When I was a kid, I took a lot of Scantron exams, the ones with the empty ovals that you fill in with a pencil. They were a common feature of my public-school education, as they are for millions of students all over the world. I grew to dread them, but not for the usual reasons, like the long rows of desks lined up in the gym, the ticking clocks or even the performance anxiety.
The exam booklets always had a section devoted to the harvest of personal and statistical information where I’d find this question: What is your racial background? Always the same one, or versions of it, followed by a list of acceptably compartmentalized ethnic groups: white, black, Asian, etc. I couldn’t reply accurately because only one response was allowed, and I didn’t have just one answer. I looked around at my mostly white classmates and felt confused, but there was no box for that. So, I usually just checked “Other,” which at the time felt about right.
I’ve continued to furnish similar answers on adult applications and forms of every kind, including the Canadian census, which I last completed in 2016, as I’m required to do by law. My answers were dispersed into a galaxy of population statistics, which are gathered in accordance with the Employment Equity Act “to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.” The census asked, “Is this person:” followed by a selection of appropriate replies:
- South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.)
- Latin American
- Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, etc.)
- West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.)
- Other — specify
The question seems to want to skirt trouble. It avoids explicit mention of “race” or “visible minority.” Ethnicity is hard to measure and even define, a fuzziness that Statistics Canada acknowledged with a query about the “ethnic or cultural origins” of one’s ancestors, followed by a lengthy list of suggestions: “Canadian, English, Chinese, French, East Indian, Italian, German, Scottish, Cree, Mi'kmaq, Salish, Métis, Inuit, Filipino, Irish, Dutch, Ukrainian, Polish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, Jamaican, Greek, Iranian, Lebanese, Mexican, Somali, Colombian, etc.” The word immigrant appears, but separately and higher up on the form. Indigenous peoples must answer a different fraught question: “Is this person a Status Indian (Registered or Treaty Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada)?” Indigeneity is addressed in four different ways.
The most recent U.S. census posed similar questions in illuminatingly different ways. In America, the race question is explicit, although the responses vary:
-Black, African Am., or Negro
-American Indian or Alaska Native
-Guamanian or Chamorro
-Other Pacific Islander
The use of the word “Negro” was controversial, but the Census Bureau argued that older African Americans still used the term. (It was announced in 2013 that it will be removed on future forms.) On both the Canadian and American forms it’s now possible to claim more than one identity, though this open-endedness brings new kinds of confusion. In the 2010 U.S. census, about three per cent of respondents said they belonged to two or more racial categories. As many as 6.2 per cent said they belonged to “some other race,” but those numbers skew depending on how race is defined. Hispanic or Latin American identities are not enumerated here. That’s a separate ask, even though, according to a Pew Research Centre survey, two-thirds of Hispanics say their ethnicity is, in part, their race. There is no entry at all for individuals of Middle Eastern or North African descent—according to the Census Bureau, they are white even if they don’t identify that way.
The next Canadian census rolls out in 2021. StatsCan has revised the race question many times, and it’s now “compatible” with a United Nations report recommending subjective expressions of ethnocultural identity encompassing language and religion (as well as multiple entries). But demographics aside, what does it mean to declare one’s race and ethnicity? Why are we asked this most personal of questions? What is the ancestral material from which I’ve been biologically fabricated? And who wants to know? Even the project itself implies a conceptual order in which ethnicities are most usefully perceived as unblended, consolidated or pure.
My father is brown. His eyes are so dark you can’t tell the pupils from the irises. His hair was also black, but now it’s white—at least it is when he forgets to colour it. He was born in the Punjab, and his family is Sikh, although he isn’t what I’d call religious. And neither am I, which pleases him immensely, especially since my mother has become more churchgoing with time. In this way, if not elsewhere, I’m a fulfilment of his design.
Even back in the ’70s when I was born, he knew that the rigidly faithful, and the unassimilated, pay an extra toll for taking up space in the western world. That’s why my first name, which he chose expressly, isn’t Harpreet or Jatinder but that of a dead British queen.
My father no longer wears a turban or a ceremonial dagger. My cousins call him, with a certain affectionate irony, “Silk Singh.” I live in a small Canadian town where a common men’s uniform is Carhartts, a logger’s sweater, and a ball cap with sunglasses perched on the brim. The last time my father came to visit me, he got off the plane wearing a pink shirt and a cream-coloured suit with a magenta pocket square, looking like Tom Wolfe at his most sartorially florid. My father is a New World man. He lives in Texas and is proud to be an American citizen. Not a landed immigrant, not a legal alien—an American.
My mother is white. She’s English, or at least that’s where she was born and raised. Like my father, she’ll never go back to where she came from, even if she’s never received this as a directive. She’s North American now. She’s also Catholic. She has grey eyes, grey hair and is one of the most fair-skinned people I know. She’s also one of the most colour blind. Raising me, she never really mentioned skin colour—hers, ours or my dad’s—nor concerned herself with my appearance beyond presentability and basic cleanliness, which I consider a gift even today, despite the existence of dozens of childhood photos featuring me in plaid pants with floral shirts, or many other visually painful ensembles that I chose for myself.
She comes from a tall family. On her side, I’m one of the shortest at 5’10”. I also inherited her long, thin face. One thing I didn’t inherit is her skin. She’s very fair, with a fine-pored complexion. I have never once seen her with a pimple or a blemish, whereas my skin is shiny, irritable, in frequent need of depilation. When women say they regret over-tweezing their brows, I have no idea what they mean. My hair is Indian—for each one I pull or thread or wax, another two fight their way back to the surface.
In the middle of winter, my face is beige with an olive undertone, and in summer it deepens to tawny brown, even beneath SPF 50. Nothing can stop it from tanning, as if it’s been yearning all winter beneath sweaters and scarves for the sun. I have freckles and moles that neither of my parents have. But when I was a child, I didn’t realize I wasn’t the same colour as my mother until I started playing with her makeup. In her bathroom, she kept bottles and pans labeled ivory, porcelain, and buff, but when I applied her liquids and powders, they gave me the look of an ashen corpse. Even now, when we go places together people occasionally ask if I am her “friend,” which tells me what they’re thinking even if they don’t say it aloud: we couldn’t possibly be related.
My parents met in London when they were both in medical school. I often wonder about the kismet that brought them together, why a bearded, turban-wearing foreigner with a thick Indo-Kenyan accent found the daughter of an English bank clerk so appealing, and vice versa. Maybe attraction is an involuntary impulse, our genes exerting themselves upon us, seeking hybridity, even if it’s the opposite of what our parents say we should want, which often enough is to stick to our own kind.
Or maybe it was the ’60s—in many ways, a rebellious time. By my parents’ reports, London was a groovy place back then. But a stubborn conservatism lurked beneath all the progress. The culture was barely prepared for its first waves of reverse colonization let alone to claim chicken tikka masala as a national dish. It was definitely not ready to accept a white woman married to a very brown man from a country whose independence had been granted just a dozen years before.
But my mother never worried about what people thought. She became an anaesthesiologist when it was conceptually freaky, even transgressive, for a woman to do so. She married my father when interracial relationships were uncommon. But I think she got a crash course in intolerance in those early days. When she walked with my dad in the streets, she’d get elbowed in the chest and shoved off the sidewalk. She learned there’s a special variety of prejudice reserved for an Indian cocky enough to marry an Englishwoman. And for a white woman who steps out of line.
When my mother announced she was marrying a Sikh man, the shock of it just about made her parents’ hair fall out. But my grandfather had spent years in the Merchant Navy, much of it with Indian crew, albeit as their superior. If he disapproved of the union, it didn’t last forever. He wasn’t about to sacrifice his relationship with this daughter by clinging to the idea of the proper English bloke she should have married. But I’ll bet my grandmother had a hell of a time with it. I remember her as an unaffectionate woman with a helmet of butterscotch curls and the comportment of a duchess gone down to the gutter. Not a whiff of grandmotherly love exists in my memory of her.
Out in the world, my mother received plenty of unsolicited advice. Think of the children, people said. Mixed-race offspring, they told my mother, would suffer nothing but disadvantage due to the reckless nuptial choices of their parents. Of course, when my twin brother and I were born, there was nothing wrong with us. We were healthy, rotund infants with dark hair and brown eyes. We looked nothing like our mother. She’d get stopped on the street by strangers as she pushed us around in a stroller. “How good of you,” they’d say, “to adopt those little brown babies.”
The word melanin is derived from the Greek melas, meaning dark or black. Melanin is an ancient polymer, a group of practical molecules that appears in mammalian hair and fur, bird feathers, insects, fungi, and squid ink, to name just a few of its applications. In humans, melanin presents in three forms. Pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive hue. Neuromelanin is found in the brain. Eumelanin, the most common type, is found in skin, hair and the iris of the eye. This is the visible kind that gives humanity its broad palette of flesh tones, but also a ton of inequity.
Melanin is a super-efficient sunscreen. In the body it absorbs damaging ultraviolet rays, dissipating their energy by ninety-nine per cent. People with moderately pigmented skin have a natural SPF of 2.5, and those with dark skin have an SPF of 10-15. Melanin doesn’t just block UVR—a chemical transformation occurs as melanin absorbs photons. It scavenges the free radicals created when UV radiation interacts with lipids in the skin—the biochemical reactions that cause DNA damage and ultimately skin cancer.
Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. Everyone has them no matter their shade, including individuals with albinism, a genetic condition that causes reduced pigment production or none at all. Melanocytes are distributed all over the skin with generally greater concentrations on the face and limbs, fewer on the torso, and most in the groin area. Children have fewer active melanocytes but they develop more after the onset of puberty. This makes sense, since melanin protects folate, a nutrient critical to reproduction in both males and females.
When you go out in the sun, your melanocytes are activated, and if you possess a reasonable number of specialized organelles—melanosomes—you tan. This self-adjusting photoprotection, your “facultative” hue, might change with the seasons, but we’re all born with a genetically “constitutive” skin tone—it’s the shade on the inside of your bicep. Both categories make up the huge spectrum of skin tones in the world, and together they tell an old story—perhaps the oldest one there is—about our travels as a species on Earth.
Many competing beliefs exist about how we began on the planet, but scientifically accepted hypotheses agree that the birthplace of humanity was Africa. First migrations off the continent into Eurasia occurred as early as 210,000 years ago. No one knows exactly the pattern and timing of later dispersals. Humans reached Australia by 65,000 years ago and established in Europe less than 55,000 years ago.
As Homo sapiens migrated north, they acclimatized to life at higher latitudes—new food sources, colder winters, a weaker sun. Evidence suggests that early humans had sweat glands for efficient cooling, long limbs for distance walking and running, and darkly pigmented skin adapted to high levels of UVR. But as much as cells need protection from solar radiation, they also needed Vitamin D, which, like melanin, is synthesized in the skin during sun exposure.
Vitamin D is a hormone, essential for calcium and phosphorus metabolism as well as bone formation. It’s vital to our cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems, and it plays a critical role during pregnancy and lactation. Rickets, a once-widespread disease, caused soft, malformed bones in people with poor diets or little sun exposure until the Vitamin D link was discovered in the early 1900s. Today, higher levels of Vitamin D are thought to prevent conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease and diabetes.
One of the genes responsible for human skin pigment can be traced back to an ancient ancestor that swam in the seas over 400 million years ago. Before the diaspora out of Africa, Homo sapiens possessed a “G” allele of this gene, expressed as dark skin, which provided protection from the harsh equatorial rays of the sun. As people began migrating out of Africa, the tiniest mutation occurred. The “A” allele, as the mutation is known, produced lighter skin with less melanin, an advantage in low-UV environments, allowing the body to produce more Vitamin D with less light. Through natural selection, the “A” allele proliferated. Colour in northern populations gradually faded through a process called “depigmentation.” This understanding of human skin tone is complicated by the recent discovery of the "golden gene" in some contemporary African populations as well, an influence of millennia of migratory flows and counterflows. It’s not known precisely how long it takes for constitutive skin tone to equalize with the environment. Emerging genomic evidence suggests depigmentation is a fairly recent adaptation that occurred less than 10,000 years ago.
This mutation produces light, European skin today, and its discovery reinforces a notion that for several centuries was considered blasphemous, insurrectionary or scientifically impossible. It’s an idea that’s still unthinkable, even today, for believers in white supremacy: human skin was originally brown, and whiteness is just a variation on that theme.
My paternal grandfather left his village in the Punjab for Kenya when he was just a teenager. He returned to the homeland as a young man, married my grandmother, and when my father was born in the 1930s, they went back to Africa. Ever since then my family has been on the move.
My father was born in India but grew up in Nairobi, and when he came of age, my grandfather sent him to medical school in London with the idea that he would return to Kenya, credentialed and possibly ready to make good on the customary Sikh marriage arrangement. Instead, my dad met my mother. He went back to Kenya a couple of times, but he knew his future lay elsewhere. He never returned to the Punjab, either. In fact, I have spent more time in India than he has, despite the fact that he was born there, and for a long time carried an Indian passport.
If India had never been a British colony, I doubt my grandfather would have left his natal village. If Kenya wasn’t also a colony in need of subordinate staffing, my grandfather might not have sailed there in a dhow. And if England wasn’t considered the educational apex of the empire, I doubt my father would have gone there at all. But to be honest, I don’t know why my grandfather decided to pack up and ship out in the first place. I never got the chance to ask.
My father chose a white bride, which is key to the shape of his life, my mother’s, and our entire branch of the family tree. He was the first-born son. Traditionally, a prodigal Indian man returns to his father’s house on the understanding he will marry and continue to live with his parents, plowing whatever investment has been made in his education back into the household. To escape, to buck convention, to follow one’s individualized dreams is perfectly reasonable in the West, even recommended. But in Indian culture it’s a bit like embezzling your parents’ retirement savings to buy a red Mercedes convertible, which by the way is the car my father still drives, pretty unstoppably, at the age of 83.
My father and my grandfather didn’t speak for decades, not until my grandfather was very frail and, as it turned out, on his deathbed. In the intervening years, I never met either of my paternal grandparents. That’s the point where the family cracked, broke off from the past and began its drift across the ocean.
A “colour” question first appeared on the Canadian census in 1901, and respondents had these choices: W (White, Caucasian), R (Red, Native), B (Black, African), Y (Yellow, Asian). The U.S. Census Bureau has collected similar data as far back as 1790. But the race classification project is even older than that.
History is full of cross-cultural encounters, some peaceable, some violent, stories of travellers stumbling upon foreign strangers who look dark, different or other. The most notorious of these involved Christopher Columbus who, upon arrival in the Americas, was convinced he’d struck upon “the Indies”—then, the European conflation of China, Japan and India—an event with devastating after-effects, including the colonial reduction of Indigenous populations by as much as ninety per cent due to genocide and European disease, followed by centuries of oppression.
More subtly, this collision of the Old World and New dented a pre-existing and arguably benign hypothesis about skin pigment. Ancient Egyptians had no language to classify themselves by colour that we know of. The Greeks and Romans were well acquainted with human diversity, given their empire-building skills, yet they tended to measure difference according to sociocultural factors, such as citizenship, politics and geographic provenance. They explained the vast range of human phenotypes, from northern freckles to deep Moorish skin, by pointing to climate and weather. Ptolemy, for instance, associated the dark skin and tightly curled hair of sub-Saharan Africans to the intense sun and heat of the “torrid zone,” as it was called by Aristotle and other scholars of his time.
By the time Columbus made his third voyage, first to Trinidad then on to South America, the prior wisdom was beginning to fall apart. In the Caribbean, Columbus encountered people with comparatively light skin relative to the residents of Sierra Leone, who lived at almost exactly the same latitude across the ocean. Brown people, it seemed, showed up all over the place with little adherence to the old heuristic.
Early race theories continued to wobble with the rise of colonialism, and the European obsession with complexion intensified. Scientists and doctors poked and prodded the bodies of people of colour, performing dissections in the cases of the deceased, in search of definitive physiological differences between white and dark skin. They were motivated, to great degree, by a desire to reconcile science with the Bible. They wished to reinforce the Great Chain of Being as decreed by God, a hierarchy that granted man—especially white man—dominion over all of Creation. The Book of Genesis received special highlight, as did the story of Noah. In Genesis, Noah cursed one of his sons, damning the rest of his progeny to eternal servitude. The son was named Ham, and from him, it was argued, the black race had descended. Both ideas served as justification for the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement of African peoples.
Racial science, or scientific racism as it is now called, was underwritten by a pernicious concept known as polygenism, the belief that humans are descended from separate biological lineages. Proponents included Voltaire, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson. Many believed whiteness was the primary condition of humanity as descended from Adam, and that Black or dark races descended independently from primates—a prescient irony considering later developments in evolutionary theory.
The inquiry into race variation gathered steam during the Enlightenment, with its endless predilection for measurement and hierarchical rankings. During this period, Carolus Linnaeus, father of binomial nomenclature (the system we still use to name the planet’s fauna and flora) reduced Homo sapiens to four colour-coded categories: Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus—red, white, yellow and black, respectively. Less than forty years later, Immanuel Kant also divided humanity into four classes: white, “Negro,” “Hun,” and “Hindu.”
In 1775, physician and naturalist Johann Blumenbach wrote his own treatise on the matter, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, whose several editions made him what American historian Nell Irvin Painter called a “star” of the German Enlightenment. Blumenbach’s human classification system allowed five colour groupings: “Yellow” for East Asia, “Copper” for Indigenous Americans, “Tawny” for “Malay,” a category that included South Pacific islanders and Aboriginal Australians, and “Black,” for those of sub-Saharan African descent. White appeared, as it often did, at the top: “The white colour holds the first place,” Blumenbach wrote, “such as is that of most European peoples.”
As the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic period, the race discussion took on a more subjective tone. Blumenbach and his peers wrote about “beautiful” and “ugly” races, with light-skinned people ascending the aesthetic ladder, and their duskier cousins drifting towards the bottom. Blumenbach defined his ideal: “I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men...” The modern meaning of the term Caucasian—literally natives of the Caucasus mountains, now generally understood to mean white people—was born.
For all his study of the world’s people, Blumenbach travelled little. He relied on a “cloud of eye witnesses” to bolster his research, including the testimony of seventeenth century French explorer Jean Chardin, who praised Georgians, especially Georgian women, for their attractiveness. Blumenbach also admired the symmetry of Caucasian facial architecture, an impression he’d gathered firsthand. He collected roughly 250 human skulls over his lifetime, much of which was spent measuring foreheads, eye sockets, and nasal cavities in the hopes of cataloguing the design discrepancies between races.
In retrospect, Blumenbach wrote with a blithe, xenophobic confidence, as did many of his predecessors and contemporaries, some of whom probably never met any of the people they so casually consigned to the bottom rungs of existence. To his credit, Blumenbach thought Homo sapiens was one species—against the prevailing intellectual winds—whose physical differences faded into one another without any distinguishable dividing lines.
But he was also a man of his time. To Blumenbach, humanity in its “primeval” condition was white; all other skin tones had darkened and deepened away from this primary instantiation over time. To him, the Caucasian race was first. This idea meshed with a common belief that Noah’s ark had made landfall, after the receding of the Biblical floodwaters, in the Caucasus mountains. In this case, Caucasians were related to Noah, chosen by God to perpetuate the human race.
Blumenbach couldn’t have known the historic reverberations of his discipline, racial anthropology, whose method presumed ethnic identity could be observed, classified and objectively appointed without any input at all from the subjects—an approach whose attendant horrors would push deep into the 20th century.
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection wouldn’t be published for close to a century after Blumenbach’s work first appeared. Darwin claimed no special immunity to the biases of his day. But as he observed, the racial classification project fell apart entirely in the margins, or rather the in-between. And according to Darwin, racial delineations (like skin tone) furnished no real survival advantage and therefore were not subject to natural selection. In other words, if there was a universal biological perk to being white, then the world would be full of white people, which by any rough estimate it is not.
Like Blumenbach, Darwin was a proponent of monogenism. In The Descent of Man and Selection and Relation to Sex, Darwin argued that all Homo sapiens derive from a common primate ancestor, the idea from which modern evolutionary theory sprung. This idea that Homo sapiens is a unified species, grown from a single root of the tree of life, is still science’s best answer to the question: where are we from?
But even today, if you don’t believe in evolution, it’s all just fake news.
My father is an anglophile. He loves marmalade and English tea and table manners and the Queen’s grammar and generally most kinds of fusty British pomp except the royal family, whom he quietly dislikes. He sprinkles his sentences with “bloody well” and “bloody hell” when he’s grumpy. From time to time, he still defends Great Britain as the height of civilized achievement, which I sometimes think is a form of internalized prejudice.
But he also hated the UK, especially what he considered the British talent for obsequious smackdowns. “Those bloody bastards,” he says even now. When he worked in England, his hospital colleagues would kill him with kindness and then laugh behind his back, or maybe stab him there if he got too ambitious. Or they’d flip the joke right out in the open, as I have experienced myself with embarrassing recency, when I was called “a colonial” to my face by a stranger at a family wedding—the English side—and no one in earshot, except my brother, even blinked.
Soon after their marriage, my parents decided to leave the United Kingdom, which for them was only ever united in theory. When I was born my father was still wearing a turban, although he untied it and cut his hair not long after our immigration to Canada, when I was still a baby. Traditionally, Sikhs don’t cut their hair as a sign of respect for the way God made them. Back then, that was the price of entry to the promised land—your lifetime, measured out in inches of hair. For a long time, my mother kept my father’s shorn locks, though now they are divorced.
Back then, Canada wasn’t exactly a brown man’s Valhalla, an observation made by the late author Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote a famously blistering essay titled “An Invisible Woman” in which she described the barrage of racial slurs and harassment she received upon moving to Toronto, including false accusations of shoplifting and demands she go “back to Africa.” By the time the essay was published in 1981, Mukherjee had already decamped to San Francisco.
Fortyish years ago, my father was a newly arrived immigrant with a young family, and Toronto was no rainbow utopia for him either. My parents chose an all-white neighbourhood, not knowing any better, because it was close to work. Nobody invited them over for barbecues, and nobody wanted their kids to play with my brother and me.
Canada was too cold for my dad, in more ways than one. And so, in the late ’70s we moved again to New York state, where the same options were available to immigrants—embrace your turmeric-stained, heavily accented brown side, or slide yourself into a softball jersey and a pair of Nikes and hope to get away with faking it. For my dad, who needed a job, and for his kids set loose in the land of milk and honey, there was really only one choice. Whiten up or die trying.
But what are you? Where did your family come from before?
I’m not offended by these questions, not really, since mostly they come from a place of curiosity. But the answer is personal, and so race, to me, has always been an uneasy topic. Sometimes the question comes out of nowhere, without any conversational warm-up. Sometimes people supply guesses without waiting for my reply: Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or sometimes they just compliment my tan. Is this not like asking someone how much money they make or how they vote? It’s not a secret, but could I get a handshake first?
What does it mean to be brown? And where does this racial compartment cleave to whiteness? Sometimes I am told: “But I don’t think of you as a brown person,” which leads to fruit metaphors for the mismatch of skin tone and cultural fidelity: coconuts, bananas, etc. I don’t speak Punjabi. I have a lot of cousins, and some of them don’t speak Punjabi either. They don’t have sing-song accents or delightful head wobbles or any other mango-adjacent idiosyncrasies often attributed to Indians. But still I wonder in return: Why must it be up to you what I am? Who gets to decide if not the person wearing the skin?
When you are of mixed race, identity is often contextually decided, either contested or confirmed by others, as demonstrated in the case of Barack Obama, the world’s most famous biracial man. In 2010 Obama identified as African-American on his census form, though he had the choice to indicate more than one response. Just a year before, according to a Pew Research Center survey, the perception of Obama’s racial identity varied widely among Americans depending on their own ethnic affiliations. Most white respondents claimed the president was multiracial, whereas most African-American respondents said he was Black. Among Hispanics, sixty-one per cent said Obama was mixed.
Halfsie, mixie, mongrel, mutt. If I’m among light-skinned people, I’m closer to white than brown. If I’m in India, I’m same-same but different—brown but westernized. With my family, I’m just my father’s daughter. It’s less about skin than blood. Still, it’s illuminating to be almost brown, or somewhat white, or just ambiguous enough that people let it all hang out; they feel completely free to be themselves. Whenever I hear someone begin a sentence with, “I’m not racist but…” I wish I could say I’m surprised. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone drop the words “towelhead” or “Paki,” or gripe about the curry smells, or bitch about the bhangra in the taxi, or express the open wish that immigrants just go back to their shithole countries, I’d be rich, which currently I am not.
One of my racial affiliations is “South Asian,” a category that’s almost meaningless given it fits a billion-plus people of varying ethnicities who speak dozens of languages and practice many religions. Nevertheless, my diasporic group is often economically advantaged, with the benefits of family support and high post-secondary education rates, illustrated by the Class of 2023 at Harvard College, which is twenty-five per cent Asian American, the largest racialized group on campus.
I might be half-brown but I’m also middle-class, straight, cis, a settler, an assimilated one at that. I’ve never been incarcerated. Never been put on a no-fly list. Never been the victim of a hate crime. Never been told to go back to where I came from—not to my face, not yet anyway. I’ve never been hungry, never been shot at or trafficked or stripped from my family or any of the innumerable onslaughts suffered by the people of the global south every day. So, when writers and activists of colour suggest white-passing people voluntarily step back from their spaces of discourse, I hear it.
Yet I can’t help wondering what “colour” means, if anything at all, in a language of ethnicity we didn’t invent, that shrink-wraps billions of people together in their shared non-whiteness, whose crude simplicity can’t ever reflect their huge Venn diagram of overlapping underdog circumstances. It fails to address tensions within race groups including blood quantum and colourism, despite existing at the root of those conflicts. After centuries, it’s the painful, dusty language we’re somehow still stuck with—the legacy of some dead white men’s unscientific guesses about human diversity, whose mind-blowing biological complexity is still revealing itself, even now. “Colour” seems like brutish code for a much more nuanced conversation we might be having, that we might still have, about who we are and where we belong.
Ethnicity is brilliantly messy. So is genomic diversity, which we all share regardless of skin tone, thanks to two million years of natural selection. Melanin is just the top coat, the long-lingering trace of a history that exceeds living memory, that survives long after the bonds of language, culture, kinship and religion have been stretched or maintained, broken or cast away. A more layered, ancient story lies beneath the skin. The simplified version is available to practically anyone willing slap down a credit card, spit into a test tube, and wait a few weeks for the secrets of their DNA to be revealed.
My own ancestral stew is nineteen per cent British, twenty-two per cent French and German, plus a slice of “broadly European” DNA, as reported by 23andMe, one of several companies offering consumer genetic testing. The latter influences were a surprise to me, given my mother’s family has lived in the UK for as long as anyone can remember. According to my report, this might be due to various sacking and plundering forays by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries.
My dad’s DNA shows up monolithically as forty-eight per cent “Northern Indian & Pakistani,” even though his genes are possibly more heterogeneous than my mother’s considering the Punjab was invaded countless times throughout history by Aryans, Persians, Alexander the Great, Turks, Mughals, and Afghans. “Northern Indian & Pakistani” is actually an improvement on a test my brother took a few years ago that pegged him as forty-seven per cent “South Asian,” an even bigger ethnic repository that, according to my test provider, accounts for about a quarter of the world’s population yet is grossly underrepresented in genetic studies.
Racial categorization has always been a dodgy business, especially when the search for genetic ethnicity beats a short path back to Blumenbach and his essentialist craniometry. According to some models, populations do shake out into “genetic clusters,” i.e. groups of people who share similarities in their DNA. Over time, clustering is believed to occur due to geographic isolation (because of obstacles like mountain ranges) and also cultural factors such as language or religion. In the last twenty years, researchers have crunched global datasets in order to isolate population types, but these results vary greatly depending on whose DNA is sampled, how many people and from where, not to mention the constraints placed upon algorithms by the researchers themselves.
And as Darwin noticed, attempts to partition one human pod from the next are thwarted by the fact that we fade into one another, a phenomenon known to population geneticists as “clinal variation.” Homo sapiens have 99.9 per cent of their DNA in common, as affirmed by the American Anthropological Association’s position on race: “Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94 per cent, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6 per cent of their genes.” In other words, there’s more variation within race groups than there is difference between them. Even the concept of a “gene” is slippery. Genes express variation—diversity, to be simple about it. If we were all the same, theoretically speaking, genes wouldn’t even exist.
I’m reminded of that optical illusion, the Troxler effect, the one with the blurry pink dots on a grey background. The harder I stare, the more inscrutable it all becomes. My two paternal grandparents produced eight offspring who, in turn, produced dozens of grandchildren—the family tree. And yet the genetic process that made me is also subject to an opposite and backward branching through time. I’m not simply slices of ancestral DNA. Each chromosomal pairing is a permutation, a roll of the dice.
Genes are one thing but ethnicity is something else, an identity that’s partly about blood, but also home and place, a helix of cultural and personal forces that can’t really be clipped apart. It’s a story that belongs to me, but only partially. It belongs to others, too. 23andMe may not have revealed all the complexities of my provenance, but it’s nailed one thing with perfect, koan-like accuracy. According to their blog: “At the end of the day, identity is determined by many things…”