3. Statement of Purpose
Research on race and racial policy lacks depth and validity if the researcher ignores the tangled relationship between race and class in American society. Race and class intersect in such a way that examining one without the other ignores the social, political, and historical context. In addition, examining identity development without consideration of the effects of race and class also ignores the context in which that development is occurring. McFarlane [6
] called race and class “overlapping categories of identity that lead to significant, yet often unacknowledged, differences in material conditions and life opportunities” (p. 163). If race, class, and identity are so interconnected, why is it that research on the effects of class on racial identity development is limited, at best?
Sociologists have often used an intersectional approach to study the growth of the Black middle class. This Black middle class, and more affluent Blacks, often use money to purchase homes in wealthy white suburbs in the ‘best’ school districts. McFarlane [6
] argues that “through their wallets and educational or professional attainments they gain access to some of the privileges, goods, and services formerly reserved exclusively for Whites” (p. 165). This rise of the Black middle class has developed generations of Black children who have been raised with the privileges that money has afforded them. However, McFarlane [6
] refers to this Black middle class as “operatively White” because their “access is contingent and sometimes unpredictable” (p. 165). While middle-class and affluent Blacks can receive the privileges money can buy, like the highest performing schools and comfortable housing, they cannot escape the effects of large-scale institutional racism, nor racism on the individual level, (e.g., racial profiling by police officers). Generally, the Black middle class, then, still identifies with being Black in America.
If identity were created through one’s personality, belief systems, personal experiences, and more, it would follow that one’s racial identity is created through how a person identifies themselves in racial terms. Helms [7
] states that “racial identity actually refers to a sense of group or collective identity based on one’s perception that he or she shares a common racial heritage with a particular group” (p. 3). Black racial identity is identifying oneself as Black, sharing racial heritage, culture, and physical attributes as African Americans. Research on Black identity, or the Black experience, has often focused on the experience of inner-city Blacks living in poverty. McFarlane [6
] noted that often the Black experience “is equated with poverty” (p. 164). How, then, does a Black child raised in the world of white privilege develop a Black identity?
Since the popular research focus of Black identity is on Blacks with low socioeconomic status, much has been written about the so-called culture of poverty
. Focusing on a group identity that develops at the intersection of race and class, the culture of poverty refers to the perceived and stereotypical traditions and values of the poor. The term was coined by Oscar Lewis in 1959 [8
]. Lewis, who researched poverty in Mexico, claimed to notice a subculture of people living in poverty. Moynihan [9
], concerned with the plight of Black society, described the culture of poverty as a “tangle of pathology” created by centuries of injustices that resulted in “deep-seated structural distortions in the life of the Negro American” (p. 10). Moynihan’s [9
] tangled pathology
included perceived stereotypes like female-headed households, delinquency, and crime. He concluded that poverty and racism have created a culture of welfare dependency and a breakdown in family structure. He contended that generations of children raised in the culture of poverty (rather than in the culture of racism) create more generations raised with the same, again so-called, values and traditions. Following Moynihan’s beliefs is the idea that this culture of poverty is fundamental in shaping the racial identity of working class and working poor Blacks. How does Black identity being associated to the culture of poverty (rather than the culture of racism) affect the identity development of middle-class Blacks?
While there has been interest in longitudinal studies of individuals’ racial identity development in order to document change over time [10
], there has not been research on how the racial identity development of affluent African Americans may be affected by the stereotyped and highly documented culture of poverty. Cross [13
] stated that the purpose for studying Black identity is “to clarify and expand the discourse on Blackness by paying attention to the variability and diversity of Blackness” (p. 223). Included in Black diversity are socioeconomic differences. Although Cross’ Black Racial Identity Development (BRID) model has been tested and studied extensively, no study has been conducted using social class as a predictor. Does a person’s social class effect the development of their racial identity?
Someone interviewing me for a fellowship once called me exhausting; this is ironic because both my personality and energy level are extremely laid back! I have been accused of being unemotional, reserved, unapproachable, aloof, but exhausting was never a word anyone had used to describe me before that interview. The interviewer and I were simply chatting about my life and work experiences that led me to what I believe about education, diversity, and equity, among other similar topics. That’s when she called me exhausting! The crazy part for me was that she knew less than a quarter of my story, and she already called me exhausting! I thought, “Lady, if you only knew!” To begin this reflective piece, I asked myself two main research questions: (1) How did I develop my Black identity as a transracial adoptee living at the intersection of race and class; and, (2) What was my journey towards my present state of racial self-acceptance and understanding? I also asked myself three ancillary research questions: (a) How did social and societal factors influence my racial identity development? (b) How did I build a support network or personal and professional community? and, (c) How was I able to get to a place near self-love?
My journey from transracial adoptee to self-acceptance as a mature adult was long, and at times, difficult. I found myself in a constant state of ‘otherness,’ not really fitting in anywhere. I was exposed to a different side of discrimination and racism as a pseudo insider. As I discussed in my cultural self-analysis paper, I was ‘white by association,’ and, thus, I was privy to a view of discrimination that most minoritized individuals do not ever see. Because of this precarious situation, I was forced to devise strategies to cope as I navigated my space in the world.
As I analyzed the data I collected and created, I noted that the main four themes that emerged in my self-reflections paralleled that arose in my original dissertation research. In addition to examining these themes, I noticed that my process of nigrescence, based on Cross’ [13
] theory of Black racial identity development, could be chronicled as it was for the participants in my original doctoral research [33
The first theme from my self-reflection involved intersectionality. Race and class, and all the ramifications of the intersection of the two, hung over me from birth. However, it was the specific ways in which elitism, racism, and discrimination were purposefully illuminated to me by my adoptive mother from a very young age that led to my intersectional awareness of inequity and discrimination. Ironically, perhaps, mother referred to this awareness as “calling a spade a spade.”. She pointed out the isms, how people were attempting to use them to define or restrict me, and the negative messages about myself and my race that came with the isms that I should not buy into. Because of this socialization, ‘being woke’ became a way of life for me long before it was a catch phrase. This theme parallels my dissertation work in which the respondents reported experiencing tokenism daily as a result of working at the intersection of race (being Black at predominantly white institutions) and the culture of poverty stereotype associated with being Black assumed by whites in the affluent communities in which they worked.
The second theme involved the absolute belief in the power of knowledge and, thus, my never-ending pursuit of it. My parents instilled this in me through education and I have carried it out by adopting lifelong learning as a core value. My mother said that isms are born out of ignorance, thus I made it my mission to counter them with education. This paralleled part of the second theme in my dissertation in which my participants all reported feeling the need to overperform professionally and educationally.
The third theme emerges from the limited opportunity I had to connect with people older than me within and outside my family, the result of life circumstances (which I discuss further in a moment). Due to this lack of experience and exposure, I did not gain knowledge and guidance, or even comfort, from my elders. Instead, I developed an intricate web of a support group of peers. This forced me to look within people to see what I could learn from them, and to be deliberate when considering what role/use a person had in my life. The participants in my dissertation study all also developed a specific support network of folks who they could lean on. This support network was vital to their ability to be successful and continue their work in an environment where they were often the only minoritized person in any given room.
Finally, the fourth theme that emerged during my self-reflection was one of ‘otherness.’ I was different from my family, from my classmates, from other African Americans. There was no way around this fact. My transracial adoption and life experiences made it so. I developed a niche of playing to my difference as strength and a thing that made me relevant and a ‘cultural shape shifter’ of sorts. Similarly, my dissertation participants all described the need to create a personal mission within their professional lives. This enabled them to find comfort in their difference, making their jobs about a greater cause. I have come to refer to this difference as “my calling,’ and it was born out of my need to use my ‘otherness’ to carve out a niche professionally.
These four themes can be considered the coping mechanisms by which I developed a Black racial identity through my life, lived at the intersection of race and class, which ultimately lead me to my current state of self-acceptance and purpose. These themes will now be further examined over seven periods of my life that represent different stages of my development and which correspond with the identity charts. I label these life periods: (1) Elementary school, (2) middle school, (3) high school, (4) college, (5) neo-professional, (6) professional, and, (7) my current state of reaching self-acceptance.
As I mention in the introduction, I was transracially adopted by a white family in 1971. I was the youngest of four children, the other three all biological to my adoptive parents, and consequently, all white. My parents had plans to adopt another Black child after me but were blocked by the NABSW; but they had the right instinct in this regard. They knew that it would be difficult for me to be the only minoritized person in my family; however, my mother truly believed that she could nurture me in a way that would compensate for my minoritized status. We, as a family, set off on an experiment of race and class called ‘my life.’ My dad was a college professor who was dedicated to teaching and did not want to publish. That meant that every three to five years, when it was time to perish or publish, we would move. The first move that I can remember, and that had a significant effect on my identity development, was our move to Egypt in 1977. My mother was a secondary English teacher primarily working in predominantly white and affluent private schools, and the general rule was that we attended school wherever she worked. We all attended a private American school with many “expatriates” from all over the world. (It is ironic how white Americans are called expatriates in other countries, but especially People of Color living in the United States are called “immigrants.”.) I remember feeling very American during the three years we lived in Egypt. I held everything American in high esteem: 1970s television shows like, The Love Boat
and Fantasy Island
, McDonald’s restaurants, and Nestle’s crisps bars. I was so tied to being an American that I complained every summer when we couldn’t afford plane tickets to go back to the States like my school friends did. They always came back to Egypt with the best snacks! Instead, my family backpacked through Europe, and spent months on the beaches in Greece. While I am now so thankful for those experiences, at the time I felt so deprived! Additionally because the school was so culturally diverse, I don’t ever remember feeling different around my friends. However, I do remember the very first time that I recognized that others saw me as different from my family. We were on a bus tour to the pyramids and, as I got off the bus, a Nubian woman grabbed me. She must have thought I was a stow away bothering the American tourists! My mother jumped to my defense, and later explained the mistake to me. It would be one of many conversations that we would have about race and others’ feelings about my race and my place in our family. Cross [13
] would describe my identity during this period as Pre-encounter
. This is the identity that will be changed by “encounters.”.
9.1. Becoming ‘Woke’
“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”
—James Thurber [38
] (para. 1)
We left Egypt in 1980 and moved to Miami, Florida. My oldest brother had graduated high school in Egypt and was off to Georgetown after a gap year traveling with friends in Europe. My mom got a job at a prestigious school in an affluent suburb of Miami, and my siblings and I were enrolled in school there. While the socioeconomics of the school in Egypt and the one in Miami were very similar, the diversity was not. For the first few years I was the only Black person in my grade. Eventually, a girl who was mixed (Black and white), but who identified mostly as white, and a Hattian girl joined my grade, but I was still the only African American in my grade. My friends were not only predominantly white, but also lived much different lives than me. They lived in large houses, vacationed at Club Med, wore designer jeans, and were members of elite country clubs. This country club membership became a constant theme of inequity for me as a middle schooler. It began with an innocent invitation to go swimming. One of my closest friends casually invited me to go with her to the pool at her family’s club. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me as I had been swimming at a few embassies in Egypt. I went home and told my mom. Later that night my mom sat me down and told me that I had been uninvited to swim because the country club was segregated and did not allow Blacks to swim there. She continued by saying that my friend was welcome at our house any time, but that I would no longer be allowed to go to her house as long as her parents were members at a club that discriminated against people based solely on the color of their skin. My mom was great that way. She always called other people’s racism out to me and explained to me that it said something about their character, but it meant nothing to mine. I attended countless Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and, when I did, my mom always noted that I was a trailblazer as I was often the first Black person to attend a party at some of the venues where they were held.
Ironically, as I matured, I realized that my mom also held some prejudiced views, mainly related to race and class. She often spoke negatively about friends of mine who spoke with “broken English.”. When my ex-husband’s coat was stolen from his car at a mall, my mom asked my friend who lived in housing projects to “keep an eye out” for the coat in his neighborhood. Once, in a heated argument, my mom told me that when she adopted me she had believed in nurture over nature, but that maybe she was wrong. I never asked her to explain, but I understood her to mean that she was not able to keep me from “becoming Black.”. This experience marks my movement into the Encounter stage in the Cross model. It was at that moment that I realized there was more to my identity than I was aware. While my mom raised me to acknowledge racism when I saw it, that argument changed how I saw my mom, which, in turn, allowed me to break free from her to explore my identity as a Black woman. My mom made it a point to always acknowledge my race, but not my racial identity. She saw educated, affluent, successful Black people simply as ‘darker white folks;’ no different from her in any way other than skin color.
In Miami, I began dating a Black Jamaican boy and, in integrating into his family, I realized that there was a culture that I had not been privy to, and I wanted more. In 1985 we moved to a suburb of Baltimore, Maryland. I was the only child left at home. My mom gave me the opportunity to either go to the local public high school or to enroll in the private all-girls Catholic school where she would be teaching. I chose to enroll in public school because I wanted to be around other Black students for the first time in my life. This decision marks my entrance into Cross’s Immersion-Emersion. During high school my friends were predominantly Black, I listened exclusively to R&B and rap music, I learned to codeswitch to urban slang, and I changed my style of dress to represent the youth culture to which I was adapting. However, while I was beginning to develop a Black identity, I was also introduced to inequity in education in a shocking way.
9.2. Becoming a Lifelong Learner
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
—John Dewey [39
] (p. 239)
As earlier discussed, education was always a priority in my family; my siblings and I attended rigorous private schools, my mom was an educator with a master’s degree, and my dad was a professor with a doctorate. When I entered ninth grade, I had two siblings at Georgetown University, and one at Johns Hopkins University. I always believed that I was smart and entitled to a top-notch education. The day that we enrolled in the local public school my mom came loaded with my previous coursework that included Latin, French, and Algebra 1, all in middle school. She insisted that I be put in the most rigorous courses. I was excited for public school, and a more diverse experience, but what I found was inequity, institutional racism, and segregation. I was the only African American in my honors classes. I met Black friends in choir, gym, and lunch, but they were not in any of my core courses. I know that these friends were at least as smart as me, if not smarter, and I could not understand why they were not afforded the same course opportunities as me. The only difference I could see between them and me was that most of them were economically disadvantaged, whereas the white students and I were predominantly affluent. It was my first introduction to educational inequity, and the intersection of race and class in the educational setting. I only attended that school for one year. My parents moved to a truly integrated community the next year, and I completed high school there. However, this experience in my freshman year stuck with me. It ultimately motivated me to dedicate my career to creating diverse, rigorous education experiences that are equitable and, most importantly, accessible to all students, especially Black students. It made me cherish education and seek it out at all costs for myself and for my children. It made me vow to never stop learning because it is a privilege that is not distributed evenly in our country.
Although the quality of my public school experience got better after my freshman year in high school, I still was unable to link my educational persona to my cultural persona. I did not have any Teachers of Color during my entire K-12 experience, thus my peers were my cultural guides; I did not have, and had never had, any mentors nor any adult role models.
9.3. Establishing a ‘Band of Brothers and Sisters’
“Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction.”
—John C. Crosby [40
] (para. 1)
As I entered college, majored in African American studies and sociology, and joined the Black Student Union, I entered what Cross calls Internalization. During college my friends were exclusively Black and they were my world. At this point I did not feel like my adoptive family knew me at all. My mom dismissed everything culturally Black about me, and my siblings, who had not lived with me since I was a middle schooler, seemed distant. I developed a support group of Black friends from whom I learned everything about how to navigate the world. Since we had moved around so much and I didn’t have any adult role models, my support group consisted of friends around my age. I learned quickly how to form a supportive circle that was tight-knit and met my emotional and cultural needs. It was not until forming my dissertation committee that I had my first true mentor.
I remained in Internalization for most of my young adult life. I surrounded myself with people who were pro-Black within the educational community. I was an independent school diversity coordinator and I conducted workshops on diversity within private schools. I served on national diversity committees and immersed myself in the Black private school community. However, my second international experience made me look at who I was and who I wanted to be, and ultimately is responsible for bringing me through Internalization and to what I call self-acceptance.
While working as a school administrator, I took two classes in pursuit of a doctorate program. Then, I married an African American man who was a United States Air Force officer and moved to Japan. I gave up the job and school and immediately became “the spouse.”. As a military spouse your identity is consumed by your spouses’ rank and job. The first thing anyone on base asks you is, “What rank is your husband, and what does he do?” I was an accomplished professional with a graduate degree, but, instantaneously, felt like I didn’t matter. Since we lived on base in a small fishing village in Japan, my life soon came to revolve around my husband, then my children, and “pampered chef parties.”. I was expected to associate exclusively with other officers’ wives; not surprisingly, perhaps, there are far fewer Black officers than white. Still, I embraced this role for the eighteen months that we lived in Japan and was able to form friendships with women of all colors. We bonded over lunches, our children, and our shared perceived loss of identity as “wives.”. Ironically, this is when I began to look at myself as more than a Black woman—confined to race and gender. It was the first time in my adult life when I was seen first as a spouse, a mom, a friend, and my race especially seemed to be almost a non-factor. Similar to my early days in Egypt, our shared American identity bonded us. When we returned to the United States, I had a stronger sense of my whole identity. I began working in educational leadership and learned to find allies of all races who were aligned with my core values.
Professionally, my core value is “whatever is in the best interest of children.”. I began to look at equity through the lens of intersectionality: Equity works best when all students, across race, class, other dimensions social identity, past personal experiences, among many other characteristics have access to rigorous education that meets their diverse needs. In order to attain this lofty goal, I embrace everyone and anyone who shares this belief. I spent many years in Maryland and San Antonio developing a supportive peer network, while honing my leadership skills and creating my professional identity.
9.4. Play to My Differences
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
—Dolly Parton [41
] (para. 1)
In 2009, the military moved us to Las Vegas, Nevada. My children were now all school-aged, so I decided to enroll in a doctorate program full-time. I knew that I wanted to focus my research on my experiences. I chose to focus all of my research on the experiences of Black teachers working in predominantly white and affluent private schools. I wanted to find out if my experiences of tokenism were universal for Black teachers. I wanted to better understand how Black people in predominantly white environments maintain and develop their racial identity. I wanted to see what coping mechanisms Black teachers used in order to be successful in an environment where they were ‘the only one.’ I recognized that my unique experiences, my otherness, afforded me a lens to examine racial identity development and class in a way that has mostly been ignored.
I have found that when I ‘lean in’ to what makes me different, I discover what makes me relevant. It is my experiences as ‘other’ that make me relatable to almost anyone. In addition, embracing my identity and experiences in this way allows me to not only be relatable, but it allows me to relate and connect in a way that I had not previously. It was at this point in my life that I was able to bond with my first true mentor. I was able to look at someone who was experienced and accomplished and truly see through her eyes that she truly saw me and understood me. As a result of her support and guidance, I was able to understand my path and my ‘calling.’
As a child I used my ‘otherness’ to gain certain privileges. In eighth grade I was the only middle schooler allowed to run track with high school. I was a really good athlete, but I was also, coincidentally, the only Black person in eighth grade at my school. I believe, but cannot prove, that some stereotypes about athletic prowess motivated the coach to ask for me. I did not have any standing times or running résumé as the school did not have a middle school track team.
As a neo-professional working in predominantly white and affluent schools, I played to my ‘otherness’ to carve out a niche for myself. Diversity was the buzzword, and I was an ‘acceptable’ Black person who had traveled the world, read the classics, learned how to mingle with ‘old money.’ I used these experiences to my advantage to gain access to the elite community where I tried to, not only open minds, but also be a support to the Students of Color and to open doors for more Teachers of Color. At that time, I was comfortable being the token minoritized person. I am no longer comfortable being used in that space, but still use my ‘otherness’ as life experiences that set me apart professionally, and make me uniquely qualified to offer specific developing, coaching, and training for school leaders
This road to self-acceptance has been long and full of detours and back peddling; but on this journey I have learned that my strongest assets are my wide range of experiences, my depth of knowledge, my core beliefs and a strong identity, and my comfort in playing to what makes me different. I no longer am comfortable accepting what is, at best, conditional privilege based on racial stereotypes or token status, but I do see my unique circumstances as a way to stand out.
I originally set out on this reflective journey to see if my racial identity development and professional experiences were similar to those among my participants in my doctoral dissertation research. In addition, I wanted to determine how my transracial adoption affected my identity development. I chose two main research questions to explore: (1) How did the author/researcher develop her Black identity as a transracial adoptee living at the intersection of race and class; and, (2) What was the author/researcher’s journey towards her present state of racial self-acceptance and understanding? I also chose three ancillary research questions to explore: (a) How did social and societal factors influence the author/researcher’s racial identity development? (b) How did the author/researcher build a support network or personal and professional community? and, (c) How was the author/researcher able to get to a place near self-love? In seeking answers to these questions, I found that my racial identity, like the identities of the participants in my original study, did align with Cross’ nigrescence model. Additionally, in seeking answers to these questions, I uncovered four major themes that spanned across my lifetime which also corresponded to themes derived from the experiences of my dissertation research participants: (1) Awareness of inequity and discrimination; (2) the never-ending pursuit of knowledge; (3) comfort in emphasizing what makes me different; and, (4) the importance of developing a peer support network. While these themes were apparent in my research, as I have come to a place of self-love and have found my ‘calling,’ I have developed within each theme over time.
Developing within the first theme, my being ‘woke’ has resulted in my relentless drive to no longer be seen as a token. It is imperative for me to view educational policies and practices through a lens of equity and access so that all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, have access to a rigorous education that fits their learning needs. I no longer view the established white and affluent school and curriculum as the best. My decisions as a former administrator and as a parent are no longer influenced by race and class, but by what is in the best interest of children.
Developing within the second theme, as a child of educators, learning has always been a priority. However, I have made lifelong learning my passion. Seeing my parents achieve high levels of education, but also seeing their beliefs stay stagnate through changing times, I have made it my passion to never stop learning and to never stop challenging my own beliefs and knowledge bases. In addition, I value the knowledge I gain from others through mentoring and being mentored in a way that I was not introduced to as a child.
These mentorship and mentoring relationships are a crucial part of my development within the third theme: Support networks. While I have learned to pull others up and to reach across and grow with friends and colleagues, the greatest asset to my personal and professional growth came from learning to reach up to those who can guide, teach, and support me. In my letters to my younger self there was a persistent theme of wishing that I had someone to guide me through traumatic experiences and life decisions. I now look for people who can offer this relationship to me, and I make a conscious effort to be that person for as many people as possible.
Finally, I recognize growth in my development within the fourth theme, my ‘calling.’ What I know to be true about myself is that I am at my best when I am developing and supporting school leaders. My ability to relate to, and be relatable to, so many different kinds of people due to my unique background allows me to deeply connect with leaders and skillfully see their strengths and areas of development. My educational and professional experiences allow me to guide them in developing school cultures that meet their mission and vision while creating environments for teachers and students that are diverse, equitable, accessible, and rigorous. I have found that this support is a gap that needs to be filled specifically with the influx of charter schools within the school choice movement. I am playing to my differences by using my unique personal and professional experiences to find my niche and fill this gap, including using insight that I have gained through raced and classed intersectional experience and academic analysis. Since the work I have done in self-reflection and exploring my identity development, my job no longer feels like a job; it feels like a calling.