The Mountain Times

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Race and ethnicity: Who am I?


Asked what I am with regard to my ethnic or cultural background, I tend to reply that I'm "of mixed heritage" - which may be a meaningless term because, well, isn't everyone in America "of mixed heritage"? The response is like Facebook's "It's Complicated" option: a vaguely annoying blow-off answer.
In my family, we retain no obvious cultural or religious traditions specific to any of our various motherlands - not even an old recipe - and so perhaps it'd be more accurate for me to say that I have no heritage at all. Yet "of mixed heritage," whatever it means, always sounded less assertive or controversial to me than "of mixed race" ... though, again, aren't we all actually of mixed race, if "race" exists?
In America, the question of whether one qualifies under the mixed-race heading is often just the question, really, of whether one seems non-white enough to qualify as "non-white" - as though white people were themselves some monolithic entity. My mom is definitely a white person, born of pasty Kentuckians with a Scottish surname. My dad - an indeterminately brown-skinned guy who wore something resembling an afro in the 1970s - is where things get (slightly) more interesting.
Because my father had a dark enough complexion to experience some incidents of racism growing up, he can, I suppose, guiltlessly classify himself as "mixed-race." His dad was white (Slovakian and English), and his siblings took after the father, but his mom has some complex, obscure background whereby she became, by her own definition, a sort of "all-purpose ethnic person." She can realistically pass as black, Middle Eastern, Native American, Hispanic, or Indian. She could have had a great career in mid-century Hollywood: an extra in "The Searchers," a part in "Porgy and Bess," a brief appearance in "Lawrence of Arabia."
In the 1950s, this simply made her a colored woman, but the reality was that her Marseille-born father was of North African descent (possibly Moroccan); her mother was half African-American and half something else - supposedly Native American. Their family, she said, was from the Seneca tribe of New York, one of the Six Nations of the Iroquois.
Growing up, my brothers and I knew that we had far more European blood in us than we did African or American Indian, yet these latter two pieces of our family history were (of course) the most important to us, and they were the ones that, if pushed to identify beyond "mixed-heritage," we would most enthusiastically mention. I'm as pale as any non-albino, but Tony and Zach both have year-round tans, and, as ridiculous and offensive as this may sound, Tony's ability, at 5'9", to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot rim seemed to convince most white people that we were not like them.
Zach, Tony, and I were upper-middle-class suburban kids who played soccer in the fall and skied in the winter, who spent summers in Maine, whose parents had both gone to Princeton - yet, perhaps somewhat absurdly, we felt ourselves to be in a significant way separate from "white people." This was partly a consequence of encouragement from our dad, who had experienced his life (in his own mind and in the minds of some others) as a non-white person, and therefore bristled at the notion that his kids could be totally "white"; whatever he was, it had only been halved - it hadn't disappeared. More importantly, though, the three of us boys were - in our own ways - odd, rebellious kids, and privately believing ourselves to be black Seneca Indians was a silly but seductive way of bolstering our sense of being different from all the (white) kids around us, even if the differences blatantly had nothing to do with race.
I mention all this because my dad recently took part in a venture called the Genographic Project, which, according to its website, is "a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells" that uses "cutting-edge genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world." Anyone can contribute: you purchase a kit, swab your cheek, send in the sample, and find out where your ancestors came from. Presumably this data serves some useful purpose for scientists; for us, it kindly indulges our self-absorption and propensity for family mythmaking.
My dad, as it turns out, is 36% Mediterranean, 33% Northern European, 16% Southwest Asian, and 12% sub-Saharan African. The two population groups whose overall genetic makeup he comes closest to fitting in with are Finnish people and Tunisian people, apparently. That all sounds about right, except - wait! Where's the Native American part?
We were sure that we were Native American. We even knew the tribe. Yet National Geographic says no - not a trace. How can that be?
Well, I guess I trust Dr. Spencer Wells more than I trust my great-grandmother. Of course, this just means that my dad isn't Native American; I still could be. My Scottish mom may have a few tricks up her sleeve - who knows? People sometimes used to point out that our first black president had, unlike most African-Americans, no slave ancestry - yet, when tests were done, it turned out that he did, on his white mother's side.
I won't be doing any tests. Whether I'm 6% Native American or 0%, it'd probably be equally offensive to a real Iroquois if I self-identified as one. At the lower levels, the numbers really are irrelevant.
A large portion of any person's background, I think, exists not in his blood but in his imagination - every family story is at least half-invented, and the invented half is no less important. I'm as much a Native American today as I ever was - a not totally inconsiderable amount, maybe.