Shit! I’m a White Guy!

slc24a5 - the race gene

In the last US Census, conducted at the turn of the millennium, my sister and I answered the inquiry of our race in the same way, “Other Race,” and wrote-in our explanation: “Multiracial.” (We had the option of selecting up to six racial designations, but felt that restriction was a bit too confining.) Our reasoning was as follows: there being no known genetic basis for racial classification, and the census itself using nothing more than self-identification to make the determination, we could only conclude that race is essentially a matter of personal choice.

We chose to be multiracial.

So imagine the blow to my self-image, then, when I emerge from a month of media oblivion in Darfur, Sudan to find that some goddamned eggheads at Penn State – a place better known for crappy winters, hard drinking, and Nineteenth Century football uniforms than anything remotely academic – found “the race gene.” That’s right: one lousy little gene in more than 23,000 in the humane genome mutated somewhere between 50,000 to 20,000 years ago to create white-guys. We are talking one measly alteration of a nucleotide somewhere in the 3 billion base-pairs that make up our DNA – or an SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism), as the geneticists would say. (Asians, it seems, got their own, separately occurring mutation of the same gene.)

slc24a5 is pissing me off!

Now I’m simply a honky. How boring! I’ll probably be too ashamed to show my (white) face at the door when the next census rolls around.

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4 Responses to “Shit! I’m a White Guy!”


  1. 1 mbjesq 11 June 2011 at 10:52 am

    When I tapped out this little essay more than five years ago, my mode was silliness; but my point was serious. There has always been an obvious flimsiness to the notion of race – perhaps the most divisive, destructive, pernicious concept ever conceived by the human mind. Low evidence, high stakes.

    My declared astonishment that there was suddenly a scientific basis for race was, of course, facetious. To the extent that race can be plausibly defined at all, it means nothing more than genetically distinguishable groups, identified on the basis of phenotypic characteristics. The definition’s premise of genetic difference has never been controversial, even if we lacked the tools to identify it. It should have come as no surprised that, as our genomic technologies have blossomed, the genetic signature would be identified.

    But my intent was also ironic. If the case for race was circumstantial before the discovery of slc24a5, it still seems thin afterward. One measly gene. Sure, the expression of a single gene will be responsible for a whole cascade of protein synthesis and, with it, a range of phenotypic changes. Still, one gene out of 20,000+ protein-coding genes in the human genome — one single nucleotide polymorphism out of 2.9 billion+ DNA nucleotide base-pairs — seems a pretty trifling thing upon which to base so much tragic consequence.

    Implicit in my banter is a critique of the messiness that has always been imparted to the concept of race. We imbue the concept with a range of insidious significance it has never warranted. While humans are talented in the ways of generosity, we are also appallingly gifted in the arts of meanness. That, and we are mostly stupid. It’s an unfortunate combination.

    My sister and I chose multiracialism because, in the absence of the scientific smoking gun, we found a little wiggle-room to reject the tribalism and false imputation of difference that burdens the idea of race. The protestation worked, if at all, precisely because of the unambiguous monoracialism of our observable physical characteristics. Even before the revelation of slc24a5, it was whimsy to suggest that race was as much a matter of choice as of science. But our denial of the obvious genetic component of race was no more absurd than the ugly phenetic assumptions that are maliciously (or, at the very least, thoughtlessly) heaped on the idea of race.

    Wayde Compton’s brilliant new collection of essays on the racial (and interracial) history of British Columbia, After Canaan, puts a different, more scholarly spin on the quasi-volitional aspect of race. In the opening piece, he explores the ideas of “passing” – the deliberate misrepresentation of one’s racial identity – and “pheneticizing” – racially perceiving a person based on a subjective assessment of their appearance. He focuses on the experiences of phenopolysemic people – that is, folks whose appearance is racially ambiguous – to illustrate the ways in which the social constructs of race can (and cannot) be evaded, revealing both the uselessness and the regrettable impact of racial thinking. This is a serious and beautiful book, which I recommend highly.

    As insightful, carefully argued, and helpful and Professor Compton’s work is, the imp in me will always have a soft-spot for combating moral ugliness with humor and good-nature, rather than with straight-ahead, sound reasoning. I love that my partner, Yoo-Mi, is phenopolysemic as much as a function of her comfortable-anywhere embrace of life as her pan-Asian face. It’s not just that people all over the world interpret her as something other than her lineage would suggest; it’s that they invariably see her as one of them. In Mexico, they think she is Mexican. In Mongolia, she is Mongolian. In Kazakhstan, she is Kazakh. In India, they assume she is from the Indian Northeast. With a grin and few well-chosen words in bad Hindi, she can invariably “pass” as Manipuri, avoiding the exorbitant entry fees charged to foreigners at National Parks and cultural institutions, which I, for all my chosen multiracialism, am helpless to pay.

    But my favorite example involves my friend Lisa Steele, the brilliant STD researcher (“cooties scientist”) who, until recently, was at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and now finds herself at the National Institutes of Health. Once while visiting her in Atlanta, we were confronted with a wait at a restaurant. The receptionist asked if we would like to dine at the bar, which would avoid the queue for a table. I said it was fine with me, but Lisa demurred. “Barstools were not made for black asses,” she advised me. We waited for our table in the bar area, where, of course, Lisa propped her well-rounded bottom on a stool. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Having a beer,” she replied. “Oh,” I said, “I thought you were just trying to pass.” Whether in reaction to my point or to prove hers, Lisa nearly fell off her barstool.

    MBJ

  2. 2 Smita 20 June 2011 at 10:22 pm

    MBJ:

    What a true and lovely description of Yoo-Mi!

    Apparently in Japan, they are only interested in the Japanese part of a person. So my beautiful half-Indian/half-Japanese friend was known in Japan just as “a half.”

    -s

    • 3 mbjesq 21 June 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Smita:

      The Japanese are racists par exellence. The phrase is “hambun-hambun”, meaning “half-and-half”. Sometimes people just say “hambun”, but mostly it’s a shorthand. There is, however, a sublimated message to the abbreviation. Just as you suggest, the half they are really interested in is the Japanese half. They fail to make subtle “hambun-hambun” distinctions about those whose mix does not concern the dilution of Japanese wholeness.

      There is a brilliant novella by Oe Kenzaburo called Shiiku, translated into English as The Catch, in which a black U.S. airman crashes in a remote village in Shikoku and is taken prisoner (and ultimately killed) by the townspeople. The story is about many things — not the least of which is the broad culpability of the ordinary people for immoral war-making and militarism, which we so easily shunt to our governments and “the people in charge” — but the racial element is fascinating. While the trope of the black man is in part a literary strategy of defamiliarization and abstraction, it also allows the story to illustrate the stark homogeneity of Japanese society, to display its xenophobia, and to elucidate the ways in which children are both inoculated in the virulent epistemology of difference-seeking and gloriously immune from at least some of its nastier consequences, if only for a time — until they are scarred by it.

      The Japanese, of course, are not the only people who suffer from a profusion of racial thinking, in both its semi-amusing and full-on-horrific overt displays, as well as its more sublimated, structural, willingly-ignored, pernicious manifestations. Others who fall prey to this would include… ummm… errr… all of us. Nor are they the only people to seize on the half-baked idea of halfness. In English, we have the ugly terms “halfbreed” and “half-blood” to describe mixed-racedness. If there is a silliness, simplicity, and arguable innocence about the Japanese phraseology, the animal husbandry metaphor and hematological metonymy in the English are hideous and cringeworthy. It is a mark of some progress that these nasty usages are becoming archaic, and that references to halfness in English tend to be self-descriptive (and often wry and dismissive), rather than other-regarding, as in Japanese.

      Wayde Compton, to whom I refer in my note above, deploys the neologism “Halfrican” to nice effect in his poem “Declaration of the Halfrican Nation” (from Performance Bond, 2004, Arsenal Pulp Press). He makes deft use of his divisible identity to expresses the false promise (or at least the excessive optimism) of a fully-realized, fully-inclusive multiracial society.

      Not all hip, multiracial intellectuals problematize (or deproblematize) racialization through a strategy of accounting, whether by halves or some more sophisticated fractioning. The great American anthropologist, novelist, and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston was just as quick to abnegate her mixed-race origins as to acknowledge them. In her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road, she wrote:

      I see no benefits in excusing my looks by claiming to be half Indian. In fact, I boast that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandmother on my mother’s side was not an Indian chief. Neither did I descend from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or any other Governor of a Southern state. I see no need to manufacture me a legend to beat the facts. I do not coyly admit to a touch of the tarbrush to my Indian and white ancestry. You can consider me Old Tar-Brush in person if you want to. I am mixed blood, it is true, but I differ from the party line in that I consider it neither an honor nor a shame.

      It is somewhat ironic that her lampoon of self-loathingly insistent multiracial identity hits perilously close-to-home with respect to the fanciful attitude my sister and I have taken (see the essay above), although we seem to be in close agreement about the volitional aspects of selecting one’s racial identity; and yet it in no way pertains to the unblinking candor of Professor Compton’s poetry, which deliberately fragments his ancestry. His is an important and legitimate critique of today’s Canada, which has placed the objective of multiculturalism explicitly within its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This is a turn-of-events all-but-inconceivable during Ms. Hurston’s American lifetime. It is not difficult to imagine a present-day Zora Neal Hurston finding merit in Mr. Compton’s project and his strategy, although it is hard to conceive of her altering her approach one iota. Ms. Hurston’s rejection of multi-racial particularization is consistent with her rather staunch libertarian politics of personal responsibility. Some people are into keeping score, others not so. Both tactics have plenty to recommend them, if smartly executed.

      The funniest thing about the idea of halfness is that it usually does-the-math with a sloppiness we would never have been allowed to get away with in school. Most of us cannot round-off our ancestries so evenly — as your own mixed(-up) origin perfectly illustrates. But then, most questions about race and ethnicity are not overly concerned with the precision of the answer so much as with the sketchy implications.

      MBJ

  3. 4 mbjesq 15 November 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Further to our discussion of halfness, the brilliant Vancouver artist (and my friend!) Vanessa Richards presented her “remix” of a 1960s era film produced by the CBC about the interracial marriage of her parents called, And They Shall Be One Flesh. The screening was part of a larger performance, called Skins and Steel about the blooming of Afro-Caribbean culture in Vancouver in the late 1950s and early 1960s, which I (semi-)promise to write-up soon because it was so-damned-hot. In the meanwhile, here’s what the Vancouver Courier and The Province had to say.

    I don’t believe Vanessa has put her edition of the film online; but if that changes, I’ll post a link at once.

    MBJ


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