Fri, Dec 6, 2013 11:00 AM
Asked what I am with regard to my ethnic or cultural background, I
tend to reply that I'm "of mixed heritage" - which may be a
meaningless term because, well, isn't everyone in America "of mixed
heritage"? The response is like Facebook's "It's Complicated"
option: a vaguely annoying blow-off answer.
In my family, we retain no obvious cultural or religious traditions
specific to any of our various motherlands - not even an old recipe
- and so perhaps it'd be more accurate for me to say that I have no
heritage at all. Yet "of mixed heritage," whatever it means, always
sounded less assertive or controversial to me than "of mixed race"
... though, again, aren't we all actually of mixed race, if "race"
In America, the question of whether one qualifies under the
mixed-race heading is often just the question, really, of whether
one seems non-white enough to qualify as "non-white" - as though
white people were themselves some monolithic entity. My mom is
definitely a white person, born of pasty Kentuckians with a
Scottish surname. My dad - an indeterminately brown-skinned guy who
wore something resembling an afro in the 1970s - is where things
get (slightly) more interesting.
Because my father had a dark enough complexion to experience some
incidents of racism growing up, he can, I suppose, guiltlessly
classify himself as "mixed-race." His dad was white (Slovakian and
English), and his siblings took after the father, but his mom has
some complex, obscure background whereby she became, by her own
definition, a sort of "all-purpose ethnic person." She can
realistically pass as black, Middle Eastern, Native American,
Hispanic, or Indian. She could have had a great career in
mid-century Hollywood: an extra in "The Searchers," a part in
"Porgy and Bess," a brief appearance in "Lawrence of Arabia."
In the 1950s, this simply made her a colored woman, but the reality
was that her Marseille-born father was of North African descent
(possibly Moroccan); her mother was half African-American and half
something else - supposedly Native American. Their family, she
said, was from the Seneca tribe of New York, one of the Six Nations
of the Iroquois.
Growing up, my brothers and I knew that we had far more European
blood in us than we did African or American Indian, yet these
latter two pieces of our family history were (of course) the most
important to us, and they were the ones that, if pushed to identify
beyond "mixed-heritage," we would most enthusiastically mention.
I'm as pale as any non-albino, but Tony and Zach both have
year-round tans, and, as ridiculous and offensive as this may
sound, Tony's ability, at 5'9", to dunk a basketball on a ten-foot
rim seemed to convince most white people that we were not like
Zach, Tony, and I were upper-middle-class suburban kids who played
soccer in the fall and skied in the winter, who spent summers in
Maine, whose parents had both gone to Princeton - yet, perhaps
somewhat absurdly, we felt ourselves to be in a significant way
separate from "white people." This was partly a consequence of
encouragement from our dad, who had experienced his life (in his
own mind and in the minds of some others) as a non-white person,
and therefore bristled at the notion that his kids could be totally
"white"; whatever he was, it had only been halved - it hadn't
disappeared. More importantly, though, the three of us boys were -
in our own ways - odd, rebellious kids, and privately believing
ourselves to be black Seneca Indians was a silly but seductive way
of bolstering our sense of being different from all the (white)
kids around us, even if the differences blatantly had nothing to do
I mention all this because my dad recently took part in a venture
called the Genographic Project, which, according to its website, is
"a multiyear research initiative led by National Geographic
Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Spencer Wells" that uses "cutting-edge
genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical
patterns in DNA from participants around the world." Anyone can
contribute: you purchase a kit, swab your cheek, send in the
sample, and find out where your ancestors came from. Presumably
this data serves some useful purpose for scientists; for us, it
kindly indulges our self-absorption and propensity for family
My dad, as it turns out, is 36% Mediterranean, 33% Northern
European, 16% Southwest Asian, and 12% sub-Saharan African. The two
population groups whose overall genetic makeup he comes closest to
fitting in with are Finnish people and Tunisian people, apparently.
That all sounds about right, except - wait! Where's the Native
We were sure that we were Native American. We even knew the tribe.
Yet National Geographic says no - not a trace. How can that
Well, I guess I trust Dr. Spencer Wells more than I trust my
great-grandmother. Of course, this just means that my dad isn't
Native American; I still could be. My Scottish mom may have a few
tricks up her sleeve - who knows? People sometimes used to point
out that our first black president had, unlike most
African-Americans, no slave ancestry - yet, when tests were done,
it turned out that he did, on his white mother's side.
I won't be doing any tests. Whether I'm 6% Native American or 0%,
it'd probably be equally offensive to a real Iroquois if I
self-identified as one. At the lower levels, the numbers really are
A large portion of any person's background, I think, exists not in
his blood but in his imagination - every family story is at least
half-invented, and the invented half is no less important. I'm as
much a Native American today as I ever was - a not totally
inconsiderable amount, maybe.