The new technology that allows researchers to trace their personal heritage in great depth – online resources like Ancestry.com and commercial DNA tests like 23 and Me – comes with some unintended consequences. We have long been used to describing ourselves and others with broad characterizations of race, and to categorize people by unchallenged assumptions about their ethnic makeup. But discovering exactly who our biological ancestors were, or where our families originated and who they considered themselves to be, can raise complicated questions which may embarrass individuals of all backgrounds. All politics, too.
It’s well known, certainly, that many North and South Americans considered Black today have distant European roots resulting from sexual exploitation by slaveowners of slaves, or at least by the socially powerful of the socially vulnerable. As well, both western continents have classes of Metis (in Canada) or Mestizo (in Spanish-speaking countries), descended from relations between colonizers and Indigenous people. That human history is full of coerced conceptions between conquering and conquered communities, along with unacknowledged products of extramarital unions, is no secret. For better or worse, and by some measure or other, we are all mini-melting pots.
Yet the reality that human beings are a single species, whose male and female members can produce viable offspring no matter the parents’ disparate origins, undermines contemporary claims of both the most virulent racists and of their most high-minded opponents. Since there is no “pure” race that can boast historic superiority over every other, there can neither be a “pure” counterpart to show off the scars of imposed inferiority. Some people were often persecuted because of their color or religion, obviously, and others did a lot more of the persecuting. But most of us have ancestors from both sides. In recent years this conundrum has led to awkward episodes of public figures like US Senator Elizabeth Warren or Canadian novelist Joseph Boyden straining to cite a very thin Aboriginal lineage, the better to connect with the downtrodden, the special, or just the interesting. Whereas under truly oppressive or genocidal regimes, people who could somehow disguise their second-class identities would do so to protect themselves, in our current systems of mandated multiculturalism, people who can somehow embellish a victimized identity will do so to win a moral credit.
In his 2019 book Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, the mixed-race American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote: “The most shocking aspect of today’s mainstream anti-racist discourse is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race – specifically the specialness of whiteness – that white supremacist thinkers cherish…Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many antiracists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories.” Thus the more the shibboleths of one class’s guilt and another’s heroic suffering are repeated, the more anxiously people want to fit in with the blameless group – even if it means perpetuating a conceit of Otherness that reaffirms the same hatreds which emphasized the Otherness to begin with. White nationalists don’t need many excuses to discriminate (German Jews were still targeted by the Nazis, despite being among the most integrated Jewish populations in Europe), so why give them one more? Especially a tenuous one that can soon be falsified by Ancestry.com?
By 2021, happily, it’s common to have loving and fruitful unions between many partners whose great-grandparents might have been horrified by their “marrying out”: Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Christians, Asians and Anglos, Aboriginals and whites, and a global kaleidoscope of other combinations. But in a sense, this means that anti-racism has become a victim of its own success. Those with a vested interest in maintaining a marginalized status must confront the uncertain cultural and genetic benefits such a distinction will offer over time. When difference is no longer something to reject, it may no longer be something to protect quite so much, either.