One Foster Alum’s Search for Racial-Ethnic Identity

Within a few hours of my birth I was placed into the care of the Indiana child welfare system. “Bruce Allen Smith” was the name on the birth certificate. Glad that name didn’t stick.

I was nearly two when the Judge pronounced me adopted by Asa Woodrow and Opal Downs. They and I were very different people. Of course we didn’t look much alike and I had a temperament that bore no resemblance to theirs. They provided a loving home and were connected to a wonderful, generous extended family.

What I never had, however, was any knowledge of my birth family or genetic, racial or ethnic heritage.

Of course like many adopted people I created “stories” in my head about possible histories, families, and racial roots. When you don’t have that history I think it’s fairly normal to make it up the best you can. But it gets old saying “I don’t know because I’m adopted.” Sometimes it is easier to fib and say something remotely believable like “I’m Polish.”

Those of us without a genetic or biological history live in a medical vacuum. Since the 1990s I’ve not once had an interview with a new doctor who didn’t ask about my family medical history. When I told them I had no information, the reactions have ranged from “that’s too bad,” to “oh, I didn’t know that” to “oh, that means we will need to over-test you for everything!”

I’ve actually appreciated that last one (over-test) over the years. I need for my doctors to assume that they need to test me for stuff based on the (untested, unwarranted) assumptions that my biological parents suffered from acne at 20, ulcers at 25, gout at 30, anxiety at 35, diabetes at 40, mini-strokes at 45, alcoholism at 50, tennis elbow at 55, heart attack at 60, cirrhosis at 65, colon cancer at 70 and dementia at 75. Or that one or both bio parents suffered crippling depression and they offed themselves by 30. (Oh crap!)

The fact is that the only one of those that came true were the operable tennis elbows. I’m not certain a family medical history would have helped much on that. I suppose dementia is still a possibility. But I’m glad doctors have over-tested me for such maladies whenever they could. But here I am, healthy and strong.

Last fall, a colleague and friend with a similar history as mine (no biological, genetic, or racial-ethnic history) posted on Facebook the results of a new DNA test that is supposed to provide one’s racial-ethnic history. I contacted her immediately. She was very pleased having some knowledge of her past. The DNA test provider also informed her that they had located 4th, 3rd, and 2nd degree cousins!

I got excited about her results. As an African-American woman, she was able to identify the percentages of her genetic history tied to various parts of Africa. How cool is that?

I ordered the test from the same company my friend used. For some reason it was exciting and scary at the same time to take the test. A saliva sample into a small tube. Seal and put it into the prepaid envelope. Ship. Couldn’t be easier.

Then came the wait. It took nearly 6 weeks before I got the results. During that wait, I stupidly mentioned to colleagues that I’d taken this DNA test. They labeled the test “snake oil” and wholly unreliable. They didn’t know it, but that shook me to the core because part of me wondered if they might be right. I had not only wasted my money, I would return to genetic obscurity. I was furious.

(Note to reader: even if you think such tests are biased, rigged, or run by religious zealots, please have enough respect for those of us who do this to let us have the hope-filled prospect of results, no matter what the error rates or your opinions might be. Thank you.)

Fortunately I was on a vacation when the results arrived. I had time to let the results sink in and I had emotional support of my spouse and friends.

Over the years, so many people have guessed at my racial-ethnic composition. Most guesses were Irish, Scottish, and German. I have very fair Caucasian skin and sunburn easily. My hair as a baby was blond which changed to reddish-auburn as a teenager. It was easy to assume that I was Irish-Scottish-German.

But that’s not how things turned out. Not Irish. Not Scottish. Not German.

The results:
50% Norwegian-Swedish, with the geographic center of that DNA cluster over Oslo, Norway
24% central England, all below Scotland
12% southern Poland and Slovokia
14% a scattering of percentages in the Iberian Peninsula and Middle East

The company also provided the photos and very brief descriptors of over 30 “4th cousins.” FOURTH COUSINS! I have fourth cousins?! Of course I have fourth cousins. Biologically, everybody has fourth cousins. But until that moment I didn’t realize that I did nor did I have a clue who they might be.

You may be thinking “well, isn’t that nice?” If so, you probably have some knowledge of your racial-ethnic heritage. But imagine having no information for your entire lifetime. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

For me this was a game-changer. For the first time in my life I could proudly announce that I’M NORWEGIAN! I’m Swedish too! With some English, Polish and Slovokian thrown in for good measure! But by the Norse God Odin, I have a racial-ethnic heritage rooted somewhere over downtown Oslo! Very likely I have Viking ancestors. Uff-Da!

You may be thinking, “isn’t this a stretch?” or “he’s making a Mountain above that next fjord.” But please remember that people with racial-ethnic histories and connections to biological families get all this information as they grow up, usually during the formative, childhood years.

In my business I work with older children and teenagers. Many of these youth report with pride that they know that their biological families stretch back to Italy, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, Germany, the Congo, and many other places. Some of them or their families have researched several generations back and know for which side(s) their families fought during the Civil War, when ancestors came to the US in the first place, which family members were crooks and which were heros, and so on. These are the stories children with connections to biological families get from those families or they do the research themselves to discover those stories.

Those of us delivered into the foster care system at birth usually have no reference points to such stories. Oh sure, we could take on the stories and genealogies of our adoptive parents and families. And for many people, that is satisfying. But for me it was not.

Every family and ancestral chart I ever saw for my adopted mother’s or father’s side of the family had an asterisk by my name (* = adopted). For me, that asterisk was a permanent reminder that I had no blood connection with any of them and that’s the way they saw it. (Actually overheard at family reunions: “Sweet boy, but he was adopted by Woody and Opal, don’t you remember?” “Chris was adopted but we treat him just like a member of the family”.) Even wonderful adopted families can fail to understand the importance of blood connections.

The recent, amazing scientific discoveries using DNA samples with very large reference groups around the world have allowed me and so many others to have a peek through the curtains of our racial-ethnic histories. This has been deeply gratifying.

So far, I’ve checked out several history and travel books on Norway and Sweden from the library and am plotting my first trip to Oslo. I’m not sure what that experience might be like. I’m hopeful that for the first time I will have some greater assurance that as I look out over a crowd I am actually biologically related to some of them.

This has also had a minor impact on my attitude toward my physical health. Norwegians tend to have lower rates of all kinds of diseases. (Whew!) They tend to live longer and be hardier well into their 80s and 90s. However, I’m taking better care of my skin by applying sunscreen more often.

You may be thinking “gee whiz he’s reading way too much into this Norway-Sweden thing” and you may be right. But you see, in the past I had no information at all. Now, I have a little information – a racial-ethnic heritage. Please allow me just a tad bit of latitude as I rhapsodize about the benefits of this heritage.

My adopted father passed nearly 20 years ago. But my adopted mother is 96. She remains healthy, mobile, and goes out with her girlfriends for lunch often. I waited until I got my DNA results before telling her I had even taken the test. Like the amazing adopted mom she has always been, she was fascinated with my results and asked numerous questions. I could not have felt more supported in this journey by her.

If you were placed into foster care at birth and/or have no knowledge of your biological or racial heritage, you might want to consider taking one of these DNA tests. I used for $89. There are several alternatives. The fact that my appearance strongly supports the results I received gave me greater confidence in those results.

I know that having such results isn’t much. It certainly doesn’t tell me who my biological parents were or why I was given up. But frankly I have never cared about that. I have always respected their decision to bring me into this world and place me in foster care so that I could be adopted.

My adoptive parents couldn’t have loved me more, given me what they could, and supported the journey as my life unfolded. I wasn’t the kid they had hoped for on many fronts but I exceeded their expectations on others.

Now, as for all those 4th cousins… I understand that can link folks like to me cousins and family members much closer in the family tree. I’ve not yet decided to do that. I reserve the right to do so later on.

Right now, I’m happy to try eating Lutefisk, torsk and potato lefse, plot my trip to Oslo, and learn a little Norwegian. Min godhet, jeg er norsk! (My goodness, I’m Norwegian!)