Rachel Dolezal, a US civil rights leader who was unmasked last week as a white woman, has appeared on NBC's Today Show to set the record straight about her race.

"I don't put on blackface as a performance," Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Washington, branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told interviewer Matt Lauer. "I identify as black," she said.

Dolezal said that she knew that "at some point I would need to address the complexity of my identity", but added "the timing of it was a shock".

She was taken by surprise last week when her birth parents gave an interview to KREM 2, a local CBS-affiliated TV station in her city. There, they revealed that she has been posing as a black person.

In her role as a civil rights spokesperson Dolezal said she gave interviews to newspapers who identified her as black but that she never corrected them. Although much of the controversy lay in the fact that she has claimed to have been the victim of hate speech and accepted paid speaking gigs where she represented herself as a black woman, sharing her experience growing up black.

In 2002 Dolezal also sued Howard University, a traditionally majority black college where she was working as a professor, for discriminating against her as a white woman.

Dolezal stepped down from her role with the NAACP on 15 June. In a Facebook message she wrote that she was resigning because the focus of her work had become more about her identity than the inequalities African Americans face in society.

Asked by Lauer if she would make the same choices, she said: "There are a couple interviews I would have done differently."