When Mark and Terri Riding take their three children to the park where they live in Baltimore, they’re usually met by lagging stares, obvious whispering and even people bold enough to come up and question them as parents. Their children are all healthy, normal-looking individuals, but it’s their 9-year-old adopted sister/daughter Katie O’Dea-Smith who draws all the attention.You see, the Ridings are Black and Katie is White. The Ridings actually co-parent with Terri’s 66-year-old mother, Phyllis, who took in Katie when she was 3-years old and legally adopted her last year. Now that Phyllis is getting older, Terri and Mark have Katie every weekend and she’ll be living with them for the entire summer. As a family, they’ve decided to send Katie to a predominantly Black school and a Black church, and with all those differences, they’ve noticed she rarely ever talks about race. In a candid interview, ESSENCE.com spoke to the Ridings about why they adopted Katie, how they handle all the misguided attention, and how they plan to have an honest conversation about race with their White daughter.
ESSENCE.COM: How did Katie come to be a part of your family?
TERRI RIDING: When she was 3 years old she was brought to my mom in temporary placement in foster care. Katie had gone through 12 homes before she came to live with my mom. We could never understand why because she’s really a delightful, obedient child. Having Katie in our lives just happened naturally.
ESSENCE.COM: Do you ever bring up the topic of race with Katie?
MARK RIDING: She doesn’t really talk about race. I’m not saying she’s colorblind. she just avoids talking about it in any context so we don’t really know for sure if she has any feelings about being so isolated because of her race since her friends, her school, camp and church are all predominantly Black. She did ask us once when my wife was pregnant, what color the baby would be. When we told her the baby would be brown like us, she looked a little disappointed, but that’s the only time she’s ever brought up race.
ESSENCE.COM: What kind of relationship does she have with your biological children?
MARK: They are siblings, but she loves to pull out the fact that she’s their aunt. They yell, scream, fight but they always look forward to seeing each other.
ESSENCE.COM: Many Whites who adopt do their best to integrate Black culture into their adopted children’s lives. How do you do that for Katie?
TERRI: She’s Irish so we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. We bought her a cup that has her family crest on it.
MARK: It’s not easy to help enrich her White culture because, quite frankly, what is White culture, and how do we make sure we’re approaching it properly? But we can focus on her Irish heritage instead. Katie is aware that she’s different, and at some point, I’m sure she’s going to not want to feel that way anymore.
ESSENCE.COM: What do most Black folks say when they see you’ve adopted Katie?
MARK: Only one Black person has suggested that we’ve needed to give her back to her White family and get us a Black child. But people have to realize, this is the hand that we were dealt. It wasn’t as if we said we’re going to find us a White child to take care of because we love White people so much. Terri’s mother, Phyllis, is this saintly woman who believes her love can conquer anything, and it did because Katie didn’t go to another home after that.
ESSENCE.COM: Have you had any negative encounters?
TERRI: We were in a flea market in the Poconos and Mark had to speak to Katie sternly about something. Suddenly the tension in there just got so intense. You could hear a pin drop, eyes were all on us and it was really awkward for everybody.
MARK: Depending on where we are now, I’m more concerned about what people think of a 6-foot-tall, 200-pound man holding hands with a little White girl. It tends to make some people visibly uncomfortable.
ESSENCE.COM: What do you think of the trend of White celebrities who adopt Black children, especially those from Africa?
MARK: Every time you hear about that it always sounds like they’re saving the soul of this poor child. I find it frustrating that in this day where Madonna and Angelina Jolie are celebrated for adopting their children, people still stop us in the grocery store to ask Katie if she’s okay, assuming somehow that we’re not capable parents.
ESSENCE.COM: Isn’t it more about finding a good home rather than finding a child of the same race?
MARK: Of course, anyone of any race can take care of a child and provide them with a safe, comfortable home. But you have to realize having children of different races changes the game. You have to be conscious of certain things and adjust the way you think because people around you will not adjust. It’s more complicated then all you have to do is love them.
ESSENCE.COM: How do you think Katie will identify with race as she gets older?
MARK: I’ve always said that once she turns 12-years old we’re going to have to be very careful because it’s probably going to be really tough for her. I fully expect that she’s going to do some hard questioning. We’re going to infuse race into more of our conversationst. She needs to be able to say ‘Black’ and say ‘White’ and we’ll find a way to help her deal with that before it becomes a problem.
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