Wednesday, February 23, 2005

It's All in the Mix

What does it mean to be “biracial”? I mean this question seriously, because it seems the word is used inconsistently. Taking the word literally to mean anyone who has ancestry in more than one distinct race, a large set of biracial people don’t call themselves biracial. Indeed, I figure that set includes most black Americans.

Back in the days of slavery, breeding of black slaves with whites was very common (or at least so I’ve read). Sometimes this happened out of pure lust combined with exploitation, when masters took advantage of their slaves – the famed case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is the leading (though still disputed) example. But unlike in that case, much interbreeding was not even hidden. Slaves were often considered more valuable if they had some white blood, so slave owners would deliberately cause their female slaves to become impregnated by white men. The offspring would bring higher prices in slave markets. Sad but true.

It stands to reason that black Americans descended from slaves are likely to have some amount of white heritage. Brent Staples, writing in Slate, reaches the same conclusion: “Outside of recent African immigrants to the United States, there are virtually no black Americans of purely African descent, which is to say no black people who lack white ancestry, left in this country.” This is confirmed by casual observation: most black Americans are nowhere near as dark as black Africans. I suppose it’s possible that the blacks brought to America as slaves came from African tribes with lighter pigmentation. However, I think most came from West Africa, and the West Africans I’ve met have definitely been a good bit darker than black Americans.

Interestingly, the same may be true in reverse, according to at least one historian: “If any branch of your family has been in America since the 17th or 18th centuries, Dr. [Ira B.] Berlin [professor of American history at the University of Maryland] said, ‘it's highly likely you will find an African and an American Indian.’” If that’s right – and Staples’s article provides even more evidence – then there’s a good chance that I’m biracial, since as I have numerous ancestors who emigrated to America before the Revolution.

So it seems that most Americans who consider themselves black and many who consider themselves white meet the strict definition of biracial. Yet most do not call themselves biracial. That term seems is most often used by people with a recent mixed-race coupling (parents or grandparents) in their past. (It also seems more commonly used by people with part-Asian heritage, but I’m less confident about that generalization.) Why? I figure that designating oneself as mixed race is more a statement of cultural alignment (or non-alignment) than genetic heritage. Those who call themselves biracial or mixed emphasize their connection to multiple cultures, while those who pick a specific race emphasize their connection to one culture.

If my hypothesis is correct, then the growing percentage of people who call themselves biracial (or mixed race) does not merely reflect a growing population of people with dual genetic heritage – although that’s assuredly part of the story – but also a growing willingness of people to embrace multiple cultures instead of exclusive identification. (The fact that biracial/mixed only recently became a standard option on official forms also contributes the jump, of course.)


Anonymous said...

I'm one of them thar "bi-racials" you speak of. I actually started calling myself "mixed race" not because I identify particularly strongly with either of my parents cultures (my dad came here from the Philippines; my mom is 100% Irish), but because other people always tried to pin me down to one culture (often, mistakenly, some sort of Hispanic thing). When I was growing up, many of the government forms we had to fill out at school only let you choose one "race," but I would always check two. I never felt like either category actually captured much about who I thought I was, which was, well, just ME.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...If i remember correctly, those who were "mixed race" generally would say, "i'm half this and half that," thereby identifying themselves with both cultures. It's almost sounds trendy and exotic (so stereotypcial, i know)when my roomate would say, "i'm half german and half indian." I've only met a couple of people who generally identified with one culture although bi-racial and that was only if one parent was negligent or absent. Identifying with one culture in their case seemed more of a result of resentment of abandonment.


Anonymous said...

Nonsense like this always leads me to pick either American or Homo Sapien when I'm given the option.

Jason B.

Anonymous said...

You're quite right. A branch of genetics known as "admixture mapping" uses the mixture of ancestral populations in each member of a set of "mixed" individuals in order to ferret out subtle genetic causes of common diseases and phenotypes. Using high density SNP maps along with some fancy statistical analysis, it is possible to determine the ancestry of very short segments of chromosomes. It is possible to say, for example, that the distal quarter of the P-arm of your chromosome 13 came from Europe, some other segment from Japan, and so forth, even if that ancestor entered your family ten or twenty generations ago. The precise boundaries on each chromosome (created by crossover during gamete formation) are a little fuzzy, but the overall ancestry of any piece of DNA longer than about 1,000,000 bases comes through very clearly indeed.

I strongly encourage the use of the term "ancestral population" instead of "race" when discussing this issue, since this term has a more specific meaning and is more accurate. Specifically, it refers to a group of people that, as a whole, was in or came close to Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium in their genetic makeup. This generally occurrs when the degree of movement between populations was very small compared to the amount of mating within that population. The "black" race, for instance, consists of tremendous diversity and a large number of different ancestral populations. The disruption of this equilibrium due to increased global travel over the past few hundred years has resulted in a remarkably clear history of how genetic material from each population has been carried through the generations.

The statistics are very complicated, but yes, most African-Americans carry about 20% European DNA, and there is almost nobody in the US population that has purely African ancestry unless they or their ancestors immigrated in the post-slavery era.


Glen Whitman said...

Thanks, Tony. I appreciate the additional bit of precision. Do you have any idea what the reverse percentage is -- that is, the percentage of DNA in European-Americans that is actually African in origin?

Anonymous said...

Glen - From the seminar I attended on the subject, I don't recall any discussion of non-European DNA in Americans claiming European ancestry. This may just be a lapse in my own memory. I'm sure it's there, but considering that the offspring of "white" and "colored" people have historically almost always fallen into the "colored" category, it wouldn't surprise me if the number were much lower.

After all - to be a bit tongue in cheek - is Colin Powell a European with some African ancestry, or an African-American with a whole lotta European in him? Our identification with one ancestry or another is mostly political in nature.

Anonymous said...

I think Michael Jackson has proven that no one (with some bucks) has to remain black unless they want to. Many jetsetters want the perfect tan, no thought given to the damage being done to their skin. So I guess it goes both ways. Don't you just hate Madison Ave. for defining for us what beauty is! Another strike against Capitalism if you think about it.