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Race and ethnicity have been on my mind a lot lately. And it’s not just because of the recent tragedy, but largely because I had a DNA test done to identify my genetic heritage. Most of it came as no surprise.  The largest percentage was Italy/Greece (36%).  The second largest was Western Europe (33%) and then was Great Britain (16%), Ireland (5%). The only thing that surprised me a little was European Jewish (3%) and Scandinavian (4%).  The other interesting bit was Caucasus (2%).

Anyone who knows me, knows from my physical appearance, my phenotype, to use a word from my long ago biology days, that I am Celtic. Scots/Irish. Burly, red hair, fair skin, typical Celtic body type. But, by any measure of my genotype I’m all European and Mediterranean. And while I’m Caucasian, I’ve only got 2% from the region that racial group takes it’s name from.

In the discussions surrounding two events in the news, there’s been a a lot of talk about the nature of race, and two standards for determining “blackness” have been prominent in what I’ve been reading. The first was that you were black if one ancestor of your fifth generation grandparents was black. Five generations gets you to 32 ancestors in that generation. So by that standard, 1/32 of your genome could be “black” and you would be considered black. The other stricter standard they have talked about is “one drop”. Which says that no matter how far you go back if you have a black person in your family tree you are black.

It astounds me that people could be so ignorant. Of course all these “rules” came into existence largely before people understood the nature of genetics. They did not know, and probably would not believe that we all are descendants of people who came from Africa. If you want to follow the one drop standard we are all black.  So let’s just put that one aside for the moment because it’s ridiculous on the face of it.

The other standard means that if you have 3% of a minority in you as a white person you’re really not white, you’re not pure. That standard is pretty much a joke too, because I think if you look few if any of the people you know in America are solely from one genetic heritage. How many German’s don’t have Scandinavian mixed in, or Italian, Or French, or Spanish? How many caucasians have more than a few percentages of genetic material from the Caucasus region?

I can trace my ancestry back on my maternal grandfather’s side to the people who came to the US in the 1600s. Eight Generations,  but that just starts the journey.

What makes someone, “White” or “Black” or “Asian”. No matter what set of criteria you come up with, I am certain I can find someone who meets your criteria but is obviously not the race you think you are describing.

Racial purity is a myth. And one we are certainly better off discarding sooner rather than later. It appeals to our innate human need to separate the world into Us and Them. If that’s what you want to do, i understand that need, but there are far better proxies for that then skin color, or facial features, or drops of blood.

If you doubt me, get your own genetic test, there are plenty of places that have them. Ancestory.com and 23andMe.com are both well known. Investigate your background and see if you’re surprised.

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