When Rachel Dolezal Attended Howard University, She Was Still White

Illustration for article titled When Rachel Dolezal Attended Howard University, She Was Still White

It’s the day after Rachel Dolezal blew up Twitter and thoroughly confused people. Who was this white woman pretending to be black, we all wondered, so black she became the president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP? Where did she come from? Well, she came, in part, from the historically black Howard University.


Dolezal graduated from Howard with her Masters in Fine Art in 2002 alongside an administration source at the university who spoke to Jezebel on Friday under the condition of anonymity. When I called the school to confirm Dolezal had attended and graduated from the predominantly African American institution, the man who answered the phone had no idea about the social media firestorm Dolezal had ignited but he remembered her name.

“I know her and I remember her husband who went to medical school here,” he told Jezebel after he confirmed her graduation date over the phone. “All of her time has been controversial here, like when she presented her thesis.”

Dolezal’s final thesis was a series of paintings presented from the perspective of a black man and the late Dean Tritobia Benjamin, a formidable scholar whose specialty was black women in the arts, wanted to know how Dolezal felt qualified to tell this type of story as a white woman.

“Her thesis presented an inner journey of what goes on inside the mind of a black male,” he said. “This was ten years ago but I still remember one was a three dimensional piece of a man was being consumed by a fire all the way into the ground. The rest of her work were two dimensional paintings.”

Dolezal’s reverse passing—new term! new term!—would not have been tolerated at Howard, says our source along with another Howard graduate named Shannon Washington, who took a class with Dolezal in the early aughts. Besides, Dolezal looked white back then.

“She had straight, blonde hair,” he said.

“She didn’t look the way she looks now at all in school, that’s why when I initially saw the story I didn’t recognize her!” Washington told Jezebel. “She looks about three shades darker.”


While at Howard, Washington took an experimental studio course with Dolezal who was an MFA student-teacher at that time.

“She was a good teacher and never came off as ‘trying’ to be black to me,” said Washington. “She was Rachel, a white woman who could paint really well. She painted Black people but, being at Howard, I saw it as her painting the world around her. No one asked about her ethnicity because we didn’t need to. No one assumed she was black.”


Contact the author at hillary@jezebel.com.

Image via AP.