White parents, black kids: Group helps parents bridge cultural gaps

When Noelle Edwards thought about having a family, she always imagined one that included adopted children. As she and her husband, Drew, started the adoption process, they faced heartbreak more than once as several birth mothers changed their minds. A counselor told the Roanoke, Virginia, couple, who are white, that it would be easier for them to adopt if they would consider a child with two black biological parents.

“Race is not a big deal to us. Whoever came our way, we were flexible and open,” Noelle Edwards, 32, told TODAY.

Courtesy Edwards family
When Noelle and Drew Edwards started the adoption process they did not anticipate that raising a black child would be different than raising a white child.

The Edwards believed a child is a child and they’d raise him or her the same no matter his or her skin color.

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Edwards says her thinking was that "black kids are just like white kids," and the idea of race would not matter.

But soon after bringing Abby home five years ago, Edwards realized her views on race weren’t exactly accurate.

“That was a very naive view for me to take,” Edwards said.

Almost immediately, the family faced challenges. Edwards wasn’t experienced in the specifics of helping Abby with doing her hair or caring for her skin. And she felt ill-equipped to help Abby grapple with racism or connect with the black community.

“We lived in a very white bubble,” she said. “I would say ‘I’m not racist,’ but I was not actually going to get out of my comfort zone and connect with people who weren’t like us.”

To better help Abby, she joined a Facebook group on transracial adoption and met Valarie Chavis.

From Ethiopia to Culturally Fluent Families

In 2007, Chavis, who is black, began looking into international adoption from Ethiopia. When she flew there to adopt, Chavis stayed to observe her children — daughter, Meron, 7, and son Wondessen, 5 — in their native country.

“I wanted to spend the time in that culture and see how that felt to me and see the kids in their own culture and environment,” she told TODAY, adding that she wondered if being a black American meant she would be accepted in Ethiopa.

Courtesy Valarie Chavis
When Valarie Chavis adopted her children from Ethiopia, she researched the culture to make the transition easier for her children.

Around the same time, she joined an online group about transracial adoption. While she found loads of support, she also noticed that many white parents held misconceptions about black children.

“There was every kind of stereotype coming from these people who were going to parent those kids,” she said. “There were questions like ‘Should we expect these kids to have low intelligence like black kids in America?’ ‘Do all black people smell?’”

Chavis knew that many of these parents had good intentions.

"I’m not saying they were bad people," she said. “It was a shock to me, the level of the lack of understanding there was, the lack of positive thought about the culture."

So Chavis tried answering their questions using her own experience growing up black in a predominantly white school, and sharing what she learned about adopting from Ethiopia. Soon, parents began sending her private messages.

“I kind of became known as a reasonable voice. I was honest and straightforward, but in a way that I could be diplomatic,” Chavis said.

Chavis then developed Culturally Fluent Families, a program that helps non-black adoptive parents of black children. She plans on expanding the group to other transracial adoptions.

Through the six-step Model of Fluency, parents who want to parent a child of color are encouraged to delve into tough questions.

“How do I raise black kids in America when I don’t even understand black experience in America? How do I raise them when my entire life is color-blind and I don’t even understand what they need?” Chavis said. “You have to change your vision."

Courtesy Valarie Chavis
When Valarie Chavis joined an online group about transracial adoption she realized she could help other parents better understand black children.

Ann-Marie Grannan is a single white mom of a 21-month-old black son, Maxwell. As she went through the adoption process, no one mentioned the special challenges that come with transracial adoption.

"I needed more resources," Grannan told TODAY. "Being colorblind for your child is not enough"

The 37-year-old Indianapolis mom joined several transracial adoption groups, and realized Maxwell needed friends who looked like him. But when she tried starting a playgroup, one of her neighbors accused her of being racist against white people.

"It backfired," she said.

But that fail led to a closer relationship with Chavis, who lives in the same area.

"I do live in an area with diversity, but we are living a parallel life where we don’t intersect," she said.

Chavis introduced Grannan to a daycare that had children of color, and her daughter Meron babysat for Maxwell. While the friendship has helped, Grannan says she also learns so much from Culturally Fluent Families.

"The conversations ... focus so much on positive reinforcing, just helping (us) see things through a different lens," she said.

Courtesy of Annie Hill Photograpy
Ann-Marie Grannan felt stunned when she adopted her son that the agency did not provide her resources about transracial adoption. Culturally Fluent Families helps her provide him with the right support.

Edwards also appreciates Chavis’ approach, saying she challenges parents to affirm their child’s blackness, and asks questions that help change their perspectives.

Recently, Chavis asked the parent group to consider: What would it feel like to wish you were born black?

“It never occurred to me that you would wish to be born black,” Edwards said. “That totally flipped my thinking.”

Chavis also encourages families to further connect with the black community, by getting involved with local organizations through volunteer work or donating other needed resources. In other words, find a way to give back.

“I am helping them understand the culture, helping them connect to the culture, helping them to see their kids differently,” Chavis said.

The learning experience isn’t always easy. But Edwards knows it’s important. She’s witnessed an increase in racism in her own town and nationally, and she worries about what this means for her daughter.

“Racism is very present,” she said. “It stinks. You want to protect your kid’s innocence.”

But she feels like she’s better prepared. She and Drew talk about race with Abby in very child-friendly ways. They also have become deliberate about exposing Abby to people who look like her.

"I have been much more intentional about the sort of examples [of black people] my daughter has around her," she said.

Courtesy Jenn Elrod Photography
Thanks to Valarie Chavis's program Culturally Fluent Adoption, the Edwards have a better understanding of how to connect their daughter Abby to her heritage.

While Edwards feels she still has much to learn, she feels lucky that women like Chavis are willing to help.

“I started this journey of exploring what does it mean to be black in America just for my daughter,” Edwards said. “We all need to be doing this.”