DNA Is Only One Way to Spell Identity

DNA Is Only One Way to Spell Identity

The Washington Post

W. Ralph Eubanks

Every year,” I once overheard my father say jokingly to a friend, “thousands of Negroes disappear.” I remember my 8-year-old imagination going into overdrive, picturing people zapped from their homes in the middle of the night. It was only as I grew older that I realized that the people my father was talking about were choosing to disappear, running away from their families, not being taken from them. They were light-skinned blacks who could move into the white world undetected, denying their blackness and the exclusion they suffered in a white-dominated America.

I’ve been thinking of my father’s joke a lot recently. It came back to me last month when scientists reported the discovery of a genetic mutation that led to the first appearance of white skin in humans. Reading about it, I wondered how it is that a minor mutation—just one letter of DNA code out of 3.1 billion letters in the human genome—is so highly prized that it has led scores of people to turn their backs on their families and has served to divide people for generations. Discovery of this mutation, combined with recent findings that all people are more than 99.9 percent genetically identical, has reinforced my belief that race is almost entirely a social demarcation, not a biological one…

…Although my ethnic identity is strongly African American, I’ve always had an awareness of my mixed racial heritage. I learned as a teenager that my maternal grandfather was white. To build a life with my grandmother, who was black, my grandfather, Jim Richardson, cast his whiteness aside and lived in Prestwick, Ala., an African American community near Mobile, from around 1920 through the 1950s. Even after my grandmother died in 1936, he continued to raise his children with a strong black identity and to live among the black people who accepted him as one of their own. During her short life, my grandmother, Edna Howell Richardson, accepted Jim completely as he was, faults and all. Perhaps that’s why she never even pointed out his whiteness to his children. It wasn’t until my grandfather was hurt in a logging accident and someone called him a white man in the presence of my mother, who was then 6 years old, that she realized he wasn’t black…

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