But regardless of her race, Dolezal has been many other things as well: a civil rights leader, a teacher, an artist, a hair stylist and a mother.
"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," she told NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday.
The Lincoln County, Montana, birth certificate provided by her parents says Rachel Anne Dolezal was born on November 12, 1977. Her parents are listed as Ruthanne and Lawrence Dolezal, both of whom are white.
That means Rachel Dolezal is white, correct? Not if you ask her.
While it's not been corroborated, she claimed on NBC that "there were no medical witnesses to my birth" and pointed out the discrepancy between the time of her birth and when her birth certificate was filed, seven weeks later.
"I haven't had a DNA test," she added. "There's been no biological proof that Larry and Ruthanne are my biological parents."
She's also reportedly claimed to have been born in a teepee, an assertion her adopted brother Ezra Dolezal -- who said his parents lived in a teepee for a month, but not when Rachel was born -- dismissed as a lie.
And her parents also find the idea that somehow she's not their biological child, and thus not white, to be deceptive and ridiculous.
"We are her birth parents," Larry Dolezal told CNN last week. "We do not understand why she feels it's necessary to misrepresent her ethnicity."
The early years
Rachel Dolezal doesn't deny that Ruthanne and Larry raised her in Montana, where the couple still lives. And her parents have said she was raised in an evangelical Christian household. What's in dispute is her feelings and actions growing up, especially as they relate to her racial identity.
She told NBC's Matt Lauer that, when she was 5, she drew her self-portraits in brown rather than peach crayon and made herself have curly, black hair rather than the straight, blonde locks she sported at the time.
In other words, Rachel Dolezal claims to have seen herself as black rather than white from an early age -- so identifying now as black means she's being true to herself, not trying to pretend to be something that she's not.
Still, she said her path has been made harder from having been "socially conditioned (to) be limited to whatever biological identity was thrust upon me."
"I felt very isolated with my identity virtually my entire life, that nobody really got it and that I really didn't have the personal agency to express it," she said. "I kind of imagined that maybe at some point (I'd have to) own it publicly and discuss this kind of complexity. (But) I wasn't expecting it to be thrust upon me right now."
Her parents don't buy it. While the family had friends of various ethnicities and encouraged diversity, they say that doesn't mean Rachel Dolezal was constrained or saw herself as anything but white.
"She did not ever refer to herself or draw pictures (like the described self-portraits) or do anything that indicated she thought she was black," said Ruthanne Dolezal.
According to Dolezal's LinkedIn page
, she graduated magna cum laude from Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi.
While there, she says she petitioned for the first annual celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and developed the first African-American history course on campus. Dolezal also says she tutored kids and taught drawing.
From Mississippi, she moved to Washington D.C. to attend Howard University.
Rachel didn't identify herself as black on her Howard application, because there was no such option. But people there may have assumed as much "because her portfolio of art was all African-American portraiture," her mother Ruthanne said.
She ended up graduating with a Master of Fine Arts degree. But her time at the historically black college wasn't all smooth.
In fact, she sued Howard for discrimination (against her, as a white woman) in 2002, which would have been about the time her biological son Franklin was born. Specifically, she alleged that the decision to remove some of her artwork from a student exhibition was motivated by a discriminatory desire to favor black students over her.
That lawsuit was dismissed.
And on Monday, Howard spokeswoman Rachel Mann said the school considers the case closed and declined further comment.
Dolezal has held a variety of positions since graduating. Her LinkedIn page says she was the director of education for the Human Rights Education Institute in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. She was also an adjunct professor at North Idaho College there.
Dolezal describes herself as an artist, model, ethnic hair stylist and piano teacher. She shows off some of her work on her blog
In 2007, Dolezal writes that she began teaching at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington. She no longer works there; her part-time stint ended on June 12, as scheduled, school spokesman David Meany said. That's around the same time the story broke.
Just last week, the school's website featured a profile of her as a faculty member. But that's since been taken down.
She also is no longer the president of Spokane's NAACP chapter, a post to which she was elected last year. She resigned from that position Monday.
When the controversy surfaced, other figures in the civil rights organization stood by Dolezal. Gerald Hankerson -- the NAACP president for a region including Alaska, Washington and Oregon -- pointed out that leadership is based on a person's actions, not their genealogy.
"We represent all civil rights issues, regardless of a person's ethnicity. And the quality of the work that she has done to elevate the issues of civil rights in that region is what we applaud," Hankerson told CNN.
Yet the NAACP appeared to change its tune as the controversy dragged on. Talking on CNN, NAACP President Cornell Brooks called the ordeal
"a distraction" that has left many "very disappointed."
"What matters most to us is our credibility, our integrity," Brooks said. "So to have anything that detracts from that, or that impugns our integrity is painful and, for many of us, offensive as well."
It's not clear what's next for Dolezal, but in her resignation letter, she insisted she's still an activist.
"I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me. It's about justice," she wrote. "This is not me quitting; this is a continuum."
In addition to her paid work, Dolezal served as chair of the volunteer citizen Police Ombudsman Commission in Spokane.
The commission is meant to provide independent citizen oversight of the Police Department.
In May, the city of Spokane hired a law firm to investigate a whistleblower complaint filed against Dolezal and two others, alleging workplace harassment and improper government action.
The investigation found that the three ombudsman commissioners acted inappropriately. Specifically, it found that they created a negative work environment, attempted to draft and adopt policies before a new ombudsman was seated, pushed for evaluations of staff before that ombudsman could be seated and instituted a policy of altering meeting minutes.
"We are deeply disturbed by the facts contained in the report of findings from the independent investigator," Spokane Mayor David Condon and Council President Ben Stuckart said in a joint statement Wednesday. "The conduct is unacceptable and falls far short of the community's expectations of volunteers who sit on City boards and commissions."
Later, the mayor asked for the resignations of Dolezal and the other two commissioners.
Lawsuits and criminal allegations
There's no indication that Rachel Dolezal herself has ever had significant trouble with the law. But she has made numerous allegations that she's been a victim -- though none have led, at least so far, to any arrests or convictions.
The dismissed Howard lawsuit appears to be her first foray into the legal system, but hardly her last.
Dolezal claimed several times to have been harassed because of her race and activism in Spokane.
In September 2009, she told Spokane police she found a noose on her front porch a few days after her house was burglarized, according to a police report. Dolezal said she had numerous problems with the Aryan Nation and other hate groups because of her job and "biracial heritage," the report said, alleging that she was "approached by three skinheads" in one month at her job at the Human Rights Institute in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
"I spent a lot of time in Mississippi so when I saw that rope, I knew what it was," she said in an article in the Coeur d'Alene Press.
In February, she reported finding an unnerving letter in the post office box for the NAACP. The police report said the envelope contained copies of news articles, prints of old photos of lynching victims and quotes about socialism and the New World Order.
The letter contained no direct threats against Dolezal or the NAACP, police said.
Spokane police also investigated an April incident in which a man and woman came into Dolezal's house when only her son was home. The son did not indicate they were threatening, describing them as "normal, middle-class, white people" who "looked confused," according to a police report.
"Dolezal did express concern that this was the third incident, the other two were unrelated ..., that had occurred while she was not at the residence," added the report.
Police haven't made arrests in any of these cases.
Pictures of Rachel Dolezal growing up show a fair-skinned blonde. Today, you see a woman with a darker complexion and curly brown hair.
"It's kind of a slap in the face to African-Americans because she doesn't know what it's like to be black," said Ezra, whose biological mother is white and whose father is partly black. "She's only been African-American when it benefited her. She hasn't been through all the struggles. She's only been African-American the last few years."
Yet Rachel Dolezal contends that she has "a huge issue with blackface," which is the darkening of one's skin to appear black that is widely viewed as offensive, and "actually had to go there with the experience, not just a visual representation."
"I certainly don't stay out of the sun," she told NBC. "I also don't ... put on blackface as a performance."
Dolezal later addressed questions about the color of her skin, saying its hue "depends on the season" and that the most she'd do is use bronzer occasionally. She denied having any surgeries, taking any melanin shots or doing any other "experiments with transforming into a darker skin person."
"Even the word 'disguise' has been put out there, but it just sounds very intentional and deceitful," Dolezal said. "I just want to feel beautiful, and this is how I feel beautiful."
Dolezal has a dad, but it isn't Larry Dolezal. She uses that term to describe another man -- a black man-- she grew close to as an adult in northern Idaho.
"Any man can be a father," she told NBC. "Not every man can be a dad."
Larry and Ruthanne Dolezal have at least one other biological son, according to reports. They also adopted four children, three of whom are African-American while the other is from Haiti, according to Larry Dolezal.
Ezra -- who came into the family at 3 months old, at which point Rachel was 15 years old -- remembers his adopted sister as being good at art and encouraging.
"Now, it is a little different because I haven't really talked to her for a while," he acknowledged.
Rachel and the rest of her family appeared to start drifting apart in the mid-to-late 2000s, after she'd left home and as she came to increasingly associate herself with black culture. And the distance increased in 2010, when her adopted brother sought emancipation from Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal in 2010, according to court documents.
That adopted brother -- Izaiah, now 21 -- wanted to live with Rachel Dolezal "in a multiracial household where black culture is celebrated and I have a connection to the black community," the documents said.
The petition for emancipation was dropped. In a separate legal action in 2010, the court appointed Rachel Dolezal to be the adopted brother's guardian with the consent of Ruthanne and Larry Dolezal.
Rachel Dolezal contends she has the full support of Izaiah and her 13-year-old biological son Franklin, saying one of them recently told her, "'Mom, racially you're human and culturally you're black.'"
Franklin expressed his sentiments in an interview with NBC.
"I always felt like she deserved more, she deserved to be known (worldwide) but not like this -- not as a liar, deceiver," the boy said. "She should be known as a hero."