A double take at “Double Take”

by Tami Winfrey Harris, ARP editor

Over at The Root, Meera Bowman-Johnson has a predictably compelling and thoughtful article, titled “Double Take,” about recent breathless headlines about twins who appear to be members of different races–one black and one white. In the piece, she speaks eloquently about her own beautiful babies:

Aug. 14, 2008–My son, Liam Kojo Johnson, entered the world pink and screaming, slate blue eyes squeezed shut. Peach fuzz covered his perfectly shaped head, a place-holder for the blonde hair that would soon grow there. His twin sister, Chloe Adjoa, came in peace. She was the color of gingerbread, with jet-black hair. Her calm, stoic face carried traces of beloved matriarchs on both sides of the family tree. Upon arrival, each baby looked a bit like their older sister, Jasmin, but nothing like each other.

In African-American communities, it’s fairly common to see family members with different hair textures and skin tones. Fraternal twins are no exception: By definition, they’re the product of two fertilized eggs who just happened to have shared the same uterus. Wombmates, if you will, no big deal. Or at least I thought so until I saw the rash of headlines from abroad. Over there, twins like my own, with both African and European ancestry, are being called a scientific anomaly.  They say the odds are a million-to-one, yet scanning the headlines ad nauseum makes that kind of hard for me to believe. Read more…

What deserves a hard look–a “double take,” if you will–is the article’s comments section where responses create a kind of microcosm of some of the varying arguments in the overall “race discussion.” You have the “race doesn’t exist so why are we even talking about this” people…the “identifying as multiracial is a rejection of blackness” folks…the “why are you minorities always talking about race” crowd. The responses to Meera’s piece require as much discussion as the article itself. They offer proof (as if any of us need it) that this race thing is complicated and emotional and oftentimes very personal.

What do I think? I think that those “Twins born: One black, one white!” headlines are the result of our society confusing social construct with science. Throughout our country’s history, the racial equation has gone something like this: white + ”other” = “other,” particularly when the “other” is black. And so, despite the mixed heritage of most African Americans, we are, in this country, “black” and nothing else. That is social construct. It is so, because society says it is so.

Meanwhile, genetics will out. The mixed heritage of African Americans reveals itself in a wide range of facial features, hair textures and skin colors–some that favor the European and some that appear more African. We all have light-skinned, freckled cousins with kinky hair and deep brown ones with European features, too. But the mainstream is perplexed by the dark brown child with blue eyes or the twins with different skin tones. Heck, some black people, ignorant of their own history, are perplexed by these ocurrences, too.

Even when mixed heritage is recent–when a child is biracial with one black and one white parent–people seem hard-pressed to imagine how genetics could work to create someone who possesses physical markers of European ancestry. In my experience, it is easier for people to accept that a biracial child may look like someone of African ancestry. I think this is because society wants genetics to follow the “one drop rule” and genetics does not have our biases.

What do you think? 

(Note: I’m talking about this in black and white, because the headlines seem focused on sets of twins where one appears white and the other black. Also, European ancestry is prevalent in African Americans due to slavery, but of course I realize that many black people also have Native American and other ancestry, too.)

Image courtesy of csskclark at Flickr

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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