It’s inevitable that a privileged person blundering into a topic regarding discrimination against less privileged groups will get something wrong, perhaps even offensively so. Hence there’s an argument that I, the world’s whitest woman, shouldn’t even be writing this but I’ve also found that when I hold back from doing something, other people will wade in and do a much worse job because they don’t suffer from my scrupulosity. Consequently, I just am going to say this, despite my ignorance on the matter.
“African American” is a term used widely in the States to refer to the descendants of formerly enslaved Black people born in the USA. I must reveal at this point the first bit of ignorance I’m aware of: I presume that the Afrikan origins of these people’s ancestors cannot be pinned down easily to specific ethnic groups in Afrika (I’ve gone into the K spelling before), and they usually seem to have lost their names, hence “Malcolm X”. The diversity of people originating from south of the Sahara in that continent, culturally and genetically, is considerable. For instance, at least thirteen language families are spoken on the continent, excluding Indo-European but including Austronesian in Madagascar, most of whose languages are spoken in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. Genetically, ten types of human Y chromosome dominate indigenous populations over the whole continent compared to the six of the whole of Europe, the three of the Americas, the one of Australia and the nine of Asia. Regarding mitochondrial DNA, inherited from the mother, there are forty-three groups outside Afrika and eighteen within it, again in terms of indigenous population. I don’t know much about Afrikan cultures but I would expect similar diversity. The genetic element of this diversity is, as I’ve said previously, a good a priori argument for the idea that if genetics are an important factor in human intelligence, Afrikans can be expected to be more intelligent because they tend to be less inbred than the rest of us. Therefore one of the problems with being African-American, I imagine, is not knowing your heritage beyond the awareness that your ancestors were from Afrika south of the Sahara. However, it would be unfair to suppose that an African American would simply leave it at that all of the time and I’m also aware that most enslaved Afrikans outside the continent would have been from West or Central Afrika. Hence the term “African American” is somewhat inaccurate. It does not in fact refer to all people whose ancestors originated from Afrika. There are forty million African Americans in the restricted usage of the term, but also eight hundred thousand Americans whose ancestors originated in North Afrika. Of those, thirteen hundred identify as Berber. But why should this matter? Surely the important thing about African Americans is that their ancestors were enslaved and disenfranchised, and that they’ve been forcibly wrenched away from their own history, isn’t it? Well, yes and no.
There is a problem with North Afrika being left out of the picture. North Afrikans themselves tend to identify as Arabs more than Afrikan, and historically as Roman or French citizens, among a number of other things. Egyptians have had a slight tendency to regard themselves as something apart too, and of course there are the Berbers and the Tuareg. A different kind of imperialism is involved here. Firstly, there was a time when the provinces of Africa, Aegyptus, Creta et Cyrene and the two Mauretaniae were part of the Roman Empire, as was much of Great Britain and all of Asia Minor. A telling aspect of this grouping is that Creta et Cyrene includes both a stretch of coastal North Afrika and the nearby island of Crete, which might be more often thought of as part of Greece nowadays, and therefore European. Likewise, Carthage is not thought of as an Afrikan power even though it was. There’s also a tendency for Ancient Egypt to be considered separately from the rest of Afrika even though it was one of the first and most durable post-Neolithic civilisations of all. It’s almost like, if something is influential and long-lasting in terms of Western history but happens to be in Afrika, it automatically becomes an honorary European culture because “that kind of thing doesn’t happen in Africa”. Of course it does, in other parts of the continent as with Timbuktu, the Songhai Empire and Great Zimbabwe, but if it’s close enough to Europe, somehow it no longer counts as Afrikan. North Afrika has also been subject to European colonialism and imperialism in recent history, although it may have been spared some of the atrocities committed by Europeans further south. There has also been Arab imperialism in North Afrika, but this also affected some of the rest of the continent such as the Swahili coast, the Sudan and Abyssinia, and there was also an Arab slave trade from East Afrika.
The reason I think this is important is cosmopolitanism in the Ancient Greek sense. I don’t want to deny the importance of Afrikan identity in terms of a common history, ongoing, of external imperialism and slavery, but there isn’t enough emphasis on the fact that the human race forms a continuum, genetically and socially. “Blackness”, like gender, is substantially related to how others perceive one’s physical form and has major consequences for one’s social status. Hence having darker skin may be the most important characteristic used to justify racism. If, however, the transition between Europeans and “Africans”, and between “Africans” and Middle Eastern people, is included, it makes it harder for white people of Northern European origin to “other” Afrikans. Thus it might on the one hand seem that making this kind of claim about Afrikan identity is a form of erasure, but it’s also true pan-Africanism. Another aspect of this is that pan-Africanism would recognise the various peoples in North Afrika who don’t identify as Arab, such as the Tuareg and Berber.
The Tuareg are particularly significant here in terms of skin tone, but before I get to that I want to point out a parallel between the social construction of ethnicity and that of gender. These are both externally defined by factors over which one has little control. Just like gender, ethnicity in terms of oppression and privilege is dominated by the visual feature of skin tone, but although white people do form a relatively homogenous genetic group, Black people don’t. All the latter have in common genetically is the few alleles of about three or four genes related to the inheritance of skin colour. White people are likely to perceive Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals as Black and therefore place them in the same category as African Americans even though Melanesians and Australian Aboriginals on the one hand and White people on the other may have more in common with each other genetically than with one of the many genetic groupings of individual Afrikans south of the Sahara. Back to the Tuareg though. These people, with whom like many other white Europeans I share one of the most popular versions of mitochondrial DNA, H1n, vary in skin tone between what probably most white people would think of as white and what they would definitely think of as black. I’m not clear about whether they themselves make this significant, but just as in the white Irish and British population hair and eye colour are generally seen as workaday variants without much significance, so among the Tuareg this variation may be considered just as trivial, although there is a geographic distribution with the Malian Tuareg being much darker than, say, the Libyans to whom many Europeans are most closely related.
There is also a problem with the idea that all Caucasians are white. Caucasian “ethnicity”, such as it is, is based on measurements of skulls from the eighteenth century, and the idea was that because Noah’s Ark had settled at Mount Ararat, all humans alive had descended from that area and also that the Caucasians were the peak of human beauty, so the very concept is deeply racist in its origins. It also corresponds to the idea that the world is running down from a golden age where those who originate from further away from the Caucasus are inferior because of degeneracy. The idea of Caucasian beauty is descended from the Mediaeval idea of Circassian beauty, that the Circassians of the Northwest Caucasus. I suspect that the white European mind at the time associated whiteness with beauty. The only thing is, Caucasians have only been white for the last few thousand years.
There seem to be about eight genes in the human genome associated with skin colour, the most significant of which are SLC24A5 on chromosome five and SLC45A2 on chromosome fifteen. The others are OCA2, HERC2 and the apparently less important TYR, TYRP1, LRMDA and MC1R. Analysis of Neolithic European skeletons from modern-day Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary has shown that SLC24A5 and SLC45A2 would both have been of the allele (variety) which conferred dark skin eighty-five centuries ago. The fair-skinned allele of SLC45A2 was low in Europe until only fifty-eight centuries ago, which is in the same millennium the Pyramids were built and decipherable writing was invented such as cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics. After that, fair skin became rapidly more common because of the advantage conferred by being able to synthesise vitamin D from weak sunlight, and other characteristics thought of as Caucasian were brought by the people I think of as the Aryans from the area north of the Black Sea. However, by seventy-seven centuries ago there were people in today’s southern Sweden, which is incidentally the originally Germanic homeland, who did have the pale-skinned allele and also the relevant alleles of HERC2 and OCA2. The HERC2 allele is the main eye colour gene and is associated with fair hair, blue eyes and to a lesser extent fair skin. I personally have this gene homozygously, as have our children, and Sarada has it heterozygously. It’s also common in North Afrika. In my case it’s on a segment of my genome originating from Sweden. OCA2 is also on chromosome fifteen and is implicated particularly in ocular albinism, which is the variant of albinism which affects melanin in the retina and therefore interferes with sight. I have to admit that I know very little about TYR, TYRP1, LRMDA or MC1R.
SLC45A2 codes for a transporter protein necessary for melanin synthesis and is also relevant to coat colour in some other species of placental mammals other than primates. SLC24A5 codes for a protein used in the melanocyte Golgi apparatus, a kind of “conveyor belt” in cells which packages proteins into lipid envelopes and is currently very busy in a lot of humans churning out a certain Coronavirus. Melanocytes, by the way, are the cells which confer skin colour. One interesting thing about the protein concerned, which is called “sodium/potassium/calcium exchanger 5” is that the versions causing light or dark skin differ by a single amino acid, encoded by three base-pairs on the relevant stretch of DNA. This single small molecule, alanine or threonine depending on the allele, has vast social consequences for our species as it decides skin colour.
Melanin is the only mammalian pigment unless you count haemoglobin. Even red hair contains a form of melanin which is more liable to be altered by ultraviolet light, and in fact the apparently ginger Egyptian mummies probably wouldn’t have been ginger in life because the “gingerification” of melanin will always occur eventually. The same applies to ginger mammoths, who weren’t ginger before they got frozen. Other vertebrates also have melanin but other pigments too. Technically this is one reason why there are so few mammals who could be described as green in colour, unlike many lizards and amphibians. It also means that genuine mammalian albinos, with pink eyes, white hair and skin, are often unlike albinos in other vertebrate classes, who are often coloured but “washed out” – albino birds, for example, often have coloured plumage as well as many white feathers. Now the question arises in my mind of whether white humans could be seen as on some kind of albino spectrum. There is a “milder” form of albinism called “leucism” seen in many species where an animal is paler but not completely devoid of melanin. Having no melanin at all seriously interferes with your eyesight because the inside of the eye is blacked out with it, allowing it to function as a camera and therefore enable you to see detailed scenes, and this blacking out is also necessary for healthy development of the optic nerve and light-sensitive cells, which kind of grow towards the light like plants do but can’t do that in the “glare” caused by albinism. Therefore most white Caucasians are not really albinos, but we could be thought of as leucistic. Oddly, although Homo sapiens sapiens herself is originally black, the chances are that our ancestors weren’t because chimpanzees are pale-skinned, and it’s thought that we only developed dark skin on leaving the rainforests. I’m not sure about this idea because bonobos are more closely related to humans than chimpanzees and are black, as are gorillas, although orang utan aren’t and in fact can even have blue eyes. Also, Neanderthals were fair-skinned and possibly also blond and blue-eyed, and had straight hair, so to some extent would’ve looked like Britt Ekland or Angetha Faltskog. The fun thing about this is that it seriously undermines the racist idea of today’s Afrikans being more primal or primitive. Afrikan humans, unlike the rest of us, are also genetically the “purest” humans, with no Neanderthal or Denisovan DNA.
This brings up the question of hair texture, about whose genetics I know little. Straight hair has circular follicles and is therefore cylindrical. The more elliptical a hair strand is, the more bent it is, and this is linked to the shape of follicles. There are some unusual hair textures such as beaded and triangular, the latter being “uncombable hair syndrome”, but leaving aside those rarities, hair can be classified in various ways, though the most common seems to be the FIA system, which specifies twelve variants from 1a to 4c along with thickness and volume. My own hair is 3b, and this is where it gets contentious.
Hair texture seems to be ultimately defined by dozens of genes as well as what happens to it. Due to this widely distributed scattering of relevant genes across all the non-sex chromosomes (autosomes), the inheritance of hair texture is very complex. I have slightly more genes associated with straight hair than hair of other textures but the stretch of DNA on my chromosome which originated from North Afrika, unsurprisingly, does include hair texture genes, because of this wide distribution. My elder brother, incidentally, has type 4 hair and the last time I saw him he had an Afro, although the relevance of this is questionable and this may be misleading. This means that my hair has a slight tendency to dread and a strong tendency to go frizzy, but because I am, as I’ve said, the world’s whitest person who isn’t actually an albino and my hair bleaches easily in sunlight, to the extent that in Spain I’ve been referred to as “rubio” – “blond”. I can’t really comb my hair with the kind of comb designed for straight hair. Consequently, if I’m not careful I could stand accused of cultural appropriation because of the “natural” state of my hair. Dreads are historically of course not confined to Black people and may even be commanded by the Bible, but a white person with dreads is generally perceived as culturally appropriating and it just ain’t gonna happen to my hair, but I have to put quite a lot of effort into preventing it.
There is a wider point to this than just obsessing about the state of my locks. The reason my hair is like this is my ancestry. Stray genes have wandered from their homelands, as it were, into this Northwestern European person, because people are not in sealed boxes genetically and even if parents only have children with near neighbours there can be spread across great distances. My North Afrikan ancestry is still somewhat mysterious to me although I suspect it’s to do with eighteenth century Barbary piracy and their white slave trade, which is another difficult subject to raise because of the enormous importance of the Atlantic slave trade in the family history of African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans. I can’t “go” there right now and there’s a more nuanced and mediated story to be told there which is currently unknown to me.
Genes have wandered into North Afrika as well. As well as having been part of the Roman Empire, it’s also been subject to Vandal colonisation. As the Empire collapsed, the Vandals and Alans invaded Corsica, Sardinia and the Northwestern Sahara, including the former Carthage, before being conquered themselves by the Byzantines. The Vandals were Germanic peoples once native to what’s now Southern Poland, and the Alans were from, of all places, Central Asia. These people will have left genetic traces in the area too. The Vandals also had a kingdom in Iberia, indicating the connection between parts of Europe and the Roman provinces further south.
Speaking of “further south”, I’ve rather clumsily avoided using the term “sub-Saharan Afrika” in this post. This is because the only place “sub-Saharan Afrika” is “sub”, i.e. “below”, the Sahara is on a map on a wall with North at the top, and the reason North is at the top is that the people who made the maps concerned were from the North. The “top” of the planet, if anywhere, is the outside, i.e. the bit we all live on. Thus it’s Afrika south of the Sahara and not the other thing, any more than Transylvania is on the other side of the forest.
Another scrappy and difficult topic here is the idea that we are all Afrikan. There is obviously a sense in which we are indeed all Afrikan, in the same sense that I’m Scottish even though I was born in England, as were my parents. It’s true that Homo sapiens originates from that continent and it’s fair to acknowledge that most of what makes us human happened there. Just as a two-year old child is said to have learnt most of what she will ever learn throughout her life already, when our ancestors emerged from that continent we could be thought of as having invented and discovered most of what we ever will. In another sense, most of human history took place there. However, it doesn’t seem fair to define being truly Afrikan out of existence that way. We need to admit to the fact that it’s the cradle of civilisation and humanity, to be sure, but not to the extent that we pretend it means nothing to have Afrikan ancestry. Nor is it true that most of us outside Afrika can trace all of our ancestors back to the continent while we were actually members of the genus Homo, because non-Afrikans are distinctive in having Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry and those groups were never there. I often wonder if we were to travel back in time and witness the behaviour of Palaeolithic humans, we would have a kind of “aha” moment when we realised where a lot of our problems today started.
This is getting a bit scrappy, but there’s still something I haven’t covered regarding skin tone. I’ve already mentioned human albinism and the question of whether white people are albinos. What I haven’t mentioned is the rather surprising distribution of albinism in the global human population. Caucasian albinos are in fact very rare. Only one person in tweny thousand with mainly European ancestry is albino, in spite of the fact that we’re all leucistic. In Afrika as a whole, the incidence is one in five thousand, and in Southern Afrika it’s as high as one in a thousand, which is as common as the global distribution of Down Syndrome, twice as common as Turner Syndrome and half as common as having an XXY karyotype. The life expectancy of Afrikan albinos is significantly lower for various reasons, notably because of ultraviolet radiation from the tropical sun but also most unfortunately because of prejudice against them and the fact that they tend to be murdered for religious reasons so their body parts can be used in rituals. I’m all for cultural relativism but this doesn’t seem right to me.
The question is, then, why are there so many albinos in Afrika? Why is it more widespread in populations which are mainly dark-skinned, and why is it more likely to occur in places where it’s more threatening to life for a number of reasons? It would seem more likely that being less likely to have children would lead to selection pressure against the persistence of the characteristics unless they resulted from point mutations and were genetic but not inherited. Albinism is a recessive characteristic. You can only be albino if both your parents carry the gene. Doing the maths, this means that in Southern Afrika about one person in thirty would be expected to have that gene. It’s thought that the reason it’s so common is that the parents are more likely to be fairly closely related than elsewhere, although I’m not sure about this because of the situation in South Asia, where albinos aren’t at all common. It doesn’t explain why the allele exists, and I’m wondering if there’s a selective advantage to being heterozygous in this respect, like sickle cell trait, which confers greater resistance to malaria, or red-green colour blindness, which may give XX carriers better colour vision. Apart from that, I think it reflects the greater genetic diversity of the continent.
Just to finish, I’m aware of the fact that I haven’t mentioned the Covid-19 situation with regard to Afrika or for that matter anywhere else here, but I just thought it might be good to give people something else to think about for a change.