The future is not impossible

By Razib Khan | October 13, 2011 11:32 am


Alexander Dumas, of mixed race

One of the reasons I post regularly on the genetics of mixed-race people and their physical appearance is that I don’t think the media does a good job. There’s a “freak show” element which titillates but does not illuminate. This in a period in the United States where the absolute number of people of mixed origin is increasing rapidly due to intermarriage. In fact for years I’ve gotten inquiries from the parents of mixed-race children about the scientific details of the genetics, because they are regularly questioned in depth as to how the children came to look how they look (the emails are always from women, more on that later). A relatively well written article in The New York Times illustrates some of the issues, insofar as the focus is totally on social context and dynamics, with not even a small nod to the science. The story is about a mixed-race woman (mother white and father black) who is married to a white man, whose children don’t “look black.” Specifically, her two daughters are very light-skinned, and the younger one is boldly blonde.

Here’s the jump off point of the piece:

“How come she’s so white and you’re so dark?”

The question tore through Heather Greenwood as she was about to check out at a store here one afternoon this summer. Her brown hands were pushing the shopping cart that held her babbling toddler, Noelle, all platinum curls, fair skin and ice-blue eyes.

The woman behind Mrs. Greenwood, who was white, asked once she realized, by the way they were talking, that they were mother and child. “It’s just not possible,” she charged indignantly. “You’re so…dark!”

It was not the first time someone had demanded an explanation from Mrs. Greenwood about her biological daughter, but it was among the more aggressive….

Of course it’s possible. The science behind this is trivially plain. The biological mother has alleles which code phenotypes distinctive of Europeans and Africans. Because her father is African American she is even likely to have more European ancestry than African ancestry (median African American is ~80% African and ~20% European). Genes which control variation in skin pigmentation at the scale of racial differences are distributed across half a dozen loci, but with blue vs. brown eye color there’s really only one locus which explains most (though not all) of the variation. That probably explains how both the daughters have blue eyes. The mother is probably a heteozygote, and the father is a homozygote. That means that any one of their children has a ~50% chance of having blue eyes and a ~50% chance of having brown eyes. So the chance of both daughters turning out to have blue eyes is ~25%. But obviously the science isn’t the meat of the piece. I just wish they’d given a quick explicit nod to it so that people would know why the outcome is as it is. It’s not rocket science.

In terms of the experiences of this family, there are a few issues that come to mind. First, it would be nice to clarify the ages of the individuals who ask her rude questions. My personal experience is that people who compliment me on my ability to speak English well have invariably been born before 1970. No matter one’s politics or current life situation formative experiences matter. These are people who grew up in the United States before there were large numbers of children in their classrooms who “didn’t look American” (i.e., they weren’t black or white). In contrast, people who are younger had some of these kids in their classes growing up, so the fact that we don’t have accents and can speak English fluently isn’t an amazing feat which requires a compliment.

Second, I wonder as to the dynamics in this specific case, a mixed-race women who is coded as black in the United States. It doesn’t seem implausible that the experiences of Asian American and Latino women who have very light-skinned children would be somewhat different, because there’s a lot less fraught history there. The power of hypodescent still looms large in black-white relations, in a way it necessarily does not with other groups.

Finally, there’s the issue of mothers versus fathers. These stories always seem to focus on mothers who are assumed to be nannies of their own children. This is a very specific fear which I’ve read some black women have when it comes to interracial dating and the “think of the children” angle. But what about the fathers? It seems that paternity is something which is going to be much more plausible to challenge. In the few cases where black American families have adopted white children I’ve read that they have to be very cautious in public lest people get the wrong impression, and this is a particular problem with black males (like some gay couples keeping adoption papers on one’s person can be handy in these instances).

But that’s all sociology. There’s a lot of moving parts. But the genetics of this isn’t too complex. Quite possible indeed.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
MORE ABOUT: Genetics, Race
  • pconroy

    Another factor is context, as this is the NY times, I presume the story was sourced in New York. All I can say is that in Brooklyn, where I live with my wife and kids, almost 100% of nannies would be termed Black. They are almost entirely Afro-Caribbean by descent. Our current nanny is from Trinidad and looks 100% African by descent.

    So people in Brooklyn are very used to seeing her in the area with out daughter who has light brown hair and blue eyes, and would automatically assume she was her nanny. If you go to any of the many Mother-and-Child playgroups, all the “Mothers” are actually Nannies. Out of 5 times I attended these groups, there was one Japanese mother there, all the rest were Afro-Caribbean.

    Interestingly, our first nanny’s maiden name was O’Garro – descendant of Redlegs probably, she was from St Vincent and said her father was almost White – and visibly she looked at least 50% European. When she took out son around the area, people may have assumed she was his mother, as he has brown eyes and dense curly hair – from me – and sallow skin, owing to my wife’s Sicilian heritage.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    Of course the real irony is that Heather Greenwood’s completely light daughters are legally considered 100% minority. As will their children years from now, even if the fathers are non-minority.

  • Justin Loe

    A friend of mine is 1/16 African American from a mix of one slaveowner ancestor and a slave (known and documented). Some of their children were incorporated into the descendant white family. The other part of the family became the African-American branch of his family. He later joined the NAACP and became an activist, though he is not officially “African-American.”

    I myself have a number of African-American matches on 23andme, probably via slaveowner – slave relationships, as does my 2nd cousin and 1st cousin once removed. (I have colonial American ancestry on the paternal line).

    A great uncle spent time in the 1930s in Burma (now Myanmar), and differing stories imply that his native wife was not accepted by the rest of the family (he escaped Rangoon in 1941 disguised as his wife’s servant, on the last ship to leave).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and sallow skin, owing to my wife’s Sicilian heritage.

    i think u mean olive :0)

  • syon

    NY TIMES:”Her son from a previous relationship is half Costa Rican.”

    Which means what, exactly? In racial/ethnic terms? Something that does annoy me about journalistic excursions into “increasingly multiracial America” is the constant conflation of race with ethnicity with nationality.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #5, this is middlebrow journalism. you can expect only so much. if you watch the video the son looks like the stupid stereotype of what average americans think “latins” look like, brown with generalized features.

  • Doug1

    This in a period in the United States where the absolute number of people of mixed origin is increasing rapidly due to intermarriage.

    Between Hispanics and whites yes, and between Asians and whites, yes. And you’d sure think that black white intermarriage was even more going way up from watching American movies and TV.

    However in the 2009 sample census data a whopping 0.7% of married white women were married to a black man. The numbers are a lot smaller in the other direction.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #7, i was precise in my comment. your data isn’t relevant to what i was saying.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    Dear Justin Loe:

    I was wondering about the origin of the surname “Loe.” I hadn’t noticed it before this week when I heard about the 6’8″ Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Kameron Loe.

  • http://www.isteve.blogspot Steve Sailer

    Noteworthy is the difference in tone between the American media (sermonizing) and the English media (sensationalizing).

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    My wife is Korean by descent and I am Northern European by descent (but neither blond nor blue eyed nor particularly fair). We have two children and until recently she was pretty much exclusively a homemaker.

    When my children were younger, my wife got the “nanny” assumption often. She also got complements on her English (she was born in Buffalo, NY )and questions about “where she was from” from older people fairly regularly. I can’t ever recall having been asked the same thing about my paternity of my children. We are in a neighborhood where there are many nannies (the local library storytime starts with the song “Hello to all the mommies. Hello to all the nannies.”) who are often foreign born of a variety of ethnicities so a dissimilar looking young woman and child will often be a nanny and charge. Men rarely accompany unrelated young children (especially children other than their own during working hours), so even if the children look different, the inferrence doesn’t follow as naturally.

    Of course, pure Asian children with white parents are generally assumed (usually correctly) to be adopted, while my kids could never be assumed to be foreign adoptees.

    Another interesting variant is that where I live (in Denver) a white woman with a dark skinned child is much more likely to be assumed to be the mother (whether or not it is true) because there are a fair number of black male, white female, mixed race child families in the region, but it is very rare to see a black nanny and white child in our area.

    Now, as tweens, my own children are more easily seen as part-Asian when in the presence of their mom, frequently pass for white when seen only with me, and are often miscoded as Hispanic when alone (particularly given the fact that my daughter is reasonable facile in Spanish and my son often plays soccer with Hispanic children). They seem to be chameleons when it comes to how they are perceived racially, with people picking up on whomever they happen to be around.

  • Zachary Kurtz

    OTOH, I sometimes find myself surprised when an older (65+) Asian person doesn’t speak with an accent, because my heuristics is that most Asians (especially South Asians) are more recent immigrants.

  • http://abugblog.blogspot.com Blackbird
  • Cathy

    I remember a coworker at my call center college job a decade ago. She was of Indian descent and had the last name Patel, but was born and raised in Atlanta and spoke with as thick a Gwinnett accent as any other girl her age. And yet, she had some rude folks outright refuse to talk to her on the phone because they thought they had reached a call center in India…

  • Guy P. Harrison

    Use of the term “mixed-race” seems to suggest that pure races exist and I don’t think one can make a very good case for that.

    However, I think one could make a pretty strong argument that all humans are “mixed”.

  • John D

    Now, as tweens, my own children are more easily seen as part-Asian when in the presence of their mom, frequently pass for white when seen only with me, and are often miscoded as Hispanic when alone (particularly given the fact that my daughter is reasonable facile in Spanish and my son often plays soccer with Hispanic children).

    This seems perfectly logical to me, as Hispanics are generally a mix of Native American (originally Asian) and European, so it’s easy to see how a mixture of White and Asian would produce children that could pass for Hispanic, although I suspect that the mixed White and Asian children would likely be slightly lighter than the Hispanic kids.

  • pconroy

    @4,

    In Ireland we say “sallow” to describe a Mediterranean skin tone, and in the US that’s usually called “olive”, so I’ve always used both terms interchangeable – is this incorrect?

    BTW, my wife has a college friend, last name “Khan”, who is 1/2 Pakistani, 1/2 English, she has brown eyes and brown hair and olive skin, and her husband is Jewish with blue eyes and brown hair and olive skin, while their 5 yo son has olive skin and the blueest of blue eyes, and almost bleached blonde hair color.

  • pconroy

    @7,

    Black/White marriage rates may not be as high as Hispanic/White or Asian/White, but if you live in a highly multi-racial area as I do in Brooklyn, you see them a lot. In the local playground (“tot lot” for toddlers), there are 5 such couples, in each case it is a Black male and White female, in 3 of the cases the females are English, and the males are Jamaican, in one it’s Scottish female and African-American male, and I’m not sure of the last one.

    So when I see a White woman and darker kid, I assume it’s hers. When I see a Black woman and a lighter kid, I assume she’s the nanny.

    BTW, the place I saw the highest number of Black/White pairings – always Black male/White female – was actually Paris, France.

  • LongMa

    #7…since most blacks in America don’t marry anymore, or almost most of them, looking at “interracial marriage” figures doesn’t mean much. If you only look at marriage figures to determine children, about 70% of “black children” in America would be missing, since they are born out of wedlock (hell here in Europe about 50% of Swedish children are out of wedlock too, they still “exist”). The reality is, living in Washington DC, and having gone to NY York a lot over 5 years when I was living in America I saw A LOT of white women with half black looking children, and many of these women had no wedding rings on (I was looking after speaking about this online with someone else).

  • chris w

    @15: “Use of the term “mixed-race” seems to suggest that pure races exist and I don’t think one can make a very good case for that.”

    Sophistry.

  • Tom Bri

    #11, My kids are half Japanese half White. Even Latins think they are Latin, and address them in Spanish. If I were to see them, not knowing their ancestry, I would probably guess Spanish or French.

    In the little Midwest country town where we live, they like to play up their Asian side. Teasing their Swedish-German classmates with dumb blond jokes. So far no one has ever asked me about their relationship to me, though in Japan these conversations were common.

  • http://ironrailsironweights.wordpress.com Peter

    One thing I’ve noticed, now that I’m working in a job with extensive public contact, is that it is not at all unusual for a young Hispanic (usually Mexican or Central American) woman to look quite Asian, so much so that I may mistake her for Asian at first glance. What is strange is that this sort of mistaken ethnic identity does not occur with Hispanic women past their 20’s or with Hispanic men of any age. They can’t be mistaken for Asian at all.

  • Justin Loe

    @ #9 Steve Sailer:

    Loe is a rare English surname, via 1634 England to Virginia in my family. See here:
    http://gbnames.publicprofiler.org/Map.aspx?name=LOE&year=1998&altyear=1881&country=GB&type=name

    An historical example of a Loe would be Thomas Loe, converter of Penn to Quaker faith:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Penn

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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