Race: It's In Your Head


Wayne Joseph, a transplant from Louisiana to California,

is of Creole stock and is therefore on the lighter end of the black color spectrum, a common enough circumstance in the South that predates the multicultural movement by centuries. And like most other black folk, Joseph grew up with an unequivocal sense of his heritage and of himself; he tends toward black advocacy and has published thoughtful opinion pieces on racial issues in magazines like Newsweek. When Joseph decided on a whim to take a new ethnic DNA test he saw described on a 60 Minutes segment last year, it was only to indulge a casual curiosity about the exact percentage of black blood; virtually all black Americans are mixed with something, he knew, but he figured it would be interesting to make himself a guinea pig for this new testing process, which is offered by a Florida-based company called DNA Print Genomics Inc.

The result, the L.A. Weekly reports, was a surprise, one that laid bare the difference between biological lineage and socially constructed racial identity:

[W]hen the results of his DNA test came back, he found himself staggered by the idea that though he still qualified as a person of color, it was not the color he was raised to think he was….Here was the unexpected and rather unwelcome truth: Joseph was 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian—and zero percent African. After a lifetime of assuming blackness, he was now being told that he lacked even a single drop of black blood to qualify.

"My son was flabbergasted by the results," says Joseph. "He said, 'Dad, you mean for 50 years you've been passing for black?'"

So: Does a previously hidden physical fact trump half a century of lived experience? Is Joseph still "black"? Is that even a meaningful question?


NEXT: Son of a Beach

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  1. Thanks for the definitions, Joe! I think it’s sad that the term “racist” has come to be used for anything negative involving race. When I was a kid in the late sixties and early seventies, these delineations seemed clear. Few people if anyone called Archie Bunker a racist, he was at worst a bigot, or maybe even just an old-fashioned fool who believed all many of stereotypes. Racism, as a term, continues to carry the emotional baggage of its original meaning, that is someone who has a very clear idea that his own race is superior to the others, which he considers as something less than genuinely human. But the term is regularly used nowadays for things are much less severe (if also objectionable).

  2. What do you call someone who believes that some other race (i.e. a race of which the individual not a member) is a superior race?

    Let’s say I believe that, on average, Jewish folks are smarter than white folks. Does that make me a racist or a bigot? Does it matter if I’m Jewish?

    What if a non-black person believes that black folks are a superior race? For example, if someone believes that blacks are better at some athletic activities (such as basketball or sprinting) but not inferior to whites or Asians any regard – by definition he or she believes one race (the black race) is superior. Is that person bigoted? Prejudiced? Does it matter if the person who believes such things is white?

    I’m not being rhetorical. I honestly don?t know the answer to the aforementioned questions. I only know one thing for sure: if you think that one race is superior to another race in any way – but not inferior to that race in any way – then you believe one race is superior to another. That is a matter of logic, not politics.

    Response? Joe?

  3. Tommy Grand,

    Must you have a label for every possible point of view? Unless you’re looking for sound-bites, why substitue less precise descriptions for more precise descriptions? In other words, perhaps the POV’s you described are best described just the way you did rather than with convenient but overly generalized labels.

  4. I just what to know – precisely – what those words mean. A fuzzy definition (in language) is useless.

  5. Tommmy, our vocabulary has evolved to describe the racial phenomena that we actually have to deal with. I don’t think there are words for what you describe. Maybe you should start making up Dr. Suess-isms for your chimera?

  6. They?re not chimeras. A decent percentage of the people I know fall into one or another. Several of my very well-informed libertarian and liberal white colleagues believe that, on average, African-Americans are better than White Americans at basketball – but not inferior to whites in any regard. The belief that Jewish kids are, on average, slightly smarter than whites is hardly uncommon among the goyim. Ergo, these aren’t fanciful thought experiments. They are prevalent attitudes in our society.

  7. OK, I see what you mean. I’d say they’re buying into stereotypes.

  8. White people are mostly boring. Blacks at least leave you the interesting question whether they’ve got a chip on their shoulder or not. After you find that out, they’re mostly boring too. I speak for the prevalent attitude only.

  9. Since when is “Indo-European” a racial category?

  10. BTW, has anyone read “Kingsblood Royal,” by Sinclair Lewis? When Kingsblood informed his brother that they were 1/16 black, the sister-in-law said: “My God! No wonder you make those awful noises in the bathroom!”

  11. Generally I’ve found over the years that people named “Ron” are prone to uttering nonsense.

  12. “OK, I see what you mean. I’d say they’re buying into stereotypes.”


    From the fact there are more black persons playing hoops than white persons, I can only draw the conclusion that: there are more black folks playing hoops than white folks. Any other conclusion, with out further research, is conjecture. One could easily lay out many hypotheses as to why this is so. Cultural, economic reasons are also quite plausible explanations for any of the ‘self-evident’ stereotypes mentioned in this thread. To clain an inherent physical quality based on race opens one up to assertions that other posistive AND negative qualities are similairly inherent. Aw shucks.

    Playing the devils advocate to underscore a certain double standard, sure to raise some ire: repeating what was said earlier “…belief that Jewish kids are, on average, slightly smarter than whites is hardly uncommon among the goyim..”, hmm is this why, as a group, they are more prosperous than, say, blacks , as a group? What conclusions can be drawn from this? Some defect? Or economic injustice? Or perhaps a strong valuation of education and intellectual pursuits as opposed to a group that brands success as uncle tomming? That hoops is viewed as the escape route that’s socially acceptable in the group-think, whereas attending an Ivy leage is turning into an oreo? Talk about self-destructive!

    To the PC whiners: examine all of an issue or go home. You can’t jump on a difficult issue and only look at the piece you’re comfortable with. This whole thing drags up alot of really uncomfortable, unpleasant stuff. If you don’t toe the PC line, you’re anything from a thoughtful fellow to an apologist to a neo-nazi. Depending on who’s critiqueing you, of course.

    Maybe it really does start at home. Crap, maybe what what mom and dad say influence our view of the world and in doing so limit or free us? Gasp! And maybe the community plays a larger role than us individualist like to think about. Maybe too, it is too much value is placed on conforming to group-think and not enough about individual reflection.

  13. This was all show quite clearly 20 years ago in “The Jerk”

  14. Tommy Grand,

    I didn’t say that they were chimeras or fanciful experiments, only that it’s not reasonable to expect that we have a label for every point of view under the sun. Look, I’ve read good arguments saying that people of African heritage ARE better athletes than whites (ON AVERAGE) because they have longer calves (ON AVERAGE), giving an advantage in running and jumping (ON AVERAGE). I tend to believe this might very well be true. Am I a bigot or a racist or buying into stereotypes? Well, maybe there’s good arguments to the contrary, but if you (not Tommy Grand here but anyone) reach your conclusion without examining the available evidence, well then, who’s prejudiced? Anyway, I stand by my previous comment, and I invite you to revisit it. I think you previously misunderstood me entirely.

  15. Whoops, I see Tommy Grand was responding to Joe when saying his examples were not chimeras. Anyway…

  16. “Race: It’s In Your Head”

    The problem is that your race is in everybody else’s head too.

    As far as black athletes go, the best explanation I’ve heard is that there is simply much more genetic variability among blacks in general and American blacks in particular, leading to more representation at the top of the bell curve. As people of different races intermarry more and more, there will be more and more genetic variability and therefore more super-athletes and supra-geniuses. Also, more libertarians and green party activists (geeks and morons.)

  17. BTW,

    I ought to have concluded, for the quick to react and slow to reason: regardless of how one might perceive a group as a statistical animal, that the very best policy is to consider individuals by their merits and flaws on a case by case basis, and not the by qualities of others who bear only passing resembelance. To do otherwise only limits the beholder. Plus, it’s just plain stupid. Too bad there are so many stupid people.

  18. Gene Thug

    “The DNA test that Wayne Joseph took was a voluntary and private one, to determine and be better informed about his ancestral origin.

    That’s a far cry from any fictional genetic dystopia.”

    I agree with your assessment of the test Wayne Joseph took. An the comparison to a fictional genetic dystopia is a bit of hyperbole. I was actually looking beyond this idividual instance and toward a possible evolution of the technology. Given the number of comments made in jest about Mr. Joseph cashing his reparations check I’s say similar thoughts crosses a few other minds.

  19. Thanks for the lecture, still too chicken, I’d never ever heard that concept before.

    But sarcasm aside, you left out the very best reason why that’s the very best policy. Because intra-group differences are much, much, much, much (did I say “much”?) bigger than inter-group differences.

    Okay, now you know why you’re smarter than all those stupid people.

  20. True, this mechanism of jumping to conclusions was probably very helpful to our animal ancestors, who needed to know a dangerous plant or animal immediately or else did not get to reperoduce. “That orange cat with the black stripes ate Uncle Gus, I’m staying away from him”

    Unfortunately it’s too easily misused at a subconsciuos level, leaving me uncomfortable in the presence of latino transvestites after an unfortunate interaction in high school.

  21. JDM, wouldn’t more intermarriage between a population with lots of variability and population with less end up reducing the number of super-athletes and supra-geniuses? Wouldn’t we end up with a bell curve that is narrower than that drawn for the more variable group?

  22. “you left out the very best reason why that’s the very best policy. Because intra-group differences are much, much, much, much (did I say “much”?) bigger than inter-group differences.”

    Or because groups are made up and individuals are real.

  23. joe,

    I would think only if there was no variability between the groups. Adding in a narrower group which has a different genetic makeup increases variabliity at the very ends at least. There are likely genes in the white gene pool that are underrepresented (or possibly unrepresented) in the black gene pool and vice versa. More genetic mixing increases the number of individuals who are made up of all the best genes (and all the worst.)

  24. “made up” things can be very real. “American” is a made up group.

  25. Regarding blacks playing basketball: I suspect that you are all focusing on race so much you’re missing another very plausible explanation, which is CLASS. Professional athletics are dominated by people from poor/ghetto/trailer/low-class backgrounds. It’s just that the lower classes are disproportionately minorities. Once upon a time, basketball was dominated by Jews. In general, Pro-Sports are viewed as a “ticket” to a better lifestyle for people who can’t (or think they can’t) succeed in fields requiring better education. The Captain of the football team at my highschool (who was black, btw) was offered a couple of football scholarships, but he was also offered an academic scholarship to Yale. Which do you think he chose?

  26. I can tell it’s going to be Gattica all over again. I do believe that universe will come to be if not stopped.

  27. Lesly is right. I went to a mostly black highschool, and for many of the “general population” (meaning kids who were not in a magnet program) thought that the only way out was to get in the NBA. We did have the 4-time-in-a-row State champs, so it was at least plausible you could make college. I took the safer “ticket” and worked my butt off.

  28. Thanks for the tip. In fact, I’d never heard of the Melungeons until a few days ago. But, they came up in my web research into TN, where I’m currently headed. In fact, a few of the natives here (currently Asheville, NC) had never heard of them either. But, they’re a bit off my travels, as I intend to take the 40 west as quick as possible after I finish my bidness with the mountains hereabouts.

    But, if someone wants to pay me to go to Newman’s Ridge, I would be quite interested.

  29. He’s a Free Person of Color. On a related note, see this and this.

  30. It’s tautological, but worth restating: The only reason race matters is because people insist that race matters.

    The interesting question is, why does race still matter? And since it still does, perhaps we should ask to whom does race matter?

  31. Joseph is still black in any sense that has meaning. Skin color is decided by a handful of genes out of thousands, and there is no biologically valid reason to draw racial lines. Race is a purely social idea.
    This social origin of race is why it is possible to call Hispanic a race even though Latin America is populated by decendents of Native Americans, Whites, Blacks, and Asians. The anscestors of Hispanics from different continents interbreed, but Hispanics were not seperated from the the rest of humanity long enough to evolve any biological traits that distinguish them from their anscetral stock.

  32. Bob: I agree. Jtuf: I mostly agree. He’s not black in one meaningful sense: “descended from African natives.”

    Lonewacko: If you’re really interested in that stuff, you might want to pick up the book Gone to Croatan, edited by James Koehnline and Ron Sakolsky. Like most anthologies it’s uneven, but it’s got some fascinating chapters on the Metis, the Ben Ishmael Tribe, the Black Seminoles, and similar groups.

  33. What is this “person of color” crap? That is the most annoying pc euphamism yet devised.

  34. If being black is purely a social construct, how will we know who to give all those reparations payments to?

  35. Is Joseph allowed to say the N-word?

  36. Frightening.

    Now we are testing for genetic purity. It’s horrifying to think of the uses this could be put to.

    Welcome to Gattica.

  37. So if Joseph is “keeping it real” he’s really not keeping it real, he’s keeping it unreal?

    Uh, I’m confused.

    And RC Dean is right, will we all have to take this test before we can get checks for reparations? I might be in the running?


  38. Gattaca, Gattaca, not Gattica. DNA speak is made up of A, G, C, and T. There’s no I unless you bring inosine into it

  39. StMack –

    The DNA test that Wayne Joseph took was a voluntary and private one, to determine and be better informed about his ancestral origin.

    That’s a far cry from any fictional genetic dystopia.

  40. Does a previously hidden physical fact trump half a century of lived experience? Is Joseph still “black”? Is that even a meaningful question?

    These questions all beg the question of “For what purpose?”

    Frankly, I don’t much care if Joseph has any African genes at all, because I just don’t need a definition of “blackness” to get through the day. In a colorblind world, these questions are meaningless because they serve no purpose.

    Now, if we get into the business of paying people because of their blackness, we are going to need a definition. At that point, the fur will start to fly, as the left and other race-mongering supporters of reparations begin to reenact the “one drop” rule that they spent decades decrying.

  41. Send back that slavery reparations check, Joseph!

  42. This from the article: “Yet this knowledge has not deterred the racism many Europeans continue to harbor toward Africans, nor the wariness Africans harbor toward Europeans.” Africans can’t possibly harbor racism. They’re merely “wary.” Oh. I see.

    In response to the question, “why does it matter?” Joseph slightly concedes the point but continues, “I see their point, but race does matter, especially with things like medical research and other social trends.” I can admit that race matters in studying social trends and even cultural habits, but it seems that the raison d’etre of the genetic test is that race doesn’t matter medically. How can he say with a straight face that it does when in absolute terms his “blackness” has zero to do with his genes?

  43. Citizen:

    It seems the definition of racist is someone who thinks Africans are inferior. Somebody who projects the common qualities of a group onto a newly met individual is a bigot in most cases, and only a racist if the person being judged is of african ancestry, and then only if they are being judged negatively.

    People who are “wary” around indo-europeans such as Mr. Joseph are bigots, not racists.

  44. I think “prejudiced” is a better word for what you’re describing than “bigot,” Ira. Bigot implies a dislike and sense of superiority, while it is entirely possible to think that every black person you meet exceeds as basketball, or every Jewish person is good at business, without there being any hostility involved.

  45. Racial talk is all silly.

    Take this example.

    My wife lived in Senegal for 17 of the 19 years she’s lived of her life so far. However, her skin is white, and her passport says American. Is she African American?

    The UNCF says that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, yet, I’ve not recieved any information on obtaining a scholarship. If it is for blacks, I know several “negro” students who have very light skin which couldn’t ever be mistaken for the color of “black.” If it’s for “African Americans,” then I assume they’ll be sending a application form to my wife, as she is more African than 99% of the “African Americans” in this country.

    And as long as we’re on the reperation bandwagon, why don’t we reperate the normal average white guy, who had many many ancestors who suffered to slavery, oops, “Indentured Servitude.”

    In the end, power corrupts. All the places seeking equality, upon gaining that power have now turned to seek power above equality. Remove racial checkboxes from everything and don’t worry about it. After all, we are all humans.


  46. You are Black if you read ‘Native Son’ and said, “I am Bigger Thomas”. You are White if you read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and said “I am Holden Caufield”.

    It has nothing to do with genetics.

  47. You are normal if you haven’t read either one

  48. I read Catcher In The Rye, and all I wanted to say was “this book sucks”.

  49. I had the DNA test done and it said 99% European, 1% American Indian, 0% African. I had it done because I learned recently of black ancestry on both sides of my father’s family. I have all the documentation as some of the families were very prominent. The resemblences have come down the line and at least one of my uncles was sometimes taken for a “colored boy.” Yet the genetics don’t show in my test. I did not know about the Indian ancestry, but that does show. Go figure. I do have African ancestors, but the genes, as indicated by the DNA test, aren’t there. This is probably because you would have to go back at least four or five generations to find a full-blooded African. BTW, race does exist. You don’t garden by pretending all flowers are the same. You don’t even breed dogs that way. Sorry for the comparison, but it’s common sense. Race ideas have often compromised our sense of perspective. Get a grip. Races are large extended families. Of course you’re related to a very distant cousin but you share more genetic material with a sister or brother. It’s funny people seem to feel “progressive” by denying this just when science is learning so much more.

  50. “I can tell it’s going to be Gattaca all over again. I do believe that universe will come to be if not stopped.”

    No way! Read Ray Kurzweil. Machine development is progressing much faster than human DNA manipulation. And machine development has far fewer of the ethical connotations.

    In other words, rather than your parents manipulating your DNA to give you good eyes, when you’re an adult, you’ll purchase mechanical eyeballs that will give you 200:1 eyesight; i.e., you can see at 200 feet what average people can see only from 1 foot. Not to mention you’ll have infrared and ultraviolet vision.

    Similarly, although mechanical hearts are starting from a far inferior point to flesh hearts, mechanical hearts are improving much faster than natural hearts can. It only takes maybe 30-50 years extrapolation to put mechanical hearts superior to flesh hearts.

    And machine brains (computers) are doubling in power every 18 months. There’s no way DNA manipulation could proceed at that sort of rate. So flesh brains are definitely going to be obsolete; this will almost certainly happen within the lifetime of the average person born after…1980ish.

    We’re much more likely to go towards Terminator 1 than Gattaca. (Hopefully, minus Terminator’s nuclear war.)

    “Rise of the Machines”…count on it! 🙂

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