Very recently in the news, it was reported that a couple in Britain had two sets of twins. Both sets were unique in that one child in each pair was “white” and the other was “black.”
First of all, I wasn’t sure what was so shocking about this, as the mother is white and the father is black. The probability of them producing children with their features is 100 percent, right? It wasn’t as if two Caucasian people with several generations of Caucasian ancestors before them had children who exhibited an extremely recessive African gene in two sets of twins: that would be something to report. I couldn’t help but think how this reveals the illusion of race and our sometimes unconscious participation in perpetuating the myth that a) race exists and is definable and b) that race is truly meaningful. If it cannot be clearly defined, how can we allow it to hold so much power over our minds and identities? How can it actually separate and categorize human beings when we are all genetically complex?
In reality, all four children share their parents’ genes. And their parents likely came from lineages that contained primarily folks who looked like they look today. Yet reality belies the “pure race” myth. It is inevitable that if you follow either parent’s family tree, there will be people we would define today as being from another “race.” Genetically, these twins are both biracial. How can there be “white” or “black” when both of them share a DNA strand that is exactly half “white” and exactly half “black?” Just as Barack Obama, who is also the child of a white mother and a black father, because his skin is visibly brown, he is labeled “black” even though genetically, he is neither one nor the other in a pure sense. It is our eyes which inform our label, not reality.
I’ve had to confront this in my own life, as the white mother of “biracial” children. We don’t face a lot of negative discrimination, but we encounter racial naiveté in others, and in my case, racial naiveté within myself. As a white person, I have never had to second-guess racial designations. It never threatened me to declare “white!” on a questionnaire because “white” has historically had quite the upper hand. I never worried about being passed over for anything because I checked “white” on an application. I didn’t even realize I had privilege in this world, since I come from a relatively poor/average American family.
This unintended ignorance was interrupted when I married a man from the Dominican Republic. The people who live in the Dominican Republic today vary greatly in skin tone and features since they are the descendants of Spanish conquistadors and African slaves. My husband is described there as having cinnamon skin, but there are Dominican people who range in appearance from being as white as me to people as dark as someone directly from the heart of Africa. Overall, they are a very mixed people who identify themselves as Dominicans. Not black-Dominicans or white-Dominicans, they identify with their nationality.
It would be ignorant to say that Dominicans all descend from the same African people groups either. African people identify themselves differently than we in the highly color conscious United States do and could easily argue that it wasn’t just “the African people” who were enslaved. In fact, the slaves were taken from numerous countries and tribes, none of which have been clearly documented, denying their descendants a cultural heritage other than “African.” So how many “races” comprise my husband? Which race is he? My own grandmother is Czech, yet her family had trouble with my grandfather initially because they thought he was Italian, when in fact he is Dutch. Nowadays, Czech, Italian, and Dutch all tend to fall within the “white” category, but it was only about sixty years ago that those distinctions were a matter of liking or disliking a person based on their mere perceived “racial background.”
I don’t deny that skin color unfortunately matters in this society and in most others as well. I’m not suggesting that we all pretend we don’t see skin color and attempt to ignore the prejudice that exists between all people of all colors and distinctions. But why should it matter to us? How can we pretend that the criteria for race is objective or even real? I recall being given a mandatory census by the U.S. government, asking about four pages of questions in order to “provide better services to my community.” At the time, I lived in a college dorm with my husband and infant son in a very ethnically diverse region in New York. There seemed to be a lot of questions about race and language on this census. When asked to cite the race of my child, for the first time in my life I questioned the relevance or importance of putting this information down. How would his “race” change the services provided in my community? Surely if we were monolingual, only speaking Spanish, and most of our neighbors did the same, the services in our community would need to provide access to Spanish speaking professionals. That made some practical sense in my mind, but race?
My son being “biracial” would not change the fact that he spoke English like most citizens and institutions of this country, or that he would still be entitled to a public education, or that he was a happy little boy who had a name and a soul of his own that was not encapsulated in this obscure racial designation. Suddenly, it all seemed absurd to me. Checking your race in the box on the questionnaire suddenly seemed to serve little purpose other than to segregate people, or keep things separate in our minds, to conveniently cop out of understanding individuals, preferring rather to understand people in terms of the category they “belong” in. It began to look like a subtle attempt at keeping us separate in our minds ”racially” to justify our prejudices. It allows us to even subconsciously believe that “those people” with the different colored skin are indeed different than us, and that somehow treating them differently might make sense. I didn’t feel hurt that this question was asked, but it definitely reshaped my view of “race.”
In the case of these twins, now that they have been designated “one white and one black,” who knows the kinds of disparate treatment these children will receive from society at large, the kinds of ill-informed questions they will be asked, the shock at the novelty of multi-colored children. As long as these myths and labels of race persist without challenge, those little girls will face misunderstanding that may not always lead to blatant outward acts of racism, but the racism will exist in the hearts of those who hold tightly to the false reality of race. The truth is, they are the children of their parents, just as we all are. Genetically, they are as “biracial” as my own children, who in appearance both happen to be a perfectly down-the-middle mix of my husband and me.
Every child shares half of each of their parents’ genes. These British twins are no anomaly; they just exhibit the respective skin tones of their parents as any fraternal set of twins is bound to do. To describe them as otherwise (or to label them in a way that is, forgive me, so black and white) is revealing our true belief that race is defined by color (not nation of origin or genetics) and that it is worth pointing out. These children are from the very same couple, yet they are being segregated into racial categories. While they are still oblivious to the ease with which they cross these dividing lines, there will be no issue for them. When they are old enough to realize, they will feel the gap between reason and their experience. Defining these children thus really represents a division in our minds between what is real, and what we have simply created. I hope that when these girls grow up, the world will be less surprised when they reveal their complex personhood without qualifying it with race.