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A few months ago I ordered a DNA test kit. It arrived quickly and has been sitting on my coffee table ever since. It’s one of those things that I’ve been wanting to do ever since these sorts of tests have become widely available. I really want to pretend it’s just idle curiosity, yet after it arrived I found that I felt some anxiety about the outcome. There are several companies which offer such tests. I decided to get the one from National Geographic, partly because it appeals to my nerdy side, but also it help me maintain a sense that this is an academic exercise. Yet it would be futile to deny the fact that a large part of my interest is related to wanting to know my ethnic background.

It sounded like an interesting idea when I ordered the test. Then suddenly, it seemed as if everything everywhere was about race, race, race, wherever I turned. I don’t know if we are have a major cultural change regarding our attitudes towards race or if it’s just one of those waves, almost like an intellectual or conversational fad, that washes through society from time to time. Suddenly, the ethnic, racial or ancestral portion of my identity wasn’t the private matter I always thought it was, but seemed to be a public question. Although no one was asking me in particular, it’s been floating in the zeitgeist.

So, now I’m sitting here waiting for an hour to elapse because I foolishly made myself a cup of coffee before sitting down to finally open the box. Inside the box there was a sleek-looking booklet with the kind of photos you expect from National Geographic about the “human story.” Well, it’s good to know that at least that part of my identity won’t change. Or maybe it will. The test might tell me I’m part Neanderthal.

Besides the glossy booklet, there’s some instructions and a consent form. The first instruction is to not eat or drink for an hour. Then you are supposed to scrape the side of your cheek with a swab, put the tip of the swab in a vial and send it back to the company. The box, the vials and the consent form all have a sticker with a code number affixed to them.

I thought it might be interesting to write about this. Since one of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I do not know what my ethnic background is, I thought it might be interesting to start writing before knowing the answer. According to the instructions, it can take ten weeks for the results. During that time, I might do a series of posts about race, ethnicity and identity with this particular context in mind.

This test looks at autosomal and mitochondrial DNA, and for men it can look at the Y-Chromosome DNA. The Y-Chromosome traces the direct paternal line whereas the mitochondrial DNA can trace the direct maternal line. This is a little bit of a disappointment for me since I have zero knowledge about my biological father. The direct maternal line is one of the few things I currently know. Unless oral history is incorrect, that should be traceable to England.

More on this later.

I have a cousin. She’s about five foot six, has curly black hair, skin that’s about the color of café au lait in the summer, and a little lighter in the winter, green eyes. When she was a child, the black girls in school used to beat her up for refusing to “admit” she was biracial, or “mulatto” as they called it at the time. Her father had died when she was young and I never met him. He said he was Italian and Native American. Some people thought he was black, but he was never confronted on it. Adding to this, my cousin once confessed to me, after a few drinks, that her father was racist, couldn’t stand black people and had taught her to be racist, too. It wasn’t until she was an adult and she had a job where she became friendly with some black coworkers that she realized her father had been wrong.

One of my closest friends has two white parents. His father’s family is of English descent and his mother is Jewish. They had three biological children and two adopted children, one girl and one boy. The two adopted children were both “black.” The girl had dark skin and the boy was very light-skinned. One day, my friend, one of the biological children, said to me, “I think my brother has identity issues. He seems to think he’s white.”

The grandmother of another close friend of mine came from a Jewish family from Vienna. One day, she took out all the old family photos, including some from nineteenth century Vienna. According to my friend, looking at the photos, her mother said, “Ima, your grandmother was a schwartze.” I remember this quote because of the weird mix of Hebrew, Yiddish and English. She told me that they looked at this old picture of a woman in nineteenth century European dress, with dark skin and kinky hair and wondered where she came from. Since Jewish identity is considered to be matrilineal, this was an important question to them. After tossing around some possibilities, the finally came to the conclusion that she must have been from North Africa, although the possibility that she was from Ethiopia was also considered.

In the book Detroit: An American Autopsy, the author, Charlie LeDuff, traces his family’s migration to the city of Detroit from New Orleans. He had no reason from his appearance to think he was anything but white, yet it turns out that his grandfather was biracial, mulatto or black, depending on your definitions. LeDuff describes himself, with humor, as “the palest black man in Michigan,” but he’s probably wrong. If you subscribe to the “one drop rule”, there’s probably a blond-haired, blue-eyed person out there who is “black.”

In recent years, the “one drop rule” has been popularized by people like U.S. President Barack Obama and American actress Halle Berry. In Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, he writes very condescendingly of a woman he met in college who insisted that she was biracial and did not want to identify as solely black or white. Obama considers her to be confused, which irritated me because I have been close to several people who also felt that way and did not seem to be to be confused. In fact, since the woman he describes grew up in an intact family, with both parents, I would venture to say that, if anyone is less emotionally conflicted, it is she.

In fact, if Rachel Dolezal was able to pass as black without any postcolumbian African ancestry, it was probably due to this belief in “the one drop rule.” The one drop rule has an almost mythical status. It says that a person with even a drop of sub-Saharan African ancestry is to be considered “black.” Despite popular mythology, there was no law of this type until twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, interest in eugenics led to laws about racial mixing.

I have a book called, Strategies for Survival. It is about groups of people sometimes called “tri-racial isolates” by anthropologists. This is a subject that’s on my list of things I want to write about, but for now I’ll try to limit myself to the portion that applies to the subject at hand. The book covers several mixed race communities which identify as Native American. There are many others. One branch of my own biological family traces to a Powhatan group, making it highly possible, although not at all certain, that I myself might qualify as black according to someone who believes the one drop rule, which I don’t. These highly racially mixed tribes each have their own history and different average percentages of European, African and North American ancestry. The Powhatan tribes were heavily affected by Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

The Racial Integrity Act required that a racial description of every person be recorded at birth and divided society into only two classifications: white and colored (essentially all other, which included numerous American Indians). It defined race by the “one-drop rule”, defining as “colored” persons with any African or Native American ancestry. It also expanded the scope of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage (anti-miscegenation law) by criminalizing all marriages between white persons and non-white persons.

Strategies for Survival noted that the U.S. never had records that were up to the task. Many racially mixed people became “white” in the wake of this law. Indeed, earlier attempts to define race by law had been rejected due to the difficulty of classification.

In 1895 in South Carolina during discussion, George D. Tillman said,

It is a scientific fact that there is not one full-blooded Caucasian on the floor of this convention. Every member has in him a certain mixture of… colored blood…It would be a cruel injustice and the source of endless litigation, of scandal, horror, feud, and bloodshed to undertake to annul or forbid marriage for a remote, perhaps obsolete trace of Negro blood. The doors would be open to scandal, malice, and greed.

A well-known short story by Kate Chopin, “Désirée’s Baby” utilizes the fact that many people are unfamiliar with their own ancestry as a plot point. After the birth of a child with African features, a wealthy French Creole planter rejects his wife who was adopted as a child and had unknown origins. What he does not know is that his “French” mother who died when he was a child had African ancestry. Somehow, I imagine the husband in that story, Armand, looking not unlike Charlie LeDuff.

At the moment everyone seems shocked that Donezal was able to pass as black, but there is really nothing odd about it at all. Studies have shown that context contributes greatly to people’s perception of race. This is not the study I originally had in mind, but searching a came across a study that found

stereotypes interact with physical cues to shape person categorization, and suggest that social and contextual factors guide the perception of race.

Further evidence about how ambiguous race can be can be seen by looking at 10 Black Celebs Who Can Pass for White. In this context it is interesting to note the inclusion of Melissa Gorga, who says she is of entirely Italian descent. Apparently, some people don’t believe it.

There are quite a few odd parts of Dolezal’s story, but the question Katie Zavadski and Lizzie Crocker ask in the Daily Beast, “How did she trick so many people?”, betrays a tremendous ignorance about how we categorize and perceive race.

 

About a month or two ago, I was surfing the internet while waiting for my mother to get ready to go with me to the gym. During this brief time, following from one link to another, I came across a shampoo ad that was, according to the post in which it was embedded, getting a lot of attention on the internet. The ad showed women in everyday situations offering apologies that the makers of the video deemed unnecessary. The title card which introduces the video asks “Why are women always apologizing,” which implies that they are doing something that men don’t.

Sitting at my computer, whiling fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for my mother, I was not in an especially critical mindset. If that week’s viral videos had been cute puppies I would have watched cute puppies. I nodded in implied agreement while watching. While I don’t think I have heard about that particular habit before, it did not surprise me. In women’s studies classes that I took in college, I read about similar studies that examined seeming trivial differences in male and female behavior. Although the video doesn’t say so in so many words, the clear implication is that apologizing makes one appear weak. The title of the video is “Shine Strong.”

This video was still fresh in my mind when I arrived at the gym.

I walked in, grabbed a towel and headed up the short flight of half a dozen steps to the weight lifting area. A man rounded the corner and came down the stairs rapidly as I was going up. He stepped backwards saying, “Sorry.”

I stepped to my right saying, “Sorry.”

Another step to the right on my part and we were able to pass each other on the stairs without incident. This is the sort of thing I wouldn’t have even noticed if I hadn’t seen that video. No one was at fault. He couldn’t have predicted my arrival and I couldn’t see him approach, yet we both apologized. Thanks to the video, I noted that he was male and I was female. I also noticed that he was African-American. He was probably about ten years my junior.

(Aside: Do you, too, dislike the false intimacy of WordPress telling you to “Keep on goin’!” or is it just me?)

A little while later, I took a barbell off the rack. Carrying the barbell, which is awkward, I weaved between the benches to find a location to do some curls where I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way but I could see my form in the mirror. A man was coming from the opposite direction, also weaving around equipment. He turned around a bench at the same time I did and we came nose to nose. With the barbell, it was a bit awkward for me to get out of his way, yet he made no move to do so. I backed up a few inches saying, “Sorry.” He moved forward without acknowledging my presence. To say that I felt slighted would have overstated the case, still there was a very slight unpleasant feeling left by this encounter. Normally, I would dismiss it and think that he had something else on his mind. However, since I was now attuned to this issue I realized that he was male and white.

Going to put the barbell back, I had a nearly identical run in with another man. This time, the man said, “Sorry,” I said, “Sorry,” and the man rapidly stepped backward to allow me to pass. This time it was a black man near my age. This was starting to look to me like it wasn’t a coincidence.

Over the next few weeks, I observed people’s behavior. The gym struck me as a prime location for this because as gym members we should all be on terms of equality with one another. Furthermore, the gym is large and appears to have equal numbers of black and white members present. There seem to be more men than women, but it doesn’t feel male dominated. There are all age ranges present. There are relative few Asians or people who appear to be Hispanic, but that is unsurprising given the demographics of Baltimore. Of course, this is still anecdotal evidence even if it’s multiple anecdotes. However, over several visits I couldn’t help notice that black men apologized in the same situations in which I did whereas not a single white man apologized during the same period. I did not have any incidents with either black women or white women but Asian women did apologize to me.

According to an article about the video in FastCompany, “Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them.”

I began to see the question in a new light. Instead of wondering, “Why are women always apologizing,” I started to wonder, “Why don’t white men ever apologize?” However, I didn’t feel respect for those men who didn’t apologize. If I felt anything, it was mild irritation. Meanwhile, the men with whom I had done the sorry-sorry tango left me with mild positive feelings towards them. One of them said “Hello” and smiled every time we encountered each other in the gym after that.

Last year, there was an article on Slate that questioned the conventional wisdom about this. Amanda Hess notes that it is not an established fact that women apologize more frequently than men. She also goes on to say that apologizing is not inherently bad.

And treating others with empathy doesn’t equal devaluing ourselves. Yoko Hosoi, a professor at Tokyo University, describes the “apology-forgiveness culture” among men and women in Japan as “an ingrained cultural heritage, which serves to make a harmonious, peace-oriented society”—not to lay blame or establish hierarchies. Saying “I’m sorry” is a cultural thing. Often, it’s a positive one. And yet when we recognize a trend in the culture of women, our impulse is to say, “Women do X. Men do Y. Therefore, women should stop doing X.” Why don’t we instead think: Perhaps men could be a little bit more like women.

My casual observation would indicate that any further studies would have to take characteristics other than gender into account. Furthermore, the assumption that it’s inherently bad needs to be questioned.

Since moving to New York City, I have had several white men apologize for getting in my way on the sidewalk. So, it seems even one more factor would have to be taken into account.