I recently witnessed an interesting example of the kind of misunderstanding that tends to occur online nowadays, although to be fair they’ve probably existed as long as we’ve had language. I stuck a status update on FB saying that I was quite possibly the whitest person in the world, as a preliminary to saying stuff about my ancestry, which I’ve recently apparently gleaned from a DNA test. One person, and I’m not maligning them because I’m sure I do the same, said that what I’d said came across as quite Trumpian, which is quite possible. But as it turns out, the reason I made that statement was to head off any impression that I might be attempting to appropriate the Black identity in what I was about to say, because to make the kind of announcement I was about to make could easily be misconstrued in all sorts of negative ways. In a way it shouldn’t even be seen as that interesting, but the world we live in makes it inevitable that it could be seen as notable. All of this nuance was, however, lost due to the nature of that thin trickle of text to which we are subjected on social media (except we aren’t because of all the pics and ads).
My actual intention was to emphasise in advance that a statement regarding my genetics is not meant to make some kind of facile outsider’s claim on a “cool” identity, or for that matter cleave to an oppressed or deprecated aspect of ethnicity. Practically all of my genome is not only Northwest European but also Western Irish and what might fallaciously be called Celtic or Gaelic, which of course I already knew. I do in fact feel not only a real allegiance to that identity but also an obligation towards keeping it alive or supporting it in some other way, although I also feel that Celtic heritage tends to be both romanticised and emphasised at the expanse of Germanic, partly no doubt due to Hitler.
Now to cut to the chase and actually mention in earnest those things to which I’ve previously only alluded. For a number of years I have suspected that I had Black ancestry on my father’s side in the eighteenth century. I don’t know how this could’ve happened, but it seemed likely for a number of reasons. For instance, although my hair is fairly typical for someone with Western Scottish lineage, the only kind of comb which really works on it is an Afro comb and left to itself, it will tend to dread more quickly than most other white people I know. My lips are also thicker than most white people’s and as an adolescent I had a skin condition called pityriasis versicolor, which is much more common among Black people than white. At the same time I have very fair skin (although it never burns, for what it’s worth), a leptorrhine nose (unusually narrow even for a white person), blue eyes and hair that’s easily bleached by sunlight. There’s a more significant physical factor which clinched it for me but which I’ve unfortunately forgotten. More importantly, I’m culturally quite incredibly white, and of course this kind of statement is what my friend zeroed in on as sounding like Donald Trump. But I’m not prioritising whatever might be construed as “white culture”, quite a frightening sounding phrase, above what might be understood to be “black”, or for that matter denigrating all of it compared to black.
I should probably specify at this point that what I think of as “white” seems wider than most other people, because I would include Jews other than the Beta Israel, North Afri?ans (I’ll get to that question mark in a bit), Hispanics and Middle Easterners in that category as well as stereotypical Northwestern Europeans. That said, I personally only identify as Northwest European. There just is nobody else who feels like my kin, which is not to say I have any conscious disrespect for anyone else, just that it’s a fact. I do of course acknowledge the idea of white privilege and the hoarding and plundering of resources white people have inflicted on the rest of the species, and I’d even say that Brexit would go some way to redressing that balance were it not for the fact that money would stay in the hands of the heirs of the people who did that in the first place and go nowhere else. Moreover, mention of the hands of the heirs brings up the issue that whereas we can’t be held responsible for the accident of our birth, there is something inherently racist about the fact that we have the privilege we have in the first place, and if we believe in the success of rational endeavours at all, it makes sense to try to redress that balance. At the same time I’m conscious that this is a white person saying this and these views are being expressed by someone who is not in the position of having experienced, or been unconsciously subject to, the kind of racism I’m talking about, so I know not whereof I speak. Because I’m white.
That said, it is indeed the case that I have a North Afri?an ancestor on my father’s side who lived during the eighteenth century, exactly as I suspected. The eighteenth century because I know the entire family tree, at least as officially reported, on that side back to the early nineteenth century, so the scope for that happening without it being drowned out by other influences to the extent that it would no longer be discernible is that the person concerned must’ve happened in the eighteenth century. But it gets confusing at this point, because the question arises: are North Afri?ans black? But before I get to that, I’ll address the question mark.
It’s been said that Afri?a should not be spelt with a C but with a K. The arguments for this are that most indigenous Afrikan languages spell their word for Afrika with a K, that European colonial languages such as French, English and Portuguese introduced the C spelling, that the K symbolises the possibility of a pan-Afrikan linguistic unity and that writing Afrikan languages in this alphabet at all tend to involve using a C. That’s all interesting, and my first “instinct” is to go with that because it’s an Afrikan way of thinking about it and imposing a C on it from outside signifies the opinion of a European being foisted onto Afrika. But I have to confess that the arguments don’t sound very strong to me, that writing “Afrika” isn’t really enough and is perhaps just a form of slacktivism and perhaps drawing attention to how “woke” I am in a manner which is ultimately unhelpful. It seems like tokenism.
Looking at each of those arguments, it comes to mind that Afrikan languages are, and were historically, often not even written in scripts with a “K” in them, which amount to Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. Coptic, however, does have a K in its alphabet, and is a thoroughly Afrikan language, being a form of Egyptian (as in hieroglyphics). I can’t honestly say that Coptic had a word for Afrika because although there is of course a Bible translation into Coptic which mentions regions of Afrika such as Nubia, Egypt, Ethiopia, the Roman province of Africa and perhaps Libya, but doesn’t appear to have a concept of a continent, which raises another issue – should we subsume all Afrikan identities under one heading like this? Maybe in opposition to post-colonial powers? But why allow outsiders to define who you are in that way? Isn’t that part of the problem? Moving on to other scripts, there’s the Ge`ez of Ethiopia, Tifinagh of the Berber folk, Vai as used in Liberia and Sierra Leone and, probably formerly the most widespread script in pre-European colonial times, Arabic. Not having anything visually resembling a letter K or C, none of these scripts would’ve been used to write Afrika with either a C or a K, and in fact some of them used a character often transliterated as “Q”, which has never been suggested. Hence it isn’t clear why this would work well as an argument for writing “Afrika”. Moreover, Afrikaans, which could be seen as a particularly imperialist language, does spell Afrika that way. As far as I can tell, the Roman Empire was the first to use the spelling, so it is in fact true, though in a rather unexpected way, that a European power introduced the C. But to be honest, my main reasons for not writing “Afrika” would be that it seems ostentatious and quirky, and I don’t want to be ostentatious and quirky about the serious matter of how to approach this continent. That could simply mean that my bubble is European – I just don’t come across people for whom it is an important issue. Consequently, for now, provisionally, I am going to write “Afrika”, in the absence of a real reason not to.
Getting back to the North Afrikan ancestor, it’s rather hard to be more specific. This is mainly because the DNA testing service I used, although it has millions of people on its database, has a heavy White Anglosaxon Protestant bias, and therefore has relatively few black people on it. Therefore the information which places people’s ancestry will be taken from more general data. It might be logical to go by either mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosomes. Y chromosomes, being inherited only along the paternal line, and mitochondrial DNA only along the maternal, help large movements of people to be traced. North Afrika has three major Y chromosomal groups: Egyptian, Berber and Tuareg. The odd ones out are the Tuareg, who consider themselves part of the Berber but have mitochondrial DNA more like that found in southern Europe, which probably means there’s a stream of people between North Afrika, Malta, Sicily and the Italian peninsula. This is just my guess incidentally. I don’t actually know. The Berber and Egyptian populations are partly eclipsed by the Arabisation of the Maghreb and there are Berber nationalist movements which seek to assert the distinct identity of the Berber. Although I’ve said “black ancestry”, it really seems most likely that the person concerned was Berber, which is where the true fluidity of human genetics gives the lie to the conventional WASP idea of race based on skin tone, because the skin tone of the Berber peoples is highly variable and our genes don’t pay much attention at all to what we imagine are fixed racial shoeboxes.
I’ve mentioned previously that the biggest genetic variation is in Afrika, particularly south of the Sahara, next to which the variation in Europe, for example, is rather small. This is a slight distortion of the facts, as Southern and Southeastern Asia is also quite variable, but it does also mean that whereas we might think of people as Black Afrikan, it’s closer to the truth to say that there are a few non-white “races” plus a larger number of Black Afrikan races. This genetic diversity and the fact that Afrikans alone have often not gone through bottlenecks such as Sinai, the Bering Straits, the Wallace Line and Panama, is a good a priori argument for Black Afrikans being the most intelligent human population, except for the disadvantages imposed on them by their colonial history, because the relative inbreeding of the rest of the human race probably wouldn’t do our IQ any favours. However, intelligence is as contentious an issue as race and there’s ample evidence that there is in fact no essential difference between the cognitive skills of Afrikans and any other arbitrarily chosen person, if they have the same background, which is of course a big “if” owing to racism.
The Berber people today tend to be quite Arabised and have mixed with the Arab population, but prehistoric North Afrika was quite genetically isolated by the Sahara and Mediterranean. Egypt and nearby land is less so due to Suez. Hence the reference to “North African” (with a C!) is more likely to refer to Berber than Egyptian, whose genes are thoroughly mixed with Arabs’. Going by the rather crass notion of skin tone, they’re a particularly striking example of how the colour of someone’s skin is not a good guide to who they are or where they come from, even culturally or linguistically. Malian Tuareg, going by photos, often look black to me, but more “pure” Berber, including Tuareg, from further north look white to me, but probably not to most other people who see themselves as white. If I was going to be really essentialist about this I might say that the perception of skin tone as a marker of whether someone is in an in-group or an out-group could be genetically determined, but given the rather small amount of DNA I have from the people concerned, I’d be inclined to put it down to something else even if it were true, which I seriously doubt.
I find it particularly mysterious that the person concerned seems to have been Berber rather than from further south, because I’ve always assumed that whoever it was had been caught up in the Atlantic slave trade and ended up in Scotland. There were plenty of black slaves in Scotland in the eighteenth century, so that always made sense to me. However, maybe it’s my ignorance of the nature of the slave trade, but to me it seems out of place that someone from the Sahara should have been enslaved, so I feel like there’s a different history here. It’s also not someone I could really fit into any standard narrative of being descended from Afrikan slaves like so many other people can. At least one of two assumptions needs to shift in this. One is my presumption that I had an eighteenth century Afrikan slave ancestor. The other is that there was no Berber DNA among Afrikan slaves. But I don’t know enough about the situation or Black History to say what the likely explanation is.
I was going to say more here but this will now have to wait for another time.