Over the past few years, testing to determine one’s ethnic ancestry has become very popular. The websites, Ancestry.com, and 23 and Me, have made testing one’s DNA fairly affordable and two television shows, Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are have helped fuel interest in the subject.
I took one of the DNA tests a few years ago and discovered that my parents and grandparents had been very accurate in their knowledge about our family’s racial/ethnic ancestry. No surprises for me.
However, I know several people who have lived their lives as ‘white’ who are discovering that their racial ancestry is not as ‘white’ as they have been led to believe. In some cases, their ancestry includes African blood lines. While this information has been surprising and perhaps a little disconcerting to learn, it hasn’t had a significant impact on how they view themselves. It has, however, had an impact on how they view African Americans. The ethnic lines have been blurred.
I am not surprised that some people who have identified as ‘white’ all of their lives have African bloodlines. Miscegenation was common in the South during the 18th and 19th centuries. Historians have noted that white families with Southern roots extending back 150 years have a great likelihood of having at least one black ancestor.
In 1998, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, traced his ancestry back to when his family first arrived in America. He was a descendant of South Carolina slave owners. His genealogy research uncovered African ancestry in the family. Some of his relatives resented his public acknowledgement of this fact.
American actress, Carol Channing, learned when she was sixteen years old that her father’s birth certificate listed him as ‘colored’ as his mother had been African American. Carol wrote in her 2002 memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, that her ethnic ancestry was an ‘unexpected revelation’ to her and she didn’t make this public to avoid the discrimination experienced by African Americans during this time.
Over the past three centuries, ‘racial passing’ was fairly commonplace among black people who could ‘pass as white.’ Often black families were split up along the color line with the result that those who could pass as white lived apart from darker skinned relatives. One poignant modern day story which addresses this issue is One Drop. Written in 2007 by Bliss Broyard, the daughter of a man who passed as white, and who didn’t discover that she had black ancestry until her father died, delineates the lengths to which people went to disappear into white society. Another equally compelling story on this topic was written in 1995 by Gregory Howard Williams, Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy Who Discovered He Was Black.
For years the U.S. delineated race and ethnicity according to an informal rule – the one drop rule. Essentially, if someone had as little as 1/32 of African heritage, he/she would be labeled black. While the ‘one drop’ rule is not necessarily used to determine how one identifies racially today, still it is interesting to contemplate how different America might be if more white people learned that actually they are not as white as they may think. Perhaps it would reduce some prejudice and racism if more whites discovered that ‘us’ and ‘them’ are really ‘both.’