Tag Archives: Race

Black-ish, Jewish-ish, and Scientific-ish: Some Problems Created By Racial Admixture

Race. I don’t think there is a more controversial and polarizing issue today. Skin color-based racial categories are considered scientifically invalid, yet race is included in government-collected population data as well as in scientific research.  But racial categories – real or imagined –  always create social problems. Those problems can become magnified – and the absurdity of classifications highlighted – when the discussion turns to racial admixture. Population genetics  tell us that no one is purely of any one race. Since hominids first wandered out of Africa, lust and wanderlust have combined to produce a species that is basically a bunch of “polyhybrid heterogeneous bastards.” The recent discovery of a fossil from a half Neanderthal/half Denisovan female in a Siberian cave proves that this genetic messiness has been going on for a long time.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, fretted about racial admixture. And not in an abstract or philosophical way. He was very much concerned with the practical question of whether the children he fathered with Sally Hemmings, one of the more than 600 slaves he owned throughout his life, would be considered black, and thus slaves, or white, and therefore free people. Hemmings was 16 and Jefferson was 46 when they conceived the first of seven children she was to bear by him. According to Virginia law at the time, a person who was 7/8 white was considered, well, white.

Hemmings had white ancestry; she was the half-sister of Jefferson’s (white) wife. As recounted in These Truths, Jill Lepore’s recently published delightful history of the United States, Jefferson engaged in some mendelian-sounding calculations about his children’s racial status (comments in brackets added by me):

“Let the third crossing be of q [Hemmings] and C [Jefferson], their offspring will be q/2 + C/2 = A/8 [a “pure” white] + B/4 [ a second “pure” white] + C/2, call this e (eighth), who having less than 1/4 of a, or pure negro blood, to wit 1/8 only, is no longer a mulatto, so that a third cross clears the blood.”

In other words, Jefferson calculated that his 4 surviving children with the partially black Hemmings would be considered white under Virginia law and thus would not technically be slaves, even if they were de facto slaves. In practice, he freed one of the four during his lifetime, a second he “let” escape, and the other two were freed in his will. Incidentally, Jefferson was not alone among presidents in owning slaves –  18 US presidents owned slaves, some while they were in the White House. A seemingly insignificant bit of trivia underscores the inhumanity with which even the “good guys” viewed slaves – 9 of the teeth in George Washington’s dentures likely came from the mouths of his slaves (which, in a manner of speaking, would make Washington a racial hybrid – teeth of a black man, jaws of a white man). The slaves may have been paid for this but that hardly justifies the act. Ethically, it is no different than when desperately poor people sell their organs for money to feed their families.

George Washington’s dentures


Medical geneticists have had to struggle with problems stemming from racial admixture and trying to define race. For example, one of the most common reasons for referral to American genetics clinics in the 1940s and 1950s was to determine the future racial appearance of children put up for adoption, often the product of trans-racial matings. Adoption agencies usually had a policy of trying to match the race of the child with the race of the adoptive parents. Some Southern states even passed legislation that banned trans-racial adoptions. Geneticists were often tasked with predicting the future physical appearance of children, based on their skin color or the presence or absence of certain traits thought to be more or less common in different races. By assigning a child to a specific race, geneticists also assigned that child to a social and economic life dictated by that race. No doubt many of these geneticists – like today’s genetic counselors – would never describe themselves as racists. Nonetheless, the clinical services they provided helped reinforce the pervasive racism of American society.

Felix von Luschan’s skin color charts, a common way of assessing skin color up to the 1950s

Current day geneticists continue to struggle with the problem of the biological validity of race and racial admixture. Mis-assigned or mixed ancestry, either by researchers or participants themselves, can lead to false conclusions about the pathogenicity of gene variants or generate false positive or false negative associations in SNP studies. We have also begun to see genetic ancestry tests, what some see as a modern pseudo-scientific racism, enter into the clinic. Genetic counselors typically query clients about their ancestry when constructing a pedigree. In my experience – which I am pretty sure is not unique – many patients respond that they have taken a direct-to-consumer ancestry test and then recite a scientific sounding breakdown of the different percentages of their genetic ancestry, e.g. 23% Welsh, 21% Irish, 10% French. Where this can become a problem is when it is used to guide genetic testing decisions. How much Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry warrants a specific genetic test or set of tests considered appropriate to that population (expanded carrier screening avoids that particular problem in some settings, but it has its own set of other issues)?

A recent referral to our clinic highlighted this dilemma. We were asked to see a patient for BRCA testing because she was reportedly Ashkenazi Jewish. As it turned out, an ancestry test had indicated that she was “1% Ashkenazi Jewish.” We have had several other referrals where this has come up. To keep our referring providers happy, we have very arbitrarily set a policy of a 10% rule – for patients who have had an ancestry, results should indicate at least 10% Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry before we consider them “Jewish.” Sort of our equivalent of Virginia’s 7/8 rule. Meshugunnah, I know. Never mind who your mother is.

Given the history of extreme persecution of Jews and other groups like the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps in the US during WWII, along with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiments and political intolerance, genetic testing that allegedly “proves” ancestry should be not be publicly available information. Somewhere, in some part of the world, at some future time, being “10% Jewish” or whatever ancestry could be a very harmful data point. Admixture can determine your life’s trajectory. Or enslave. Or kill.


Filed under Robert Resta

I Am Curious (About Yellow)

Race is  a particularly salient issue in the current US national discourse. The horror of the shootings at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the controversy around the validity of the claims of an apparently white-skinned woman who identifies as black are but two contemporary examples of the controversial and often ugly history of racial classifications, the racial lexicon, and race relations. Perhaps this is why I was particularly struck by a sentence that I recently chanced upon in an article about the heritability of esophageal cancer: This meta-analysis showed there was a significantly [sic] association between PLCE1 rs2274223 polymorphism and esophageal cancer in yellow race populations [bold not in original]. 

Graphic by Emily Singh

Yellow Race. It has been a long time since I have seen that term in any medical or professional literature other than when I am rooting around in the history of eugenics. In our supposedly enlightened times such terminology is the same kind of bad as Brown Race and Red Race. I am not implying that this marks a resurgence in racism against Asians or a renaissance of racial hierarchies. Indeed, encountering yellow race in these articles was remarkable precisely because of its rarity nowadays.

The authors of the article have East Asian names, and the journal is published in Asia, so I assume that yellow race was not intended to be a racist slur or an ironic appropriation of a pejorative term by the very people it was meant to belittle. The racial vocabulary in this instance most likely stems from the nuanced and sometimes awkward complexities of language translation, cultural differences, and the regretful disappearance of copy editors from journal publishing houses (note the grammatical error in the quoted sentence from the abstract, using an adverb where an adjective is called for). A quick PubMed search yielded several other articles that used the term yellow race; the authors were invariably from countries where English is not the primary language. Not all articles were authored by East Asians; one had Brazilian authors. Several articles were from journals published in non-Asian countries, such as The Saudi Medical Journal,  Human Reproduction (Oxford) and Obesity Surgery, published by Springer, the mothership of the Journal of Genetic Counseling.

Putting aside the contentious debate about the biological reality of race and the appropriateness of using racial classifications in medical, biological and governmental analyses, I am intrigued by the question of why some race-based terms are socially acceptable and why others are condemned. You can use black or white when referring to race without too much eyebrow raising, but not yellow, red, or brown. Some skin color-based vocabulary has been replaced by apparently less offensive ethnic or geography-based but no less vague names like Hispanic or Asian. True, African-American and Western European are also common, but black and white appear at least as frequently in medical, biological, and popular publications. Even the federal government’s  Census Bureau and the annual National Vital Statistics Reports on annual births in the US use black and white to racially categorize mothers. Imagine the uproar if these official reports classified Asians as yellow, Native Americans as red, and Hispanics as brown.

US Census Bureau 2010 Racial Classifications


I have been stewing on this for a few weeks, trying to come up with an explanation. Does it stem from some complicated sociohistorical narrative about the forced immigration of slaves from Africa to the US, compared to the relatively more voluntary immigration to the US from other continents? Is it somehow related to the continuing social effects of slavery, which was not experienced by other immigrants (not to imply that other groups did not experience other forms of abuse and prejudice)? Greater social inequities among blacks in a society where whites are the power group and other groups are “in between” whites and blacks on the social hierarchy? An unstated and perhaps unconscious belief that the two groups are biologically different? The result of conflating race and ethnicity and lack of a clear distinction between race and ethnicity? The shortcomings and biases inherent in any scheme that tries to parse the continuous spectrum of humanity into discrete biological categories? The inconsistent ways that people self-identify their ancestry (see my posting about ancestry in the context of genetic counseling)?

Mostly, though, these sound like half-baked explanations. Perhaps it is just a stochastic linguistic persistence with no underlying rational explanation. Aluminum foil is still often called tin foil even though it hasn’t been made from tin since World War II (of course, aluminum – or aluminium, outside of the US and Canada – foil is less emotionally charged and socially complex than racial terminology).

Really, though, I don’t have a good answer. But I am interested to hear what the Good Readers of this blog have to say about it.


Filed under Robert Resta

Guest Post: What Makes You Who You Are?

By Anne Madeo

Anne Madeo is a genetic counselor who has worked for the National Institutes of Health for the past 11 years.  The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

A few months ago, Bob Resta mused on clients’ responses to queries about ethnicity and what they tell us about the client. A recent conversation on the Nat’l. Society of Genetic Counselors’ listserv about ancestry testing and sex verification got me thinking about a similar issue in a different light.

What defines who we are on a fundamental level? Am I a woman because I wear dresses? Am I a woman because I have two X chromosomes? Am I woman simply because I say I am and that is how I feel on a gut level? Am I a woman if I have two X chromosomes and identify as a female, but I have a point mutation in a gene that increases testosterone production but not so much that in utero or postnatally I have male external genitalia? In the final question we might say that I am clearly female. But in the case of high-level performance athletics, my increased testosterone might provide such an advantage over women with typical human female hormone production that I shouldn’t be allowed to compete as a woman. In a recent decision, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) side-stepped the issue of determining somebody’s sex and ruled that if a woman’s androgen levels are within the range of a typical male, she will not be allowed to compete as a woman in IAAF-regulated competitions. Should we should start testing athletes for mutations that predispose them to excel at sprinting and handicap the athletes that have these alleles to make the playing field even?

What about ethnicity or race? Am I Italian-American because I celebrate the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve? Am I Italian American because my paternal great grandparents immigrated here from Italy? Am I Italian-American because I say I am and it is how I’ve been raised and feel? Am I Italian-American because my DNA testing demonstrates that I’m a descendant of both Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci? I think most students of genetics would say that no, that last idea doesn’t make me Italian-American. We’re probably all distantly related to some famous individual or the other from the past. I could be Queen Victoria or Genghis Khan’s distant relative. (I doubt many people request testing to see if they’re related to Josef Stalin.)

So, can we use genetics to determine what racial or ethnic group we belong to? Although I usually assume that people with training in molecular or clinical genetics would say no, that’s clearly not always true. The postmodern interpretation of race is that it is a social construct. We determine our race and it is determined for us through family, societal and cultural cues. So, can I identify as Native American if my maternal great great grandmother was Native American and that’s the identity my family has always embraced? It seems that some would say yes, that if your experience is Native American and that is how you identify then you are Native American. But the extreme of the post-modern argument is that I, an individual with no known to me African heritage could claim that I am African-American simply because like most Americans I likely have some African ancestry. What say those who decry postmodernism? The extreme of the position that race and ethnicity are not culturally determined but the result of ancestry is the one-drop rule and the perception that light-skinned multi-racial individuals who identify as “white” are passing.

The obvious answer to all this is that who we are is determined by a complex mix of genetics, family, cultural and individual influences. Which still leaves us with the question—how do we decide ‘who’ or ‘what’ somebody is? Or, is that the right question to ask?


Filed under Guest Blogger