“You’re not really Black,” my 16-year-old, light-skinned, blue-eyed son has been hearing for most of his life, despite having an African-American father, an African-American extended family, and growing up in a household that we consider equally Jewish and Black.
When he was younger, it just confused him. The other day, he asked his 12-year-old brother, “Has anyone ever told you you’re not really Black?”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Because people are stupid,” my son spoke from experience.
But the 12-year-old is quite a bit darker than the 16-year-old, so the issue hasn’t affected him as much. Plus, he’s less sensitive to such things. Like his dad, he lives in the world of math, science, and engineering, where everything is—to coin a phrase—black and white.
My 16-year-old, on the other hand, has been aware of how people view him since he was in preschool. And now that he’s a Junior in high school, it’s only gotten more intense.
The college admissions frenzy has begun, and my lucky teen gets to hear both how, because he’s Black, he’ll obviously get into any top university he wants, whether he’s qualified or not, and that he’s the wrong kind of Black applicant for affirmative action because he’s not the face they want to headline their brochure. (Think they’re kidding about the brochure thing? Go to any college or even selective private elementary school’s website, and there it is, right on the front, the token brown face. Our family’s theory is that it’s the same kid posing for every site.)
My son has been cracking jokes about his Catch-22 situation for several years now. But, this year, it started to feel more serious. After taking part in a summer entrepreneurship program for minority teens, he told me he was never, ever doing another one, because he is tired of constantly defending himself. I could see him getting more and more beaten down on a daily basis. It was starting to affect his self-confidence and self-image.
There is a Russian expression for when you are tired of dealing with someone/something. “Spit on it.” (It’s kind of like “forget about it” or “ignore it.”)
So I spit on it. Or, rather, I had my son spit. Into a specially prepared tube from a DNA testing kit. You send them your spit, and they promise to come back with a report breaking down your exact ethnicity. I figured if my son wasn’t convinced by grandparents, parents, looking in the mirror (yes, he has light skin and blue eyes, but those full lips, broad nose and curly hair should count for something), then maybe he’d be convinced by science! Or, to put it more simply, what teen-ager wouldn’t take a stranger’s word over his mom’s and dad’s?
About a month later, we had our report. And it was so accurate based on what we knew of both my husband’s and my family history, that we wondered if they’d just read my Kveller posts and came up with a breakdown accordingly.
But, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and presume they didn’t. (We also presumed that my 16-year-old’s genetic make-up would be similar to that of my other two children’s. When the 12-year-old asked, “What if it’s not?” I wondered what he was implying about me. He got the insinuation, and meekly replied, “Nothing.”)
According to the test results, my son is 42% European Jewish. The map they provided indicated a vague Russia/Poland/Pale of Settlement blob. According to their data, a typical native of the region would have a 96% match, so my son’s half seems pretty spot on. (I was surprised that no ethnic, non-Jewish Russian or Polish showed up. Based on the cut of my eyes, I’d always assumed a few rapey Tatars dove into the gene pool, but possibly in numbers too small to trace.)
His second highest number was 32% African, 12% coming from Nigeria (“You can be a prince and send me scammy emails!” I cheered), 7% from Benin/Togo, and 7% from Cameroon/Congo. The latter thrilled both me and my brother due to our childhood unhealthy fascination with the movie “Congo,” from which we can both still quote long stretches of dialogue. (Tim Curry! A talking gorilla!)
My son, being a huge geography buff (the fact that cartographer as a profession is no longer a thing causes him great sadness), pointed out that Nigeria isn’t actually an ethnicity, as the country is a colonial hodge-podge of various cultural groups. But he was still happy to hear it, and spent the rest of the evening reading up on their history. The fact that is was pretty much the epicenter of the slave trade sealed the deal of how their DNA showed up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
A final 15% (save trace elements of Middle Eastern origin) came from Great Britain. This also wasn’t a surprise. My husband shares his last name with a town in England. And a plantation in Virginia. His father has done the research and made the (pretty obvious) genealogical connection.
As my husband is always telling our son, “It’s virtually impossible for any African-American to be 100% anything.”
You wouldn’t think a print-out with a bunch of numbers based on some spit in a test-tube would make much of a difference. Quite frankly, I don’t think it should make much of a difference. But, the one thing I can’t deny is—it did make a difference.
No matter how cool and blasé my son tries to play it off, I can see how happy it made him to finally have the proof he’s always craved—that he is really Black, along with being Jewish (the part where he and my husband’s entire family are part slave owner is something we like to ignore).
I’m going to give him a pass on what his earlier doubts implied about me, too.