DNA is Only One Way to Spell Identity
Genetic testing suggests that white and black Americans have more in common than they suspect. Will this change our perception of race?
"Every year," I once overheard my father say jokingly to a friend, "thousands of Negroes disappear." I remember my 8-year-old imagination going into overdrive, picturing people zapped from their homes in the middle of the night. It was only as I grew older that I realized that the people my father was talking about were choosing to disappear, running away from their families, not being taken from them. They were light-skinned blacks who could move into the white world undetected, denying their blackness and the exclusion they suffered in a white-dominated America.
I've been thinking of my father's joke a lot recently. It came back to me last month when scientists reported the discovery of a genetic mutation that led to the first appearance of white skin in humans. Reading about it, I wondered how it is that a minor mutation -- just one letter of DNA code out of 3.1 billion letters in the human genome -- is so highly prized that it has led scores of people to turn their backs on their families and has served to divide people for generations. Discovery of this mutation, combined with recent findings that all people are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical, has reinforced my belief that race is almost entirely a social demarcation, not a biological one.
Just a month earlier, I'd also recalled my father's joke as I listened to a group of students in a race relations class at Penn State University discuss the results of DNA testing that revealed the complicated strands of their racial backgrounds. Most were surprised by what they learned. African American students expected to find some European ancestry in their DNA, but were surprised at the extent of it. White students, on the other hand, were startled that they had either traces or significant amounts of DNA in common with their African American classmates. According to Mark Shriver, professor of genetics and anthropology at the university, DNA testing reveals that 5 percent of white Americans have some African ancestry and 60 percent of black Americans have white bloodlines.
This type of DNA analysis is becoming increasingly popular among people who do genealogical research, particularly blacks who want to identify their tribal roots in Africa. But I have to wonder: Is it just another manifestation of America's obsession with race? Or can it be used to help us move beyond that obsession? Can we get past concepts such as the one-drop rule, which long classified people as black even if they had only a single drop of African blood, or are racial distinctions too ingrained in our culture? In spite of the cultural changes of the past 40 years, I know that there are people who do not want to be part of a multicultural world. To find them, I need not look further than my own family.
Although my ethnic identity is strongly African American, I've always had an awareness of my mixed racial heritage. I learned as a teenager that my maternal grandfather was white. To build a life with my grandmother, who was black, my grandfather, Jim Richardson, cast his whiteness aside and lived in Prestwick, Ala., an African American community near Mobile, from around 1920 through the 1950s. Even after my grandmother died in 1936, he continued to raise his children with a strong black identity and to live among the black people who accepted him as one of their own. During her short life, my grandmother, Edna Howell Richardson, accepted Jim completely as he was, faults and all. Perhaps that's why she never even pointed out his whiteness to his children. It wasn't until my grandfather was hurt in a logging accident and someone called him a white man in the presence of my mother, who was then 6 years old, that she realized he wasn't black.
But to his white family, Jim was an outcast. As a result, my mother and her siblings never thought of Jim's family as part of their extended family, in spite of a direct blood tie that could not be denied. Interestingly enough, when my grandfather died in 1956, his white relatives asked to bury him in the Richardson family plot at a white Methodist church. Because of her close tie to her father, the decision was left up to my mother. Rather than put up a fight, she gave in. "We had him all those years," she recalls, "so we decided that if they wanted him now, they could have him back."
For years, I wondered who these people were who had wrested my grandfather's body away to save it from being buried among black folks. Last summer, I found myself walking through the Richardson family plot for the first time. On my way to my grandfather's headstone, I walked by the grave of my great-grandfather and discovered that he had been a Civil War veteran. Like whites who find African ancestry in their DNA, I experienced some surprise. Then I had a moment of clarity. It seemed to me that by burying my grandfather near his father, a son of the Confederacy, the family was trying to mask his ties to his black wife. It fits the pattern: Whenever there is a direct blood tie between blacks and whites, one side or the other finds a way to disguise the link. Think of Thomas Jefferson hiding his tie to his black slave, Sally Hemming, or the way Strom Thurmond's family tried to keep the secret about his black daughter even after he was dead and buried.
But as my recent experience with DNA testing reveals, ties of kinship cannot be thrown away. They live on and eventually reveal themselves, no matter how cleverly one disappears across the color line or hides behind a gravestone. Yet for Americans to move beyond racial absolutes, black and white families joined by blood but separated by racial one-drop rules must stop denying their links to each other. With years of forced cultural separation, that may be impossible to do. Not even the most accurate DNA test can bridge the gap. But I think there is hope in the next generation, which, judging from the students I spoke with at Penn State, is less conscious of racial differences.
I listened to those students talk about what racial labels mean and don't mean, or about what it means to be black or white. Most of them embraced their newly found diversity, and none felt that it changed their personal identity. Still, the discovery of mixed ancestry was a struggle for some. One white student wondered if her African heritage came from "a rape in my past," and another thought that her African DNA must have come from "promiscuous family members." I found these comments troubling, and indicative of the stigma that any hint of African ancestry still carries among many white Americans. The myth of the tragic mulatto may have been swept under the rug of multiculturalism, but it still holds sway in many corners of American culture.
Nevertheless, most of the students felt that knowing their true ethnic makeup might lead them to an understanding of the trivial nature of racial distinctions. Most of them said that race continues to divide American culture, even as they have come to accept a more fluid concept of race and ethnicity. They agreed that what divides groups are the assumptions each makes about the other's experiences, assumptions that are ingrained from childhood, depending on what our families teach us, by word or example. But they were optimistic that at some point in the future, Americans could move toward a concept of race and ethnicity with more bridges than boundaries.
One student in the class grew up in an interracial home, with a father of Jamaican descent and Irish mother, and he is close to both sides of his family. Although issues of race were discussed openly at home, he told me, no one ever forced him to choose between being black or white. He has felt free to forge his own identity and make friends with people who share his values and interests rather than a racial or ethnic identity.
The young man's story struck a chord with me. How different it was, first, from my grandfather Richardson's story. And even from my mother's story. With a white father raising them after my grandmother's death, my mother and her siblings could very well have fallen into that long line of people, starting in the days of slavery, who disappeared into the white world to escape the stigma of their racial identity. Yet they chose to wear their African heritage as a badge of honor.
Most of all, though, the young man's story resonated with the way I am trying to raise my own family. My three children -- ages 8, 12 and 13 -- are growing up with a black father and a white mother who speak openly about race, but don't stress the need for them to decide which side of the black-white divide they have to live on. We don't deny that race is part of our social reality, as I believe it is for most Americans. But rather than dwell on racial differences, our family emphasizes the values both sides have in common.
I'm sure my grandparents tried to transcend race, but they were constantly getting caught in the tangled web of black-white divisions that dominated the culture and laws of the American South. Those same divisions live on today in both North and South and continue to influence the world we live in. But in my family, we're struggling not to repeat the missteps of the racially divided past. In our small way, we're trying to forge a new interracial future. It's still off on the horizon, but it feels within our reach. So I've resolved to keep my children moving toward a mindset that has race on the periphery rather than at the center of their identity.
I know itís what my grandparents would have wanted.
Copyright ©2005 The Washington Post Company