STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

For some mixed race families, parenting is a black and white issue.

Photo courtesy of Eddie Hejka

There are a few talks nearly all parents have with their kids. There’s the "birds and the bees" talk, and the "don't do drugs" talk. Some parents also find themselves needing to have the race talk.

We reached out to two mixed race families to get their take on the race talk, and hear some of the parenting challenges that brings. 

Just the 17 of us

Eddie Hejka is a lifelong Detroiter. When he met Michelle Fecteau many years ago, he knew two things: he wanted to marry her, and he wanted a big family. Fast forward a couple decades, and they've accomplished both. Michelle and Eddie, both white, are married and they have 17 kids, more or less.

They have two children by birth, five who are adopted, and ten more children who they've helped raise over the years. Two of their adopted children are African American, the other three are Hispanic. 

On raising kids who do not look like you

Credit Photo courtesy of Eddie Hejka
An old family photo of Eddie Hejka, Michelle Fecteau and several of their children.


I asked Michelle Fecteau if she was ever nervous about adopting kids outside her own race.

"I’m a pretty mouthy woman," says Fecteau, "and if I feel someone is treating me or my kids badly, I will speak out quite quickly! But I worried that if I had young black men [in my family], if they follow my example they might get shot."

Nobody has been shot, thankfully, but there have been a few run-ins with the police.

One of her black sons was arrested on a sidewalk in Farmington Hills for "being loud." One got a ticket for loitering in a park – at three in the afternoon.

Meanwhile their sister Josette, who is white, has probably done all of that, but she’s never gotten in trouble for it.

On Driving While Black

Perhaps the biggest parenting difference for Eddie Hejka was when he started to teach his kids how to drive. His white daughter, Josette, got your typical lesson: use your blinker, check your rearview mirror. He gave his black sons Mike and Terrell the same lessons, plus this advice:

"I said if you ever get stopped, this is what you do: You keep your hands on the wheel, put down the window ... and don’t do anything until the officer’s there. Call him officer:'Yes officer, no officer. I don’t care what he says to you, you’re polite. If you've got to grab something, tell him. I’m going to get my license and registration."

Another piece of advice Hejka and Fecteau gave his sons? Call mom and dad, and ask for an attorney.

My Three Biracial Sons

Credit Photo courtesy of Nicole Easterling
The Easterling Family (from left: Grover Sr., Grover III, Nicole, Nicholas, Rob)

Grover Easterling, Sr. is an African American dad. He’s a retired master sergeant in the Air Force and now lives in Troy with his wife Nicole, who’s white, and their three biracial sons. 

Growing up, Grover Easterling was called racial slurs. He knows first-hand what racism feels like, what it sounds like. But his wife Nicole grew up in a white family in a white town. She was blissfully unaware that racism existed. But then something happened.

The incident at the McDonald's parking lot

The Easterlings were living in Cheyenne, Wyoming when their oldest son, Grover Easterling III, was arrested. He was 15 years old, and he was arrested after he shook his friend’s hand in a McDonald’s parking lot.

Police thought there was a drug deal going down. There wasn’t.

"There were all these other white kids in the parking lot, they did not stop one of those kids," says Nicole Easterling. "But they decided to stop the only African American in the parking lot because he shook his best friend’s hand." That, she says, was "the final straw" for her. "I knew we had to get out of Cheyenne, Wyoming then."

On not being able to protect your kids

The Easterlings' troubles didn't end when they moved back to Michigan. Their oldest son Grover III is now 20. He studies political science at Wayne State University and he's a member of the Detroit slam poetry group, CityWide Poets. 

Just a couple weeks ago, he found himself in the back of a squad car outside a club in downtown Detroit for what, exactly, he and his parents aren’t sure. He was issued a ticket, but there’s no badge number on it and no violation listed.  When State of Opportunity called the Detroit Police Department to get more information, we were told that Grover Easterling has to wait to hear from the court to find out what the charge is.

His parents were in Benton Harbor visiting family when this all went down. Grover's mom, Nicole Easterling, is still unnerved by it.

"I get a call at midnight that police are harassing him outside a club and I can’t do anything. It’s just terribly scary to not be able to protect your kids." 

That fear is on her mind every time one of her sons steps out the front door.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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