The Divine Comedy of Liberal Good Intentions

This morning I was sent a slice of internet gold.* The story is of a white American couple, desperate to adopt a baby. An opportunity presents itself in a (very) young Asian American couple, offering their newborn son up for adoption. The adoptive parents are overjoyed, and without further ado set about building a family with their new son. Within the first year, they begin to feel that they should make preparations to put their child in touch with his ‘ethnic origins’. Given that they live in a large Chinese American community, they send him for Mandarin lessons; find him an ‘adoptive’ Chinese aunt and uncle; celebrate Chinese festivals; and take him to China every two years on holiday:

We try and be PC as possible and we thought we were doing the right thing.

At seventeen years old, the son is preparing his college applications, and his father digs out his adoption papers. There, jumping out of the document at him, are the surnames “Park” and “Kim”:

For those of you that do not know, those are Korean last names. My son is not Chinese. Not even a little bit.

He’s Korean.

The penny has dropped, and gradually the news starts to sink in. The father, horrified, begins to think back over seventeen years’ worth of blind assumptions, with the truth now staring him in the face:

Now that I look at him, he looks INCREDIBLY Korean in comparassion to all of the photos of Korean men that I have just googled. Very square jaw, less hooded eyes, very broad build. None of this ever crossed my mind.

Too mortified to tell his wife and son, the father makes his confession to the internet, which duly rolls up its sleeves to give him a good pummelling for being, as the writer brands himself, “that dumb liberal white dickhead”.

Distressed, after receiving a wave of negative comments, the father publishes an addendum to his story:

I know this is the internet and I can’t tell people to stop saying such harsh things, but please know I’m a Human and a Dad. It hurts more than I care to admit. I love my son, I’m not a racist.

The great irony is that, despite bending over backwards to be culturally sensitive and to open his son’s horizons to a second language and national heritage – actions that would meet with approval by most parenting standards, and which many would consider highly appropriate for a ‘multi-ethnic’ adoptive family – the father is deemed to be racist when he is revealed to have made an apparently grave category error. ‘Racist’, because he couldn’t tell apart ‘Korean’ and ‘Chinese’ physical characteristics, and instead was guided by the (much more tangible) cultural milieu in which they lived. (By the way, judging people’s cultural background by their physical appearance may also be deeply frowned upon by ‘liberal’ Americans, frustrated by the ignorance of those who ‘make assumptions‘ and ‘get it wrong‘ – proof of the old adages that appearances can be deceiving and you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover).

Fortunately, some readers began to see the funny side, and similar stories started to flood in. As it turns out, America is full of Chinese Americans who look Korean; Irish Americans whose ancestors turned out to be Scottish; Dominicans of Chinese parents who don’t care about their ‘ethnic’ origins; and Americans who wish everyone could just be happy to call themselves Americans, plain and simple.

Most genealogists know that voluntary and involuntary ‘ethnic mix-ups’ have been happening for generations. Family trees are full of people who changed categories to suit the needs of the times: from ‘black’ to ‘white’, from ‘mixed’ to ‘Spanish’… In older times, when ‘ethnic’ heritage was not in such vogue, some people did what they could to downplay or forget their Old World origins, leading to difficulties for their descendants today who are trying to discover ‘who they really are’.

In the same vein, my favourite response to the post deserves a full reprint:

My Mom is really into geneaolgy and has mapped us back a ton of generations. My Grandmother kept telling my mom she was part Native American, and we all believed her because she actually really looked like it. My mom spent years looking for the connection somewhere in her mothers side of the family, and actually thought she had nailed it a few times.

Cut to early 2001 and my Grandmother is in the hospital on her deathbed. She and my mom are in the room alone, and my grandma tells my mom she has something very important to tell her.

GM: “You know how I’m Native American?”

mom thinks she’s finally going to find out where the relation is

GM: “yeah, I was just messing with you because I knew how badly you wanted a complete family history.”

I think that was the last time I heard my Grandma laugh, and it was glorious!

Amidst all the agonising over political correctness and cultural sensitivity, it’s good to know that people still have a sense of humour.

*Thanks to KM for the link.


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Still Holding Out for a Second Opinion: Carlos’s Story II

Back in March, I started a DNA experiment with five friends. I invited each of them to take a genetic ‘ancestry’ test – something that most of them had barely heard of, let alone thought about doing. After sending off their swab or spit sample, I asked each person to describe their expectations regarding their results: What did they expect or hope to find out? What would their ideal result be, based on their own family history, physical appearance and cultural background?

Over the course of the next three months, each of them received their results, provided by different US-based testing companies. After having some time to reflect upon those results, they have each agreed for me to post their reactions to their genomic data, and their thoughts on how they might (or might not) influence their lives and notions of identity. This mini-experiment is inspired by my own PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local conceptions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.

Carlos, born and raised in Salvador, Bahia

Receiving my African Ancestry results was surprising and frustrating at the same time. Surprising because I didn’t imagine I would have such a high European percentage, despite knowing about the whole miscegenation process in Brazil. Obviously, because of some of my physical characteristics (my hair texture, my lightish brown skin colour), I thought I would have some kind of European percentage – but not as high as that. My frustration was to do with the indigenous percentage, which, according to this test, doesn’t exist. I found it really surprising that the test found no trace of that.

I spoke to my parents and some of my friends about my results after I received them. Like me, my mum was surprised that there was no indigenous component to my results, because, according to oral history in her side of the family, my maternal great-grandmother was Indian. As for my dad, though, he seemed pretty on board with the test results. My paternal grandfather, while far from being white, had lighter skin and straighter hair, so apparently on that basis my dad wasn’t too surprised about me having a relatively high European result.

My friends, on the other hand, found my high European percentage strange; they, like me, had imagined I would have a higher indigenous result, which would explain my hair and skin characteristics. It was this lack of indigenous percentage that impacted me most overall about my test. To be honest, I still want a second opinion, perhaps from a different company. I think the percentages should be revised.

Overall, though, the testing experience didn’t change the way I think about myself. Identity, as we know, is relative; it is based on how individuals see themselves and how they are seen by others, and constructed through our day to day contacts and confrontations. In the case of the Afro-descendant population in Brazil, identity is formed through daily clashes with the white population; with the police (who tend to target the black population, and treat them violently), etc. In this sense, the test revealed nothing that I didn’t already know, or that could change my sense of identity and belonging, which has been constructed over many years of struggle.

In terms of the potential social effects of ‘ancestry’ testing, I think it is important for the Brazilian population to have access to their identity. I believe this interest in origins is much greater among the black bourgeoisie and intelligentsia than in the population at large. These people know that they are descendants of Africans who were enslaved in Brazil. I think it’s obvious that if a mass genetic programme of this type were to be set up, it would greatly improve this particular public’s self-esteem, which is fundamentally related to slavery.

The latest manifestations of racism in Brazil are mere proof that we still live in a state of ignorance, and that a large proportion of the Brazilian population still believe that skin colour is a valid criterium to support theories of racial superiority. Perhaps, in light of this, and given that Brazil’s black population have enormous difficulties in tracing their ancestry, a quicker test that could tell people which region their ancestors came from would have a positive effect on the black population – but it would in no way resolve the problem of race relations in Brazil.

You can read Carlos’s original post here.


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