Anne-Elizabeth Powell, associate professor of library science, has had to deal with a lot of assumptions over the years. She spent much of her life as a person of size, and assumptions were made about her. She’s a woman—more assumptions. She’s single. Assumptions. She lives with her best friend from college, who is also a single woman. She’s white. Her daughter is black. Assumptions. Assumptions. Assumptions. Despite what people may think about her, Powell is well grounded in her faith, identity, motherhood, and goals.
Perhaps because of her experiences as a single, formerly overweight white mother in a biracial family, Powell is keenly interested in identity formation. Her experience with transracially adopting her 9-year-old daughter, Tamara, is certainly what has inspired her dissertation research project, which is exploring “racial/ethnic identity formation during college in black1 individuals domestically adopted by white parents.”
A major theorist influencing Powell is William E. Cross Jr., whose work provides a framework for understanding how racial identity tends to develop in black individuals. Cross’s model, which is not without controversy, revolves around stages, including pre-encounter (where racial identity is not yet known or understood to be important), encounter (often in response to a racist or negative racial event), immersion (where identity becomes strongly tied to or even predominantly defined by race), and internalization (where racial identity becomes integrated as one aspect of total identity). The stages are not necessarily linear, according to Cross, and a person may move between them at various times in his or her life.
Powell’s posit is that involvement in activities that build community will contribute positively to integrated identity formation in black individuals adopted by white parents.
Though Powell’s formal study will be based on interviews with current college students, her first conversation was with Steven Riddle (94), PLNU assistant athletic director for facilities and events. Riddle is both an adopted son and an adoptive father. His experience supports Powell’s hypothesis, as a synopsis of his story and college experience demonstrates.
Riddle, who is half black and half white, was adopted by two white parents at the age of four. Prior to his adoption, Riddle was raised by a black foster mother.
“When the Riddles found me, they fell in love immediately when they saw me,” said Steve. “I came out in a three-piece suit, pulled on the lapels, and said, ‘I understand somebody here wants to talk to me,’ and my dad said that is when he knew.”
Though Steve moved into his parents’ home at four, it took seven years for his adoption to be completed, in part because it was a transracial adoption during an era when the practice was less common and in part because the family moved from Indiana to California. Steve was raised alongside two sisters and a brother (who tragically drowned at age 7), who were born biologically to his parents. During his adoption process, the questions the state social workers asked him about his happiness and adjustment stirred questions in Steve about his identity. He wondered whether he should identify with black kids or white kids, especially since his own race was mixed.
He also experienced other people’s assumptions and confusion about his identity. He said that sometimes waitresses brought separate checks for him and his parents, assuming they were not a family unit—even when he was a young child. Kids were sometimes confused when he pointed out his mom.
At 11 years old, Steve’s adoption was finalized, and he was given the option of changing his name.
“My given name was Mark. I was big into the Bionic Man, Steve Austin, so I chose Steven and was called Steve for short. My middle name is Eugene after my uncle, a caretaker, and my little brother.”
Steve’s college experience was formative in unexpected ways. He came to PLNU in 1986 on a basketball scholarship and found community on his team. However, after a summer missions trip to Africa in 1988 during which he played 38 basketball games in 35 days, difficult times ensued. Steve returned with an injury that required surgery, and without basketball, he lost his focus. He spent too much time with friends and pulling pranks and not enough time on his academics. He decided to take a break from school and worked construction, operating heavy equipment. After his time away, Steve came back to PLNU in January 1991 and completed his education in 1994.
Throughout his college years, he found great friends, but there were challenges as well. He was one of only a handful of black students on campus during that time. An unkind person once wrote, “Go home. You don’t belong here” on his door, but Steve said the pain of the anonymous person’s intolerance was overshadowed by the strong reaction and support of his friends in the wake of the incident.
In addition to his basketball team and friends, Steve found uplifting community among the many other students—of all races—he met who were also adopted. He enjoyed being able to share his story and have people appreciate it.
By the time he left college, Steve had a strong sense of self and a strong desire to pass the blessings of adoption on to another child.
“My first official date with my wife, I told her adoption was very important to me,” Steve said. “I wanted to take a chance and reach out. That’s how we got into the process.”
They found their son Malik through local news channel CBS 8’s Adopt 8 program. Similar to his father’s immediate connection with him, Steve told his wife, “Kim, that’s the one!” as soon as Malik’s segment aired.
Just like Steve, Malik was four when he came into the Riddle family. Though Malik’s past was not easy and his possessions were few, he found immediate love and acceptance in his new home. Malik is now 16 and has two sisters, Jacqueline, 7, and Isabella, 2.
“Malik is amazing with both girls,” Steve said. “They have sibling rivalries, but at the end of the day, he would do anything to protect them.”
For Steve, the college experience has in some ways been extended. Kim is starting her 11th year as a resident director in Klassen Hall, and the whole family lives on campus.
Adoption has been a blessing for Steve. Though he and Malik both have interest in knowing more about or meeting their birth families, Steve has nothing but gratitude for his parents. His identity is secure, and both he and his sister Amy (Riddle) Bateman (93) have been able to pay the blessing of adoption forward.
“Someday I would like to find my foster mother, Mrs. Jeter, and thank her and my birth mom for giving me a chance at life,” Steve said. “I also spoke at my dad’s funeral and thanked him for taking a chance on a little African American boy he didn’t know much about and for always making me part of the family. The respect and care he had for me without knowing my total situation is amazing. Adoption is very important to me.”
Steve’s experience supports Powell’s prediction that a rich college experience with strong community engagement can foster positive racial identity formation. Further evidence comes from the experience of 2012 graduate Matthew Arnold.
Both of Matt’s parents were adopted—Matt’s dad, Ed, was adopted by his stepfather, and Matt’s mom, Lori, was adopted by nonrelatives. Both his parents had difficult childhoods that included emotional trauma or physical abuse. However, they overcame their early struggles to become successful.
When Ed and Lori were unable to have children biologically, they decided to adopt. After meeting Matt’s biological mother, Danielle, who was 18 at the time, Ed and Lori chose to adopt Matt at birth. They were the first to hold him and made a commitment to raise him in a loving and supportive way that was completely contrary to their own early experiences.
“My parents were open and honest about the adoption (it’s kind of obvious since they’re white, and I am half black),” Matt said. “Occasionally I would get weird looks when I was younger. Kids at church wouldn’t understand sometimes, but it was never malicious. I actually never struggled with my ethnic background until college.”
What Matt and his parents did struggle with was his brother. Matt had always wanted a sibling—especially a brother—so when he was 12 years old, the Arnolds decided it was time. When they met 4-year-old Ronald, a tiny, malnourished boy living in a less-than-ideal foster home situation, they felt an instant bond with him. They adopted him and changed his name to Jaden. They anticipated some hard times as Jaden transitioned into their family, but they had no idea he would suffer from a rare psychiatric condition known as reactive attachment disorder (RAD). The Mayo Clinic describes RAD this way:
A child with reactive attachment disorder is typically neglected, abused or orphaned. Reactive attachment disorder develops because the child’s basic needs for comfort, affection and nurturing aren’t met and loving, caring attachments with others are never established. This may permanently change the child’s growing brain, hurting the ability to establish future relationships.
“Whenever Jaden felt close, he would physically or verbally lash out,” Matt said. “Our family almost fell apart. I struggled in faith and felt bitter, but I knew I could count on my parents. I became a bad person myself, but they continued to love me and tried to discipline me. After I went off to PLNU, my parents did some more research and took Jaden to a psychiatrist and had brain scans. They changed his diet and did everything they could.”
Leaving home to attend PLNU gave Matt a break from dealing with his brother’s outbursts and struggles, but being in college did bring his racial identity to the forefront of his mind for the first time.
Friends teased him, saying, “You’re the whitest black man I’ve ever met” or “You don’t talk like a black man.” Unlike when he was younger and kids asked questions, this time, the comments struck a nerve. Matt resonated with the book The Color of Water, which is about a man with a Jewish mother and a black father who is raised in a community where he is not fully accepted by either set of peers.
“Racism is still very real, even in Christian communities,” Matt said. “I had to take a step back and ask: who am I, and how does my ethnic background come into play? I had great friends and professors to back me up and talk to me. I learned to challenge people who rubbed me the wrong way with their comments, asking them to think deeper about the meaning behind what they said. I’ve never had a problem with who I am.”
Matt was thankful to find a lot of acceptance and success at PLNU. He was involved in the musical groups Concert Choir, Extol, and Pointless, and he starred in several musical theatre performances. He was a resident assistant (RA) for two years and participated in the Bread of Life student ministry group for three years. He was voted Homecoming Junior Prince.
Perhaps because of his willingness to stand out, Matt followed his passion for cooking and majored in food service management—despite being the only male in the program. His choice paid off, and he earned a spot in the prestigious Grand Diplome culinary program at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.
Before heading to Paris after graduation, Matt experienced another blessing.
While Matt was at PLNU, his parents had reached a point where they could no longer care for Jaden on their own. They enrolled him in a special military school in Mississippi.
“I went to see Jaden after graduation, and he is a completely different person now,” Matt said. “The school has done wonders for him. My parents gave him the decision to go back there or to come home and go to a private Christian school, and he decided to come home. We are so happy.”
Matt is grateful for his brother’s progress and his parents’ unwavering support of them both. He is also thankful for his college experience.
“PLNU helped me heal from the trauma with my brother and learn more about myself,” Matt said. “People here helped me strengthen my relationship with Christ. I made close friends, who were family away from home.”
Though Powell’s research is just beginning, stories like Steve’s and Matt’s inspire her. Despite experiencing hardship and confronting uninformed and unkind situations, both have developed positive self-images and integrated racial identities.
Powell’s methodology will be to interview current college students who are black transracial adoptees to hear their stories and see how the formative experiences of college have influenced their racial identity development. She hopes she will hear many positive stories like Steve’s and Matt’s—though it’s too early to say if their experiences will prove typical (or even if there will be a “typical” experience).
“There are many emotional issues adoptees face,” Powell said. “They may have to deal with anger, a sense of grief and loss, a societal perception that adoption is a ‘second choice,’ and so on. Black individuals also face systemic and individual racism. With these dual challenges, I think looking at how transracially adopted black students form their racial identities during college is very important.”
Powell hopes that her daughter, Tamara, will benefit from her findings. Even though Tamara is only 9 years old, Powell is doing what she can to provide her daughter with cultural references, including a racially diverse neighborhood and church family. She tries to model healthy ways of dealing with emotions and questions from others. Still, she suspects that college, the first time Tamara is on her own, will be a crucial time in her daughter’s development.
“In higher education, we talk a lot about ‘student formation.’ Many studies look at adolescence as a key time of identity formation, but in college you turn what you feel into what you believe. We know that community and out-of-classroom experiences are especially formative.”
It is Powell’s hope to gain a better understanding of how college experiences can make racial identity development a positive for Tamara and others. She hopes that Tamara, like Steve and Matt, will be proud of her race, her family, her faith, and herself.