rachel Dolezal said of her parents.

Dolezal said others first identified her as "transracial" in articles about her human rights work. She was then described as biracial and, later, as being "a black woman," but she never corrected any of the descriptions.

“There are probably a couple of interviews that I would do differently if circumstances, in retrospect, I knew what I know now," she said. "But overall, my life has been one of survival and the decisions that I have made along the way, including my identification, have been to survive and to carry forward in my journey and life continuum."

Rachel Dolezal.
Rachel Dolezal.TODAY

Rachel Dolezal’s race was questioned nationally after the veracity of a claim she made about being a recent hate crime victim was challenged. She also identified herself as multiracial on an application to join a police oversight commission in Spokane.

She said she truly began identifying as black when she received custody of one of her brothers, Izaiah, who she now considers a son.

"He said, 'You're my real mom.' And he’s in high school, and for that to be something that is plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and be Izaiah's mom," she said.

Rachel Dolezal and her sons.
Rachel Dolezal and her sons before her live interview with Matt Lauer.Anthony Quintano / TODAY

Dolezal also defended her decision to claim that Albert Wilkerson, a black man, is her father but said it was not to enhance her credentials as a civil rights advocate.

"We connected on an intimate level as family," she said. "Albert Wilkerson is my dad. Any man can be a father. Not every man can be a dad."

Dolezal said her two sons, who sat nearby during her interview, have supported the way she identifies herself.

“I was actually talking to one of my sons yesterday and he said, ‘Mom, racially, you’re human, and culturally you’re black,’” she said. “We’ve had these conversations over the years. I do know they support the way that I identify and they support me, and ultimately, we have each other’s back. We’re the Three Musketeers.”

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Twitter.