This Week, I’m offering counsel to a sixteen-year-old, Multiracial adoptee whose mother resists letting her get her DNA tested.
I am adopted and turning 16 very soon. I am Black, but very light skinned, with green eyes. All I know is that my birth mother was African American—like my adoptive mom—but I don’t know about my birth father. Based on what I look like, I think he might have been White or Hispanic. My mother adopted me as a single parent, so it is just her and me. She is raising me as only Black like her, and it’s a thing between us that we don’t talk about what else I might be. Though of course everyone asks me what I am mixed with. For my birthday, I have asked my mother to get my Ancestry DNA test done, but she says no. I can’t understand why. All she will tell me is that it’s out of the question. I am thinking she thinks I won’t be able to handle it if I find out I am half White. The thing is, what is confusing is looking like this and not knowing why.
When I am 18, I will be able to do it without her permission, so I said, what’s the difference if I do it now or in 2 years? How do I get her to let me do this?
I would recommend first explaining to your mother exactly what you told me—how confusing it is to appear as racially ambiguous as you do without knowing why. You can also tell her that you are concerned about health implications. Many of the DNA testing companies indicate hereditary health risks along with ethnic ancestry. That can be of great interest to adoptees who have no idea of their birth parents’ medical backgrounds.
If you have already raised these points and Mom still says no, it may be helpful to consider what her resistance might be about. My point isn’t to psychoanalyze your mom, but to speculate about her thinking.
Since you are turning sixteen, I am guessing that your mom is somewhere in Generation X, like I am. Most Gen-Xers—and older folks—were raised on the “one-drop” rule, meaning: If you are part Black you are plain Black—period, end of story. Operating under this belief system, parents taught their children what to expect from outsiders: To be seen as Black, to be prepared for racism, not to imagine that being “part White” will give them any slack. This approach encourages Multiracial Black children to own and embrace their Blackness. And, while it takes everyone else’s racism as a given, it can also provide kids with a tough shell to weather it.
Your mom may feel protective of your African ancestry—something the two of you share.
As a mother of color with a daughter of color, she has been able to teach you about race and guide you through an often very racist world. She may be concerned that learning about your European heritage—possibly taking an interest in cultures other than the one you have in common—will drive a wedge between you.
It is not your job as a child to reassure Mom of your love, but doing so may help her understand where you’re coming from. Try saying something like this. “I love you. You are my mom no matter what. My need to learn about my genetic background and understand the pieces of my heritage does not lessen how close we are.”
If Mom shuts you down and reiterates that your identity is Black and Black only, take a breath and remember this: no matter what your mom or a DNA test says, no one can define you but yourself. I believe your mother is doing the best she can to keep you safe in this world, not to lose sight of your Blackness, lest you let down your guard and are blindsided by a racist attack. On the other hand, she may fear losing you as you tune into what connects you to your birth parents.
I have worked with many adoptive parents and I know that even those with the strongest bond with their kids experience the fear of alienation. In fact, many adoptees of all ages avoid thinking about their genetic heritage because it feels “disloyal” to their adopted parents. But comparing the DNA you’ve received from your biological parents to the parenting your mom has provided is like comparing apples and oranges.
You are your adoptive mother’s child because she is the one who has loved and cared for you.
And now, you are asking for her support in learning more about your genetic background. If you discover you have Italian or Irish or Danish heritage, that will not make you any less her daughter.
All parents of teenagers, adopted and genetically related, feel vulnerable sometimes. After all, your job as a teen is to begin separating, spreading your wings, leaving the nest and figuring out who you are as an individual. For adoptive parents, that can be especially bittersweet. But this identity search is about you, not her, as difficult as that is to say.
Ultimately, if your mother does not give you permission—whatever her reasons are—you may indeed have to wait until you are eighteen to do this. In the meantime, know that there are many people of mixed racial heritage around you. You can probably find some of them just by looking. Find Mixed-race communities on Facebook and other social media to read about what being Mixed means to others. Until you unearth more of your own story, these perspectives might provide support. Finally, if you need extra inspiration, turn to Dr. Maria Root’s famous Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.