As Tony Hynes was walking home from a troubling encounter with Prince Georges County police officers in Maryland, the African American teenager struggled with whether he would tell his White adoptive mother what had happened. He didn’t want her to worry. But he decided to tell her anyway.
Hynes was alone shooting baskets at a neighborhood basketball court when a White officer approached him.
“How long have you been here?” the officer asked.
Hynes told the officer he arrived about 10 minutes before and was supposed to meet friends. The officer said he’d received a call that someone matching Hynes’ description and wearing a Michael Vick jersey was on a nearby roof, stealing things about 10 minutes earlier. Hynes was wearing a Vick jersey.
“Use your privilege to make a change.”
“Don’t you think that’s a little bit of a coincidence?”
“No,” Hynes replied. “A lot of people have Michael Vick jerseys.”
Believing the teen was “getting smart” with him, the officer asked Hynes where he lived.
“I live just down the street.”
The officer slapped the ball out of Hynes’ hands, punted it across a field and drew his weapon.
“Get on the ground! Get on the ground now!”
In a flash, Hynes was facedown on the ground, a gun aimed at his back. He lay there, frozen, as the officer called his new suspect into the station.
“I was scared,” he said years later. “I didn’t know if I twitched or moved whether I would be shot. I … tried to stay as still as humanly possible.”
Fifteen minutes later, the officer realized he had the wrong kid. He holstered his weapon and retrieved the basketball for Hynes.
When Hynes told his mother, Janet Simons, what had happened, she was angry and scared.
“It really bothered me that in the community that we live in, which is very diverse, that this would happen,” she said.
Simons decided immediately to drive to the police station to speak with the officers.
Choosing to adopt a child of a different race should be a very conscious decision.
Like Simons, adoptive parents who do not share the same race as their children will confront discrimination or racism faced by their children. Child advocates and those who work in adoption say that to prepare children to handle racial trauma, adoptive parents must help them develop a strong sense of racial identity.
Hynes, now 27, works with the Maryland agency Adoptions Together, where he helps run a support group for parents with adopted children of a different race or culture. When incidents of discrimination or injustice arise, he counsels parents to respond in the same way that his mother did—by speaking up.
“Use your privilege to make a change,” he says.
According to the 2010 Census, about a quarter of U.S. households with adopted children are transracial. Transracial adoptions occur when adults of one race adopt children of another. About 30 percent of transracially adopted children are Latino, 28 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 16 percent are multiracial and 15 percent are Black.
Choosing to adopt a child of a different race should be a conscious decision, said Janice Goldwater, founder and executive director of Adoptions Together. Parents will need to intentionally embrace opportunities and challenges associated with raising a child of another race.
Here are five ways adoptive parents can support their child through an incident that may cause racial trauma:
Create a space for them to talk openly and honestly about the incident. Educate your children about the history of race in this country, and be honest about why these incidents occur. Having honest interactions gives children the vocabulary to discuss these incidents and makes them feel comfortable sharing their experiences in the future.
Make certain that your child feels safe. When something is scary for a child or makes them feel vulnerable or attacked, they turn to their parents for safety. Remind them that you love them unconditionally. Emphasize that you will do everything in your power to fight for your child, not just in your household but also among your extended family, in your neighborhood, in your school.
Share your feelings. Children are looking for parents to respond in a way that matches their feelings. Express sadness, compassion, and outrage. But be aware of your own internal state, and moderate your feelings so that children don’t feel as though they have to take care of you.
Affirm what they are feeling. Provide support and validation for their feelings. Enter the discussion from a place of belief, and acknowledge that racism or discrimination is not right. Try your best to empathize with your child’s pain while also being aware of the fact that you have a different lived experience and will feel the incident differently.
Take action. People feel a sense of relief when they can do something to right a wrong. Show them that while hate is in the world, more people will stand up to hate. Take them to a family-friendly march, write a letter to the president or donate your time to a local charity or organization as a family. Children must believe that they have the power to speak up. You can empower them to do so by speaking up when you see incidents of racial injustice, not just on a national level but in your everyday community.