The DNA in Me!

I don’t recall a more critical time to truly explore and examine our identity and who we really are — as individuals and as a collective.

November 2016 is nearly over and it has been a monumental month for our country, our families and ourselves. On the 8th, a new president was elected. On the 24th, many of us will celebrate Thanksgiving with family and friends. And throughout the month, many of us in the extended family of adoption will recognize November as National Adoption Month.

November became National Adoption Month under the Clinton Administration more than two decades ago, expanding from the initial week-long celebration it was previously. The idea was to highlight the need to find families for children waiting in foster care for adoption — a laudable goal given the 100,000-plus children waiting to be adopted from foster care, with older youth comprising the largest numbers. It has expanded to encompass more of the voices of the community highlighting the diverse experiences and realities. As a non-profit professional running a research, advocacy and education institute focused on adoption, this month means an extremely busy schedule and increased level of intake and output. As an adopted person, it means even more self-reflection and more to explore and understand as I listen to members of the community sharing their experiences about how adoption has impacted their lives.

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April Dinwoodie at DAI’s Let’s Adopt Reform National Tour

A few months ago after a powerful connection and conversation with a kindred spirit, I decided to take another step in my adoption search journey and test my DNA. This decision came after many years of considering it but never really feeling like it was the “right” time.

Over a year ago, I purchased my first DNA kit at a conference, took it home and there it sat. I would make one excuse or another every time I thought about swabbing my cheek and sending my DNA off to be analyzed. I thought about whether I should do more than one type or brand and if I did more than one, which one should I do first? What would each one reveal? I had done some basic research, and in that process, it began to settle in that this was going to be a very meaningful endeavor. While I already felt connected to the biological family on my birth mother’s side, DNA testing would make it official. And after years of being asked “where are you from?” — I would finally know more about my biological father’s side, curly hair and brown skin.

For as long as I can remember, perfect strangers would come up to me and ask me where I was from. As a young adult, I began to understand what this was all about — my mixed race was interesting to them and what they were really asking me was — what are you? And what makes you brown? The conversation got more interesting when I would reveal that I was adopted and really had no idea. The person asking — almost always a person of color — would lean in, take a closer look and say something like…

“Huh, you don’t know? I think you look Dominican.”
“You could be Ethiopian.”
“Cape Verdean, you must part Cape Verdean.”
“Caribbean, probably Jamaican, that is what I think anyway.”

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April Dinwoodie’s potential DNA Map

These exchanges were fascinating and I have often felt such a good feeling that the people I was in conversation with — who were most often connected ancestrally to the part of the world they thought I could be from — seemed to very much want me to be Dominican, Ethiopian or Cape Verdean like them. After the exchange, I would walk away wondering… could I be related to them, even distantly?

I thought about exploring my DNA with family or close friends or maybe one of the young people I mentor. I had a feeling it was going to be powerful and my instinct was to share it with someone I was close to. I was also scared — just not sure of what. I decided to do it alone guided by an amazing professional — Amanda Reno from DNA Finding U. One conversation with Amanda and I felt confident that it was time and that I would have the support I needed to make sense of the process and navigate the online platforms.

Knowing that I wanted to both learn of my genetics and connect to individuals who shared my DNA, Amanda recommended I do more than one test. I already had the FamilyTree DNA kit so I purchased 23andMe and AncestryDNA. As I clicked the “confirm your order” button, there were flashes of thoughts and feelings about the investment I was making in myself.

I felt grateful that I had the means to spend the money (the kits are not cheap), excited at the prospects of what I would discover, frustrated and even angry that I had to buy a kit to tell me about me — why my skin is brown and who I am biologically connected to — and as always, part of me felt a pang of guilt for actually wanting to know and with that pang of guilt a rush of emotion for my adoptive family. That all too familiar sense of sadness that I was not biologically connected to them and just as familiar, the awe of loving them fiercely without it.

When the kits arrived I was giddy. I opened each one carefully, set all of the contents on my counter, registered on all of the sites and I was ready. The instructions said I should spit in the tubes first thing in the morning without having brushed or had any liquid. Being a creature of habit, the next couple of days I totally flaked, forgot and began guzzling water as soon as my eyes opened. Finally, I remembered and early one morning I spit in the tubes and swabbed my cheeks. The directions could not have been more straightforward and simple but I kept thinking I was messing it up! Nerves.

I packed everything up just as they called for and I dropped the kits in the mail. All the way to the mailbox I smiled and when I dropped them in the big blue box, I cried a little.

Then I waited, and waited and waited what seemed like forever but I was really about seven weeks. Each kit stated that it would be between six and eight weeks for results. There was a rush of emotions as I navigated through the sites staring at the screen and results of my DNA.

All of the results came in within about a week of one another and they ALL delivered roughly the same information. I am approximately 60% European, including Irish, English and European West which includes Germany, France, Switzerland and about 40% African with the highest concentration being Ivory Coast then Ghana and a bit from Congo and traced connections to Benin/Togo. I underestimated how amazing it would be to know all of this. And I am still processing what it all means.

23andMe gave me rich information about my health traits and if I am a carrier of certain genetic diseases, as well as possible physical characteristics and even whether I am more likely to taste bitter flavors or sweet flavors. It is amazing to think about the advances today and that this information can contribute to proactive health awareness individually and as a collective society. AncestryDNA focuses mostly on connections to those with your same DNA and does a great job with history and different factors that contribute to where people are from in the world.

You can spend hours on these sites. I am still sorting out FamilyTree DNA but grateful that all of these tools exist for the world and for the adoption community — especially for those of us adopted in the very closed adoption era. We now have the power to explore our identity in ways we may never have dreamed. I love knowing more about all of my DNA but I’d be lying if I said I was not more curious about the brown parts, and I know when people ask me where I am from, they too, are more curious about this part of me.

I think everyone would benefit from exploring their identity through DNA and I hope that more and more people will have the opportunity to do so — especially young people in foster care and individuals and families experiencing adoption. It is powerful.

It is no mistake that all of this was happening around my birthday — it made the moments that much more powerful. I finally had more pieces and parts of my identity.

Today, it is more important than ever that we work on ourselves, know ourselves and be good to ourselves so we can be good to others but also so we can be strong. The healthier our identities are, the better equipped we will all be in our relationships and in the world. While not the same exercise for everyone, we all have ways to explore who we are and where we fit in the world. Only when we are truly settled in this way can we shoulder the heavy lift that came upon all of us earlier this month.

As I prepare for another Thanksgiving holiday knowing that there will be no shortage of amazing food and precious time with family, I can’t help but be reflective of how rich my life truly is. I have a feeling that when I look around the Thanksgiving table this year, I will feel more settled in myself, more confident in my identity as an adopted person and a person of color.

I am still finding my words as it relates to the state of our country — from the monstrous elements that hang over us like a thick smoke to the tiny bits that are coming into view daily as I ride the 2/3 train and everything in between. In the meantime, I am going to keep working on me, making sure I know who I am, hold myself accountable and do my best to understand others so I can do all I possibly can to make adoption better, make families stronger, and hopefully in some small way make a positive impact.

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