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The Transracial Parenting Initiative helps parents and kids prepare to be mixed race families

At 21-years-old, while studying at the University of Toronto, Susan Crawford had an awakening.

"A light bulb came on, and I said: 'Oh my God. I'm black.'"

She grew up in a mixed race family in Kitchener. Her father was black and Choctaw native, while her mother was Yugoslavian of German descent. Though Kitchener was a fairly homogeneous city, Crawford and her brother, both of whom are dark-skinned, didn't have any serious race-based challenges. Her racial identity, while something she was conscious of, never presented itself in absolute terms. Open communication within the family played a role in that.

"In our family," she says, "we talked a lot about race all the time and the fact that I'm black and would have different experiences based on my skin colour. Our parents were really good at preparing us."

Not everyone is so fortunate, something Crawford, now in her thirties, is trying to change under the auspices of Blend Education and Training, her Burlington-based parent-preparation company.

Her company's Transracial Parenting Initiative got its start when Crawford worked for the Halton Multicultural Council. As of last year -- after three years of research and curriculum-building funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation -- prospective parents can take advantage of a workshop series exploring race issues in mixed families. The project is now run through Crawford's company, and 75 couples have enrolled so far.

"It's never been done," she says. "It's sort of ahead of its time, because it was so far off other people's radar. But it's so timely."

Whitby-based Robyn Sheppard took part in the program with her husband. A special needs teacher, Sheppard met seven-year-old Deion in one of her classes. Of Ghanaian descent, he was born in Toronto and was being shuffled from one foster home to another, all the while experiencing cerebral palsy.

"It was very traumatic," Sheppard says. "He would come to school saying things like, 'I want somebody to love me. I want a family.' It was very heartbreaking. I would come home and tell my husband about Deion, and eventually it was decided that we could give him that family."

They were married in the summer of 2007, and a few months later, at the same time as Crawford's initiative was incubating, they adopted Deion. The Sheppards hadn't given the race question much thought, neither from their perspective nor from Deion's. But certain things began to draw their attention to the issue, whether questions from strangers or encounters with the barber.

"When we first adopted him, we didn't know anything about his hair," Sheppard says, recalling a trip to a chain salon. "It was very, very bad. We now bring him to a black barber who does not pull his hair out and knows how to line it up properly."

In 2008, they decided to adopt a second child. They found two-year-old Skylar, a white-skinned, blonde-haired girl. Initially, they looked for a dark-skinned child so Deion would have someone to relate to, but race wasn't their only criterion. When they were presented with Skylar, they were happy. Deion, however, found the situation a bit challenging.

"He was kind of jealous of her," Sheppard says. "First of all, he was an only child, and then there was a switch to sharing, so that would be a challenge with many children. But then he was jealous that she looked more like us than he did. He felt like if we took him and Skylar to the store, people would think we had kidnapped him and that she was our biological child."

Early last year, the Sheppards heard about the Transracial Parenting Initiative through the Adoption Council of Ontario's website. With skills they learned in the program, they were able to approach Deion about his anxieties and discover how he felt about race-based situations.

"There comes that point," says Crawford, "where either you're able to handle a race incident, or you're not. And it's that one time, that one reaction you have."

Now, the Sheppards are looking to adopt a third child, a five-year-old Jamaican boy.

"Right from the beginning, we'll be more prepared to deal with questions and things," says Sheppard. "Even if the new child doesn't have questions, because he's only five, we'll be able to just explain things to him and put things into perspective -- you know, this is what our family is like. This is what Deion has gone through, and this is how it has worked out for him."

According to the Adoption Council of Canada, there were 2,122 overseas adoptions in this country last year, up from 1,915 the year before. Since 1995, there have been no fewer than 1,500 a year, and as many as 2,222. Not all of these families are mixed race, though a great many are. Meanwhile, as the Sheppard's experience shows, domestic adoptions also produce mixed-race families.
"Your child may need different support, different education in the sense that you're going to have to give your child some different messages on how the world is going to receive them," says Crawford. "It's a just-in-case thing."

Paul Carlucci is a freelance writer working in the GTA.

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