I am a huge fan of the website 23andme.com, which analyses your DNA. I’ve learned a lot of interesting things from the site in terms of what my genes say about how i look (I likely have blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair!), what diseases I am likely to face (BRCA negative, but it looks bad for Restless Leg Syndrome), but the most interesting thing I’ve learned about myself has been about my heritage.
I was unsurprised to see that I was more Neanderthal than average, as that’s fairly common when you’re European. But I was a little surprised to discover that I am not 100% European. In fact, if I had been living in a lot of the Americas in the last 200 years, I wouldn’t have been considered white.
In the colonial Americas — from Haiti to New Orleans to Spanish-America — race mixing was very common and, because they thought race mattered, they actually had specialized terms for those who were a certain percentage of different heritages. I spent a lot of time researching some of the more obscure names for people of mixed-blood, to see if i could find one that got as distant as I appear to be from my nearest Sub-Saharan African ancestor (assuming it’s just one) — probably seven generations away, as I am at about 1/128th percentage.
It took a long time. While it was easy to see that one of my great-grandparents would have had names for their percentage of African heritage, it was less clear whether I’d simply be considered fully white or just have had the one drop rule applied and been considered “Colored.”
My answer came from Haiti. In Haiti, they felt that people were made out of 128 parts, or 7 generations of heritage, and so they had the longest list of names for partial African descent.
- Myself 1/128 Sang-mêlé
- Parent 1/64 Also Sang-mêlé
- Grandparent 1/32 Mustefino, Quateronné, Demi-Meamolouc
- Great-Grandparent 1/16 Mustee, Meamolouc, Hexadecaroon, Quintroon
- 2x Great-Grandparent 1/8 Octoroon or Métis
- 3x Great Grandparent 1/4 Quadroon
- 4x Great Grandparent 1/2 Mulatto
Per Haitian tradition, I am sang-mêlé, which literally translates as mixed blood. The term is French and is used in the title of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”. I assume this means I am, in some metaphysical way, Snape.
Clearly I fail the one-drop rule, but it’s interesting to note how recently my family would not have been legally considered white even in relatively lax race laws. A 1970 law in New Orleans stated that 1/32 African was enough to make you legally considered black. Considering that my father’s mother is from New Orleans, if the heritage is from her (which seems as likely as from anyone) she would have been considered black. One of my parents is as black, in terms of heritage, as Walter White, the civil rights activist who ran the NAACP for 25 years.
All of which is to say that my father’s disownment of me for dating outside of my race is not only absurd on the face of it, but hypocritical and inaccurate as well.
I should point out, of course, that I was raised as white as one can be, and this DNA discovery doesn’t really offer any new particular insight into other people’s experiences nor would I claim it to. It is interesting, but I am so very privileged in terms of race that I want to make sure I am clear that this in no way erases that privilege. I may be “sang-mêlé” and I am happy to add this information to my personal narrative of myself, but in this culture I am the beneficiary of white culture. That same culture makes me feel like I should do something meaningful with the information rather than just use it as part of some navel-gazing exercise, but I am unsure what that something could be.
On the one hand, it seems like the racial history of one-drop rule and Walter White’s example might make it a politically meaningful statement for a ginger of small-but-measurable African heritage to claim African-Americanness or even mixed race, on the other hand I feel like that’s claiming a position of oppression that I obviously have never and will never face. I don’t know, I’m not sure there’s a correct answer, but it is the thought puzzle I’ve been given by my DNA.