Racial passing, ethnic identity and DNA as all-embracing metaphor

Is the result of a DNA swab, revealing a person’s genetic heritage, more important to individual identity than a person’s lived experiences and cultural upbringing? Does a genomic test override a person’s cultural and linguistic milieu? Do genes have any determinative role in influencing a person’s non-physical traits, such as ethnicity or intelligence?

Surely a person’s racial identity, embodied in their unique DNA, is unmistakable. After all, African Americans cannot be confused with white Anglo people? Are not racially stratified societies, such as the United States, Brazil, and other settler-colonial structures, following the inevitable dictates of a person’s DNA?

Alexander Pushkin – Russian and African

Alexander Pushkin, the preeminent Russian playwright and author, the equivalent of Shakespeare in the Russian language, had an African maternal great-grandfather. That places him within the ‘coloured’ family according to the racial strictures subsequently adopted by America and similar settler-colonial societies. Does this mean that Pushkin’s literary output belongs within the canon of black literature?

The great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was from Cameroon, and was apparently bought as a slave. Arriving in Tsarist Russia, he worked his way up the ladder in the land of feudal lords; the entrenched Russian nobility were the boyars. Gannibal, employed at the court of Peter the Great, eventually became a general and military engineer.

Pushkin was particularly proud of his African heritage – this from a snobby man, who as one of the landed nobility looked down upon the nouveau riche pushing their way into the imperial court. Pushkin could trace his ancestry all the way back to the twelfth century boyars of Russia. He wrote an unfinished historical novel, The Moor of Peter the Great, published posthumously in 1837. Sadly, Pushkin died that year – killed in a duel.

Pushkin transcended his racial heritage because, it could be argued, Imperial Russia did not have a racialised concept of human hierarchy. This is not to suggest that Tsarist Russia welcomed non-Russian nationalities; Lenin famously called imperial Russia a prison house of nations. The point here is that a person’s cultural experiences are decisive in the construction of an ethnic identity, rather than DNA.

Racial passing and DNA

Bliss Broyard, author and speaker, discovered a long-held family secret in 1990, as her father Anatole was dying. Broyard was told that she was biracial – her father was actually part Creole. Anatole, born in Louisiana in 1920, had been a white-presenting person. Keeping his coloured heritage a secret, he passed as white, and provided a comfortable, privileged upbringing for his children. Bliss had been raised as white, and never thought much about race or DNA.

Anatole Broyard, who was an editor for the NY Times, engaged in the pragmatic deception known as racial passing. Lighter-skinned or white presenting African Americans often passed themselves off as white to access the social and economic opportunities denied to black and nonwhite Americans. This practice was widespread, and though it has declined in recent years, is still a device used today.

The history of racial passing has lessons for us in our current genomic age. Rigidly defined racial categories can be flouted, and secretly mocked, for centuries. Even if we use the less politicised term of ethnicity, rather than race, genomics does not provide the ultimate arbiter of who were are. DNA is not the sum total of a person’s destiny or identity. Ethnic identity cannot be constructed exclusively on an edifice of biological building blocks.

Dr Caitlin Curtis, research fellow at the University of Queensland, makes the crucial but often overlooked point that DNA does not define a person’s cultural upbringing. She rightly ridicules the proposal from One Nation politicians, to implement a DNA test to determine a person’s Indigenous heritage before being allowed to access welfare payments. Not only would such an idea not work, it is based on simplistic and incorrect ideas about a supposed linear causative connection between an individual’s DNA and their cultural identity.

There is no straightforward progression from a single gene to a human behavioural trait. We have gone overboard, using DNA as a metaphor in tracing all sorts of behaviours to genes. It’s all in the DNA has become a lazy, shorthand explanation for all kinds of human cultural practices and traits – from warfare, to greed, to the national character of ethnic groups.

We will have more to say about the overextended myth of the selfish gene in future articles. However, let’s conclude with a few necessary observations here. It is appealing for ethnic minorities, especially those that have experienced persecution and displacement, to advocate ferociously for the survival of their unique gene pool.

The Armenians in the diaspora have a long-standing cultural preoccupation with defining and defending our supposedly pure multi-century genetic legacy. A sense of collective identity and pride is derived from proclaiming the survival of ‘our DNA’ against all odds, overcoming centuries of persecution, foreign occupation and displacement. In fact, the Armenians have been the victims of racialist-DNA thinking, in the form of Pan-Turkism; a Turkic version of Zionism.

Racialist ideologies have a certain appeal, but are ultimately counterproductive. Why? Ethnic purity is not the basis for human survival, but multiethnic cooperation and solidarity. It is only by overcoming a gene-centric view that we can surmount any obstacles, and ensure human longevity.

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