When Jenna Heaphy was adopted at 6 months old by a white couple in Ohio, she became part of an “amazing” family who showered her with love. But it took some time for her to comprehend that she was Black.
“In second grade, I was coloring and picked up a pale tan crayon and a classmate suggested a darker color,” Heaphy, 29, recalled. “I was like 'Oh!’ That put the idea in my head.”
While her childhood was a happy one, Heaphy was aware that she and her older brother, also adopted, stood out as biracial children in mostly white environments. In high school and college she found “a mix” of friends from various ethnicities. “I can kind of float in different groups and feel comfortable,” she said.
Yet the death of George Floyd ignited feelings of anger. Heaphy, a teacher-turned-lawyer, took part in Black Lives Matter protests, which led to questions from some relatives. So she and a cousin initiated monthly Zoom meetings, shared articles and videos, and now lead candid discussions with family members. “Race, racism is an uncomfortable conversation,” she said. “And right now, this isn’t something that can be ignored.”
Particularly during this contentious presidential election, private and public dialogue around race feels omnipresent in America. During this week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, embattled Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett discussed how those difficult conversations have affected her own family, which includes two children adopted from Haiti.
Barrett told the committee that she and her 17-year-old daughter, Vivian, “wept together” over the video that captured Floyd’s death. “As you might imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family," she said. “For Vivian to understand there would be a risk to her brother or the son she might have one day of that kind of brutality has been an ongoing conversation."
Indeed, the nation’s racial reckoning is providing both challenges and teachable moments, as NBC BLK learned while speaking with individuals from transracial adoptive families and experts. Of the nearly 1.8 million adopted children in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, some 40 percent of adoptions are transracial, or between parents and children of different races; in the U.S., data shows 73 percent of those parents are white.
Michael S. Nelson is a Jewish gay man who adopted a Black son, Jeffrey, nearly two decades ago.
“I’ve always felt in my bones that I wanted to be a parent and adopt,” said Nelson, an attorney. The process was “arduous” and rife with official queries. “When you adopt, people ask all sorts of things about your preferences. Race is one of them.”
From the minute he brought his newborn home to a New Jersey suburb, Nelson made conscious choices. There were books about Black heroes such as Jackie Robinson. His son’s hair was cut at a Haitian barbershop. And once Jeffrey got his drivers’ license, he and his father had “the talk” about how to potentially interact with law enforcement.
Still, Nelson calls parenting “hard” and acknowledges he’s made mistakes. “Having a white, gay single parent is a lot to ask of any child. No kid wants to be different.”
Jeffrey, now a 19-year-old college sophomore, is back on campus. Yet while he quarantined with his father during the pandemic, the two barely discussed the racial unrest sweeping America. Jeffrey, who has taken part in social justice demonstrations, is reticent about delving into racial issues with Nelson, who’s tried to keep the lines of communication open.
“It’s definitely hard. ... and painful because dad doesn’t know what it’s truly like,” he said of being a young Black man. He credits his dad with showing him the world, literally and figuratively. “But I don’t know that he can help me with this.”
Pat O’Brien is an adoption advocate and executive director of Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, New York. The Coalition hosted a series of YouTube panels in October, with transracial adoptees sharing their experiences.
“Communication is key to ensuring the stability and well being of children,” said O’Brien, himself the father of an adopted adult daughter.
That sentiment is echoed by Lawrence M. Drake II, Ph.D., a psychologist and the president/CEO of LEADership Education and Development, whose mission focuses on youth development. Of transracial adoptions, he said, “I’ve seen it done well and I have seen it done poorly.”
Drake believes ensuring a child’s positive self-identity is key. “Who are they? Where do they fit in well?” he said.
Overall, Drake stressed, children need love, nurturing, structure and discipline. “It matters less about race, but whether parents ensure this young person’s identity is secure, and prepares them to navigate the world.”
April Dinwoodie was adopted by a white New England family in the 1970s. Growing up biracial, she felt culturally isolated despite “outstanding” parents, two older brothers and one older sister who didn’t treat her differently.
“I needed things my white siblings did not," she said. "I wanted to watch `Soul Train.’ They were listening to Stevie Nicks, I wanted to hear Stevie Wonder.”
The world, too, was sometimes cruel. She had been called the N-word, and at times, certain relatives rejected her.
“Living in whiteness is not a place I wanted to be,” she said. “Really not being seen. Not having a place of empathy. I wanted to be Black and have a racial identity.”
So she re-structured her life, moving to Harlem and immersing herself in Black culture. Today, she’s a consultant and the executive director of “Transracial Journeys,” an organization that provides tools and support for adoptive transracial families; among their projects is an annual summer camp. Dinwoodie has also created a mentoring program called AdoptMent, where adults who were adopted or in foster care serve as mentors to youth in similar circumstances.
“I want to raise awareness surrounding the many layers of the adoption experience,” said Dinwoodie, who shares her experiences at workshops, conferences and schools, and through her iTunes podcast “Born in June, Raised in April.”
In the current climate, however, tensions around race abound. “I had a knock-down, drag-out fight with some family members when Kaepernick took a knee,” she said, referring to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who protested racial inequality and police brutality.
Still, she loves her family and is dedicated to helping others tackle the intersection of adoption and race. “What gives me a glimmer of hope is there’s this collective reckoning around racism,” Dinwoodie said. “The highest level of work we can do is saving humanity.”