The Stupidity of Race:
What My DNA Test Reveals
FlaglerLive | July 3, 2016
Momondo is a Danish travel site that offers cheap flights and deals worldwide. On June 1, the company, as part of a contest, posted what would become one of the more clever viral videos of the year. It’s a five-minute piece blessedly free of cats or Trump doing odd things. (See the video below.)
The video is called “The DNA Journey.” Momondo and its ad agency gathered 26 people of different skin colors, religions and ethnic origins. They had one thing in common—ironically, their patriotism. One woman thinks she’s 100 percent French. An Englishman who calls himself “not a fan of the Germans,” and who probably just voted to get out of the European Union, says: “I think we’re probably the best culture in the world, if I’m honest.” A Kurdish woman who’d just show pictures of a Kurdish wedding says she hates Turkish people before correcting herself to mean she only hates the Turkish government. And the leading prig of the lot, a “100 percent Icelandic,” says: “I’m more important than you. I don’t know you but in my opinion I am strong and more important than a lot of people.” (Who could ever associate such a modest island with such volcanic immodesty?)
They’re then challenged to take a DNA test, eliciting the expected response: “What could you possibly tell me that I don’t know?” As it turns out, plenty.
Each of these chauvinists’ preconceptions about ethnic background is upended: The anti-German English Trump is only 30 percent English and 5 percent German, the Icelandic is from all over the place, the Kurd ends up being partly Turkish, and one of the 26 people in the assembly, a Turk, is apparently her cousin. The 100 percent Frenchwoman proves to be not at all French but rather British and Greek-Italian, prompting her to say of the DNA test: “This should be compulsory. There would be no such thing as, like, extremism in the world if people knew their heritage like that, like, who would be stupid enough to think of such thing as like a pure race?”
As it happened, my brother several months before the Momondo campaign did a DNA test of his own. Assuming I was not adopted, the results apply to me as well, and were just as surprising, if a lot more pleasing, than those presented to the Momondo group.
I’ll out myself here—not least to myself: I turn out to be only 46 percent Middle Eastern, with the possible range actually putting me as low as 39 percent Middle Eastern. So much for calling myself Arab. I am apparently 26 percent Italian-Greek, almost twice the “Caucasian” DNA I carry, making me the likely late offspring of a Venetian Crusader with whatever Seljuk line cook was tending her shawarma stand that day in in June 1124 when Tyre finally fell (on St. Peter’s Day, naturally. The distance between Tyre and Beirut, where I was born, is about the distance between Palm Coast and Port Orange).
But here was the kicker: I am 12 percent European Jewish, with the range giving me a likelihood of being as high as 18 percent Jewish. Not Sephardic, mind you, which might have made sense, but Ashkenazic. I’ve spent the past few decades calling myself at least intellectually Jewish (to put as much buffer as possible between me and my Satanic Catholic upbringing). Now I don’t have to pretend anymore. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is my Torah. Mazel tov.
But the point of this whole exercise should be the sort of self-evident truth that even the white-coded Declaration of Independence refused to acknowledge: we are created more equal than we know, not just before god, but in our genes. There are no white people, black people, Latin, Arab, Jewish, Asian. There are only racial salads, which is to say that we’re either all mongrels, or, more elegantly, that there’s no such thing as “race.” It’s not even biology. It’s an invention—the founding father of all racist inventions.
Its American mutant produced some of the strangest patents. Back in the grim days of the Confederacy and Jim Crow it was habitual of white assumptions to declare anyone black who had so much as one drop of black blood. But if that logic applied, it could not do so without being applied in reverse, making every slave-descended black person in America white: you’d be hard-pressed not to find the DNA of white rapists in any of that progeny. American demography’s original sin could not possibly have been better illustrated than by the progeny of the author of the Declaration. America’s original sin is its most absurd, and enduring.
That it’s all an invention—like the Nicean creed, the divine right of kings or the infallibility of popes—doesn’t make racism any less real or lethal. Religious extremism is an invention, too, and look at the results (I write this as they’re still counting the dead in Istanbul, Dhaka and Baghdad). But the fact that it’s an invented disease only reinforces the tragedy of its consequences and the importance of battling it with the kind of virulence it deserves.
Sometimes a simple test is all the inoculation necessary, as the Momondo experiment shows. On a larger scale, nothing illustrates the stupidity of race better than the diversity of the European Union or the United States—or of Baghdad and the Indian subcontinent, for that matter, and many other places where people’s ethnic backgrounds look like Ben and Jerry’s Everything But the Kitchen Sink ice cream. That’s my kind of ice cream. It’s what’s kept America fresh, and what may now be at risk here if the racist purists, building walls behind the coded chauvinism of making America great again, have their way.
Let’s hope not. Walls don’t honor us. They stunt our DNA. We’re American because nothing defines us as eloquently as our borderless blood.