The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 2: Culture

In my previous post, The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race  https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-concepts-of-race-vs-culture-pt-1-race/ I touched on three things:

  1. How the concepts of Race and Culture have come to mean the same thing;
  2. How scientific studies of human DNA raises an interesting discussion point about Race; and
  3. Why I don’t believe that Race, as a modern concept, actually exists. As a man-made concept, the notion of Race didn’t exist before the 17th Century. There were socioeconomic foundation behind its conception and implementation.

So If I don’t think Race exists, what exists in its place?

An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to 'Race'

An illustrative example of how the concept of Ethnicity has become related to ‘Race’

For the time being I am going to dodge the concept of Ethnicity; the concept that has come to be the kissing cousin of Race. Ethnicity is also a man-made concept, subject to human foibles to rationalize, justify and otherwise excuse any manner of atrocities and prejudices. Like Race, it suggest an ‘otherness’ within humanity which simply doesn’t exist. Again, I refer to genetic admixtures we all carry within us. A better understanding of human genetics, and admixtures in particular, will influence our concept of Ethnicity as well as Race.

Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world

Examples of masks from different Cultures from around the world

What I do believe in is Culture. Culture is tricky because, as a concept, it too has become corrupted through misuse and something what I call ‘language laziness’ (where we think ‘oh that word will do’ when that word isn’t really applicable).  Everything has a culture today. Businesses apparently have a culture. They don’t, not really, they have an environment. Some will say this is semantics. So be it. We have so called gun cultures, gang cultures, mob cultures, academic cultures, liberal cultures, conservative cultures, etc. These are not cultures. These are environments.

What we do have is Culture…and culture. When I use the word culture, with a small ‘c’, I mean all of the arts and other expressions and manifestations of human intellectual achievement as a collective body (i.e. books, films, paintings, photographs, sculptures, ballet and other forms of dancing, music, etc).

When I use the word Culture, with a capital ‘C’, I refer to its anthropological and behavioral scientific origins. In this context Culture is the full range of learned human behavioral patterns.  English Anthropologist Edward B. Tylor was the first person to use this term in this way in his book, Primitive Culture, published in 1871.  Tylor defines Culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [humans] as a member of [a] society.”

I emphasize the words ‘custom’ and ‘society’ to underline a basic point I’ll be making – added to the phrase ‘behavioral patterns’, you can probably guess where I’m going with this.

As an American-specific example, one could argue that there is a “White” Culture. Many have. My apologies for using a “Race” term that I don’t believe in. The concept of “Race is so embedded in our psyches and language that there is no other means of discussing this topic without referring to it. I’m using it as a kind of short-hand. OK, so back to the “White” Culture in America. Which “White” Culture would this be referring to? There are too many “White” sub-Cultures for a view as reductionist as this.

We can look at it this way:

Example of the “American “White” Culture”:

  • Sub-Culture Level 1: The New England “White” Culture and Southern “White” Culture are two very different things. I’d say it’s fair to argue that there are more differences between these two sub-Cultures than commonalities.
  • Sub-Culture Level 2: The “White” Culture of Virginia and the “White” Culture of Georgia or North Carolina, South Carolina or any other state in America’s South-east. Each state has its own history, set of shared experiences, traditions and ties that bind its citizens which separates it from its neighboring states.
  • Sub-Culture Level 3: The “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the “White” Culture of Newport News, Virginia.
  • Sub-Culture Level 4: The white collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia and the blue collar “White” Culture of Richmond, Virginia.

I’m sure I could drill this down another level or two but that would be overkill.  This example doesn’t even touch on educational attainment, religious affiliations or political beliefs, which add their own layers of complexity.

There is nothing to unite “White” Americans at that primary level except for lack of permanent melanin in the skin (it’s worth noting here that skin tones vary widely even within the Culture). In this example, there can’t be a singular “White” American Culture simply because there is no set of commonly shared experiences, history, customs or behavioural patterns to unite it. Instead, we have a lot of sub-Cultures. Some of whom compete against each other.

All peoples have their own Culture and those Cultures are just as diverse and as complex as the example I’ve given above. When Americans refer to “African-American Culture”, which African-American Culture are they referring to? With a history and experiences as diverse as the American “White” Culture, the ‘African-American’ Culture is one that shouldn’t be spoken of using reductionist language. Asian-American, Native American, Latin-American: the same applies to all of the diverse Cultures that live side-by-side, part of the diverse communities where we live.

I was raised within a rural, New England, middle class African-American sub-Culture. I would have never guessed that as a child. As an adult, I see and understand it. Historically speaking, one group of my ancestors were people of an African-American Culture who were southern, Virginian and enslaved. Some were free –most were not. The next few generations were people of the African-American, southern, Virginian, farming sub-Culture – before the great exodus from the south changed the various sub-Cultures they lived within.

Another group of my ancestors were part of the White, European, immigrant, southern, Virginian, land-owning, upwardly-mobile sub-Culture – many of their descendants entering into the White, southern, wealthy, Virginian, slave-owning sub-Culture. For many, many decades I was a member of the North-west London, executive, white collar, creative industries Culture – unlike any other Culture in Britain. This sub-Culture is unique as a ’racial’ qualifier can’t be added. It is a generally inclusive and diverse Culture.

Culture, it would seem, is not a fixed thing. One can move within a Culture’s various sub-Cultures. It’s one of the reasons why I say no Culture can be viewed, thought about or spoken of in absolute or reductionist terms. To do so doesn’t reflect reality. To do so doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Culture, like culture, gives humankind a bounty of riches in the form of diversity. Understanding this concept in this manner hopefully will give rise to a better understanding between peoples of different Cultures and sub-Cultures, that group of people’s history and their collective experiences. The collection of sub-Cultures within a Culture are shaped by the experience and the history singular to the people who form that particular sub-Culture. Understanding this enables an understanding of a Culture, and its sub-Culture’s forms of expressions – its culture, as it were. Hopefully, we stop seeing someone from another Culture as ‘wholly other’ or ‘alien’ to us – just someone from a different Culture than our own. No better and no worse than us. We can celebrate Cultural and sub-Cultural difference instead of reviling them.

No one overall Culture is better than any other.

Eradicating our concept of Race (and Ethnicity) levels the playing field for every human being on the planet. Eliminating the language of Race more or less forces all of us to accept that we’re a species sharing common DNA. The only difference being which combination of admixtures we carry within our individual genetics and how our genes choose to manifest themselves. No combination is better than another. They are what they are.

Refining our understanding and appreciating the concept of Culture will, hopefully one day, enable human beings to appreciate the diversity of the human experience in all of its positive manifestations and work towards eradicating the negative. Only fear and hidden agendas prevent this.

I believe it’s only when humankind understands and appreciates this that the difficult, painful, and (hopefully) ultimately cathartic – conversations  around the legacy of Empire, slavery, genocide and tyranny in all its forms can happen in an open, honest and frank way. That’s when respectful coexistence can start to happen. That’s when we move forward collectively as a species.

I know that’s the world and the legacy I’d like to leave behind for the generations that follow mine.

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The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race

I outlined an epiphany I had about the concepts of Race and Culture in my previous post The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction …and what prompted that epiphany. How did I even come to start thinking about these two powerful concepts in the first place? My DNA test results – an affirming and life altering offshoot of my family history and genealogical research.  If you haven’t done so already, you can read about my maternal and paternal DNA tests and the global cultures I’m directly connected to here: https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/tag/family-dna-results/

A bit of background for some context

Map of the old silk road

Map of the ancient Silk Road (click for a larger image). Silk and other goods weren’t the only things to be traded up and down this ancient, popular trade route. Philosophy, culture, art, religion – and genetics/DNA – were also exchanged. The Silk Road is the most famous ancient trade route. It was far from being the only one. Many any ancient trade routes, wars and empire building witnessed the mixing of ancient peoples, cultures and populations.

I’m a deep thinker. This is probably why I’ve made such a good academic. I also question things and I like to delve into things fearlessly – throwing myself headlong into a topic. Ultimately, I just want to know about stuff. I wouldn’t have embarked on this whole genealogy adventure if I didn’t. And I’m not afraid of finding inconvenient or unsettling truths as well as the positive and affirming. That’s part and parcel of life itself and the human experience. My DNA tests results have made me think – a lot. You can read about my initial thoughts in my post DNA: Going beyond a single racial or cultural identity. where I discussed how I embraced all of the races and cultures embedded and hard wired into the most intrinsic essence of myself – my DNA.

So yes, I was already primed and receptive to going further down this road when I came across two gems. These gems covered how different cultures on our planet have connected men and women from different cultures which led to producing mixed-culture offspring. These children carried combined genes from their parents’ different cultures and cultural populations and passed this rich genetic mixture on to their descendants over huge swathes of time. The two gems were:

(1)    Wade, Nicholas. 2014.Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/science/tracing-ancestry-team-produces-genetic-atlas-of-human-mixing-events.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0; and

(2)    A genetic atlas of human admixture history, An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Race vs Culture

an image concepualizing race and culture

Image credit: Race (Shea Walsh)

So…this whole admixture thing simply rocked my world. I can’t stress that enough. It was like driving along a picturesque country road, taking in the view and humming along to the music – and suddenly finding yourself hydroplaning. A light turned on and I suddenly had a profound insight into two concepts which have shaped my life and the lives of billions of other peoples: Race and Culture. Understanding admixtures was the key. Actually, it was understanding the implications of the existence of admixtures that did it. I’ll borrow one of my favorite lines from the movie Fight Club: “Ladies and gentlemen, please return your seat backs to their full upright and locked positions.”

I understood that somewhere in relatively recent European-centric history, and by that I mean middish 17th Century European-centric history onwards, ‘Race’ became a concept. And then ‘Race’ became a thing – a thing that could be defined, quantified and qualified. Especially in a commercially driven European dominated world fueled by colonial riches obtained through the life, death and efforts of millions of non-European peoples.  It was a convenient concept to justify all manner of socio-economic policies for those who held the power in and over these colonies, and again in America’s own Republic. Over subsequent generations the concepts of Race and Culture (I’ll address Culture in the next post) became synonymous. In modern times, they are indistinguishable. Not virtually indistinguishable. They have come to mean one in the same thing through either convenience or through linguistic short-hand so common within today’s language.

Race and Culture are not the same. They never were. I, for one, would like to reclaim the profound and fundamental distinction between the two.  Denying this one simple fact has done our species untold and needless harm and has caused all manner of unnecessary suffering. The mythology of ‘Race’ is one of the biggest lies the Western world and Western-influenced world has ever created…much less told.

The complex genetic structure of admixtures

image credit: Worldrace

The more I delve into the whole human DNA thing the more I come to realize one thing:  there is no such thing as ‘Race’ much less ‘Racial Purity’. I’m kind of kicking myself that I allowed my own country to brainwash me into thinking that there was such a thing as Race – and all that went with it. As an academic, I get how it happened and even begin to understand why it happened.

And for those who will immediately decry that I’m trying to ‘shame’ those with a European heritage, particularly in the US, I’ll remind them that in 18th Century America, German, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Irish and Portuguese immigrants weren’t classed as ‘white’.  It was only as the number of ‘non whites’ began to increase that a tenuous olive branch was extended to these groups. These groups were treated as poor relations, almost like embarrassing cousins of lesser means. Google it. Those whom come from these cultures know what I’m talking about. If you’re in doubt, do a search in Google Books or read through some academic journal articles in Google Scholar.

And as readers of this blog will know, I also have ‘white’ ancestors. So as I write this, I have all of my ancestors in mind.

For those with a religious bent, even the Bible doesn’t mention ‘Race’. Men  interpret that it did in times past and that it still does. The word ‘Race’ does not appear in its pages. Not once.

So what is this crazy little thing called Race?

According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” The key word here is perception. It’s a human-made and human-interpreted distinction. It’s not something that’s unbiased or reliable. Humans possess the superb ability to perceive things, including facts,  as they want them to be; which basically means how they think things ought to be.

PBS have published a pretty cool microsite called What is Race: http://www.pbs.org/race/001_WhatIsRace/001_00-home.htm . It covers the introduction and the development of ‘Race’ as a concept and as an experience in the United States.

Trying to classify human beings based on one arbitrary criteria, skin color, is absurd when you start to think about it. Why not eye color? Or hair type? Or height? Birth within the human species is a pretty random process. By this, I mean where any one of us can potentially be born is incredibly random. Random too is the culture we’re born into. There’s one question I’d love to ask any racist. I mean I want to look them dead in the eye and ask: If chance had seen you born into a different culture with a different skin color, would that make you any less a person or human being than you are now?

Race is a myth. It’s time it’s consigned alongside stories of Valhalla, Mount Olympus, phrenology and other such myths.

Going beyond Race as a defining characteristic

flags from different cultures

image credit: Wikipedia

The point is each and every human being on the planet has a rich inheritance in the form of admixtures. It’s plural – we all have more than one admixture in our DNA.  I have plenty. And I am not unique. Race doesn’t exist. We are a species composed of billions who carry within ourselves the genetics which our ancestors have passed back and forth within our species over staggeringly vast eons of time. We are the rich and diverse walking, talking, thinking embodiment of universal, shared genetics which is expressed in us in any number of ways.  No one way of expression is any better than any another. It’s just that – an expression from a cocktail of DNA that goes back further than any of us can truly envision. To give preference to one form of genetic expression over another is absurd. We’ve seen where that’s led.

We’ve journeyed down that road quite far enough. It’s time to re-set the GPS or find a new map and forget that the road that we’ve been on for centuries ever existed. Our ancient ancestors were nearly wiped off the face of the earth more than once (http://io9.com/5501565/extinction-events-that-almost-wiped-out-humans).  The existence of human beings  – the fact that any of our human brothers and sisters are here at all  is a thing to be celebrated. Considering the human genetics that were probably lost for all time in those near-extinction events…I think the fact that we have the degree of diversity in genetic expression that we do is a miracle.

I have an extension of this belief. I’m just going to say it. When you reach a conclusion like ‘Race’ doesn’t exist…you understand the horrific implication of slavery. Any form of slavery. Both past and present and anywhere it was (and still is) practiced around the world.  And given my own American ancestors’ histories, I don’t say that lightly.

I’ll stop things here. I’m sharing a recent insight I’ve had after some days of pretty deep thinking. I don’t really fancy writing a book on the topic :O)

Well, just one more wee thing to make this topical. When it comes to admixtures…we are all mongrels.

Next up will be Culture. I hope the next point will illustrate why Race and Culture aren’t the same thing…and need to be separated as concepts, in terms of how we use them in our language and how we need to reclaim the word Culture and restore its meaning.

Here’s the link: http://nblo.gs/XzRXG

The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction

The more regular visitors to this blog will no doubt realize I’ve gone a bit quiet over the past week or so. I’ve been grappling with a concept that I’ve been struggling to get a handle on…much less commit to print.

My genealogy adventures has taken twists and turns I could have never foreseen. How grateful I’ve been for the ride, let alone the journey! This is one of those times. I’ve had a very recent epiphany regarding the concepts of Race and Culture. I’m not capitalizing these words simply for emphasis – but to highlight their conceptual nature. That was part of my ultimate realization – these two things are just that…concepts. Man made concepts at that. And the intersection between these two concepts will form the basis of the next couple of posts.

I appreciate that what comes as pure and simple logic to me will more than likely prove controversial to others. I’m pretty nonplussed when it comes to push-back. Like any academic, I’ll welcome the conversation and debate. What I’ll be writing about isn’t meant to be controversial. I’m merely sharing an insight that I’ve had. Others will either think about it and have their own realizations – or they won’t.

So how did this light-bulb moment I’m grappling with come about? Two simply brilliant sources of information that discuss genetic admixtures. Yep, more DNA stuff 🙂 Genetic admixtures happen when people from two different cultures produce children. For instance, say a Han man from China has children with a Yoruba woman from Africa. This scenario isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds! Their children’s DNA will have a mixture of Han Chinese and Yoruba African DNA – an admixture. That admixture gets passed down their descendants’ lines as per the usual rules of DNA inheritance. In other words, it gets passed down through subsequent generations. This is a simplification, but one that serves to explain a complicated fact in a very straightforward way. One thing to realize – every human being on the planet has all manner of admixtures in his or her DNA.

Everyone.

The two information sources which jostled me along this particular road of personal discovery are below. They’re worth investigating. On the one hand, they are both simply fascinating. I keep returning to them. Secondly, understanding them, and understanding their implications, will help you understand my epiphany about Race and Culture.

And if this is all sounding somewhat familiar? Well, I tentatively broached this subject in my post DNA: Going beyond a single racial or cultural identity. In my next post, I’ll be going much deeper. I’ve gained a far deeper realization over the past few days than the basic outline broached in that initial post.

If this subject interests you, these are the two sources that are worth checking out:

Wade, Nicholas. 2014. Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/14/science/tracing-ancestry-team-produces-genetic-atlas-of-human-mixing-events.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0; and

Human Admixture events
A genetic atlas of human admixture history,
An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Happy investigating!

DNA Results Part 2: The wild journey of my mtDNA

If my Y-DNA results (the DNA passed from father to son(s)) presented a few surprises, my Mitochondrial (mtDNA) test results gave me a unique jaw dropping experience (blog post DNA Results Part 1: My Y DNAhas been on quite a journey https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/dna-results-part-1-my-y-DNA-has-been-on-quite-a-journey/).

It is a rare experience. I’m a university lecturer and entertainment industry senior executive. I’ve seen, heard and/or done quite a bit in terms of life experiences…so it takes rather a lot to make my jaw drop in stunned surprise.

So what’s mtDNA? It’s the DNA that’s passed from mother to her sons and daughters.

Why was my mtDNA result such a surprise?  I’ll get to that in a minute.  I promise.

Expected results

I was primarily interested in uncovering where my maternal African ancestors came from. My mtDNA type is referred to as L2.  This DNA group emerged approx 70,000 to 100,000 years ago from the L1 Group, which originated from Eastern Africa.

Unlike my paternal African ancestors who have connections with present day Burkina Faso, Zambia, Chad and North Africa – my maternal African ancestors have connections with present day  Mali, Mauritania, Northern Tunisia, Sengal and Mozambique.

The African tribes my mother’s DNA is linked to are the Kung, Mbuti, Biaka, Mandenka, Songhai, Tuareg, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulbe, Kanuri, Turkana, Kikuyu and Somali.

My father’s ancient ancestors took two routes across Africa from Egypt and eastern Africa to Africa’s west  coast: across North Africa and through the Sahara. My mother’s ancient ancestors took one route from eastern to western Africa. This route was through the Sahara:

my mtDNA journey across Africa

My mtDNA migration across Africa which began tens of thousands of years ago.

 

 So far so good. The African test results have provided me with more tribes and cultures to research.  And, if my proposed TV series gets the green light, I’ll have the opportunity to go in search of these lost tribal ancestors and bring their stories, experiences and histories to light. Although I’m still not certain what the best introduction would be.  Something like ‘hey, we shared some common ancestors from 200 to thousands of years ago!’ Yeah, I know what my facial expression would be if a stranger came up to me and said it!

The DNA results kind of provided one maternal family legend. My mother’s family does indeed have First Nation (American Indian) blood. Her maternal line should have Cherokee blood, according to family legend. However, what’s present in the results is Apache, Navajo, Algonquian, Iroquoian, and Sioux.

The family’s French connection didn’t come as a surprise.  However, it was interesting to note that the strongest connections stretched from Normandy along the coast to Aquitaine. I’d suspect that this comes via the Harling family in England, whose ancestors arrived in England from Normandy with William the Conqueror.

So what were the surprises?

My maternal DNA has a staggering amount of Semitic markers, some 20%. We’re talking every major and minor Semitic strain in existence: Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Ethiopian, Yeminite, Indian (which was a learning curve.  I never knew there was a Jewish population in India) and Asia.

Coming back to India for a brief moment, there are strong connections with the BhilBharia and Sahariya populations. What’s striking about these tribes is their remoteness, isolation and adherence to their ancient culture and traditions. The appearance of their DNA markers in my mtDNA is intriguing and mysterious. The DNA trace from these groups is marginal, less than 1%, suggesting the genetic connection extends eons back in time. 

Scandinavian, particularly Swedish. I’d never heard claims from my mother’s family that there was a Swedish connection within her maternal line.  However, a cousin recently said that my mother did mention something about this in passing a few years ago. This too represents around 20% of my mtDNA.

Chinese. Again, this is present in significant amounts, particularly with the HanGelao (Ghuizo), Dai (Yunnan).

In terms of European DNA, there is a significant amount of markers from northern and central Portugal. For this to happen to this degree, it means there is more than one unknown Portuguese lady in my maternal line. Again, there is no family legends among my mother’s family of any Portuguese connections. Certainly none that would explain the amount of Portuguese DNA in her lineage. Sticking with the Iberian Peninsula, there are also connections with Cantabria and Andalusia in Spain.

There’s also an Italian connection which accounts for roughly 8% of my mtDNA. This DNA is specifically associated with SicilyBasilicata and Sardinia.  Again, there’s never been any mention of Italian blood within my mother’s family.

Central & Eastern European. Approximately half of my mtDNA’s Central and Eastern European connections has to do with the Jewish populations in this region. Croatia (Dubrovnik), Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia are also present. Even more surprising was the presence of Romany (Gypsy) markers. The Gypsy markers, while less than 1%, are specifically linked to Polish gypsies in western Poland (Zielona G´ora and Nowa S´ol).

Korean, minimal as it was, was another curve ball.

Lastly, there was also a significant presence of Russian markers in the mtDNA results. Almost all of them from Siberia.

Now the word that immediately springs to mind is Melungeon, which you can discover more about here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melungeon It seems to apply to both my maternal and paternal DNA in terms of the American experience. In truth, as a person who shuns labels, it seems yet another descriptive label to describe what most of us are in one way or another – a mix.

My mtDNA has been one wild journey. Like my Y Chromosome, my DNA has travelled far and ancient familial tribes spread both far and wide.

It leaves me wondering if some of my stronger ‘likes’ has anything to do with my DNA. In terms of food, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Arab and Chinese are among my all-time favourites. I’ve travelled far and wide in the course of my two careers and some countries intuitively just made sense. I wouldn’t go as far as saying trips to Sweden, Russia, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina felt like any sort of home coming. However, as colleagues would attest, after less than a day I felt an affinity. I just got how these societies worked and what made them ‘tick’.

The best way I could ever explain it would be like a residual ‘ghost’ in the DNA saying ‘welcome home’. Whether it was ordering food or chatting about something, business hosts in each country gave me a look of surprise and invariably say something like ‘how did you know that?’ or ‘ You’ve done your homework’. My response was always the same.  I couldn’t explain how I knew what I knew or why I’d made certain choices – except to say that it either seemed to be the ‘right’ thing to do or the thing that made the most sense.

It’s like never being told not to use Parmesan on Italian fish dishes but somehow knowing that it’s something no Italian would ever do. Or when chutney is an appropriate condiment and when it isn’t  Or how to use a North African tajine without reading about it. Or what cultures would find the shaking of hands in greeting repugnant and offensive and those that do not. No one ever told me and I’d never read about these things or discussed them.  I just kind of knew. It’s a talent that I’ve always taken for granted. Now I’m wondering if it’s something more. It’s certainly raises some interesting anthropological research opportunities.

So these are the initial results of my mtDNA test. I can’t wait to find what the other mtDNA tests I’ve ordered will reveal.

Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line

It’s that time in the university academic calendar where my schedule has been hijacked by a mountain of postgraduate and undergraduate marking and assessments. So my posts will be a bit sparse over the coming weeks.

However, in the meantime, I do have one intriguing find to share.

“Passing for white”. Now there’s a phrase that tends to hang suspended in space if ever there was one. The fact is, there are African-Americans who did so for a variety of reasons – and continue to do so today. There were more than a few instances of ‘passing’ on my maternal side of the family.

I grew up hearing the tale of how, in the depths of the 1930s depression, my maternal Turner grandfather ‘passed’ in order to get work and provide for his family. As any child, I took this as a simple family anecdote, one amongst a number of tales told during family gatherings during the holidays. It was only as an adult that I understood the significance of that act and what the potential repercussions could have been had my grandfather been rumbled.  I began to wonder if my grandfather had ever been tempted to make those forays into a white identity permanent…and asked myself what I would have done.

In researching the African-American Turners of Charles County, Maryland, some interesting facts have come to light. Death records between 1850 and 1870 cite a number of Charles County, MD Turners as having ‘very light’ or ‘white’ complexions. However, these records are for the Turners I traced who declared themselves as mulattoes during their lifetime. There were a number of their kin who moved from Charles County, MD and passed for white, their descendants entering into the white race. With respect to their descendants, who most likely have no idea they are descended from African-Americans, I won’t be posting specific family individuals I’ve found from the Turner clan who left their black roots behind.

There are other Turner lines I suspect followed in their footsteps and also ‘passed’. However, due to the popular nature of their names, it’s difficult to know if I’m looking at records for the same individual or different people born roughly in the same year bearing the same name as one another. What is interesting, for me, is the fact that my Turner antecedents had a complexion cited as ‘white’ who were born as early as 1825. That would suggest mixed race relationships had occurred for generations beforehand. This has presented an interesting genealogy hurdle to be overcome. Finding the names of fathers for many of the Charles County, MD Turners born before 1850 has been next to impossible. The reason for this is more than likely because the fathers of these mulattoes with such light complexions were white.

On my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, the Harlings, the same pattern emerges. A small number of Harlings caused all manner of confusion for doctors issuing death certificates. I’ve found three death certificates which first stated the deceased was ‘white’, which was crossed out and substituted with ‘black’. One individual went from ‘white’ to ‘black’ back to ‘white’ and then ‘black’ on the same death certificate. Like the Turners, many of my direct Harling antecedents had a complexion noted as ‘very light’ or ‘white’ as far back as the 1830s. Again, suggesting relations had existed between Harling slave women and white men for a number of generations. Unlike the my Turner ancestors, a number of the children born of these unions were openly acknowledged by their fathers (but more on this in a future post).

Like the Turners, a small number of Edgefield County-born Harlings jumped the colour line after the end of slavery and passed for white. However, unlike Charles County, MD Turners, documenting this amongst the Harlings has been fairly easy and straightforward. The Harlings seemed to prefer using distinctive names which has made tracing this family’s descendants far easier than tracing the Turners.

Again, staying with my maternal ancestors, my Josey great-grandmother’s extended family had a number of family members who permanently passed for white at the end of the Civil War. Like the Turners and Harlings, my Josey ancestors in Rich Square, North Carolina , could also pass for white from the 1820s onwards.

I’ve deliberated over publishing this post for quite a few months. “Passing” still remains a prickly subject. However, it did happen and shouldn’t be ignored. I decided to publish it, in the end, as it presents another set of genealogical challenges for Americans with roots in the ante-bellum Southern states. And I use the word ‘American’, without any ethnic qualifier, deliberately. An African-American tracing his or her family might come across individuals who seem to drop off the radar in terms of the official records. If that person comes from a long line of mulattoes, one reason you might have to consider is that person ‘passed’. So instead of seeking someone who is black in the official records, take a punt and look for someone with the same, or similar, name born around the same year. Of course it helps if they have a somewhat distinctive name. Or, if you’re white, and the trail runs cold for a specific ancestor, it just might be because the individual you’re researching was a mulatto who decided to ‘pass’. This won’t always be the case – but it is a possibility, no matter how remote.