Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Black / White Twins - a tired curiosity

When I read this article in the Guardian about a set of fraternal male twins, with one born 'white' looking and the other born 'black' looking, I felt the fury rise in my throat.

Because, I'm sorry, but is this 1976 South Africa, where we actually give our time and effort and direct activity of our brain cells to think about these 'questions'? Is it?

I mean, what is the assumption here - that quite light looking babies can be born to black people is a remarkable thing? Stop just about any black person on the street of London (and any metropolis in the UK probably) and ask them whether to their knowledge they have anyone in their family who could pass for a 'race' other than black and most would say yes - and if not in their family, then in a friend's.

It's really not surprising. It's really not uncommon. It's playground racism akin to 'ooooh, let me touch your bouncy hair' that drives columnists to write articles that sound to me like 'ooooh, and your son is so much lighter than you'.

Yeah, like i'm the same shade as my mum, and dad, and brother, and sister. Well, I'm not. Are you going to write an article about how my sister's hair is straighter, or how some people think she is Somalian? Is that interesting? NO, because it's not 'white'. It's not interesting that black people have variation except when that variation looks white, because that is encroaching on the ever-threatened 'whiteness' and then it's worthy of a tv programme and 2200 words in the Guardian. It's the white that is surprising, that it pops up in our (black) families. Because, you know, if white people are really black then how can we tell white people from white (but really black) people. That's scary, isn't it? Is that what this is? Or maybe you think pointing this out is a way to end racism, or something delusional and grand like that?

I wonder, because I don't think we can expect an article in the Guardian about how one fraternal twin brother has brown hair and the other has blonde hair - because that phenotype difference is common among white people, it's almost expected, it appears, even changing looks like babies born with blue eyes that changes to green and then to brown - by the way, why not write about that? As a black person, someone born black who stayed black, I think that is amazing. Why no column inches? Because my racial ignorance doesn't make headlines, does it? But white racial ignorance parading as a stab at enlightenment does.

Ok, so maybe they thought it was educational to write this article. (White) People need to know that some black people have children that look white. But come on, I think it is at Key Stage 4 / GCSE (ages 14-16) or before that we learn that mummy looks this way, daddy looks that way, and if they have four children, these genes will be passed on in this way - gene inheritance. Just in case you missed that class, don't worry, it's here thanks to BBC Bitesize.

See, but I think many, if not most, Guardian readers got to high school and stayed into the last say, two or three years and went to science class. So they know this already. It's not remarkable when a white woman has a 'black' looking child. What maybe the Guardian didn't think was that people would realise that black people might have some white in them. Because that turns everything on its head doesn't it? I mean, white people who are black, black people with white in them. This whole 'race' thing is beginning to look a little shaky, isn't it?

Oh my gosh i'm so bored by this drudge.

Just in case you think the article can't be as bad as this, here are some snippets that caught my attention as I tried unsuccessfully to read to the end:

"The boys' colour was the most obvious, and extraordinary, difference."

Like I said earlier, that is to white people who have very little insight into black experiences, to black people it's definitely within the range of normal to have some kids lighter and some kids darker.

"When James was born he was the spitting image of Errol, and I remember seeing his curly hair and thinking – he's just like his dad. It was another two hours before Daniel was born: and what a surprise he was! He was so white and wrinkly, with this curly blond hair."

I take it James didn't have blonde hair, then? And that Errol is black. And that James is therefore black, because the fullest description is of Daniel, who is white looking because THAT is the surprise, isn't it. Not the whole 'twin' thing, but the 'white' thing (but, covered this, so see above).

"It wouldn't really be possible for a black African father and a white mother to have a white child, because the African would carry only black skin gene variants in his DNA, so wouldn't have any European DNA, with white skin variants, to pass on," he (geneticist) explains.

I'm not sure this is correct. Early last year I was genuinely interested to read the story of two Nigerian parents who gave birth to a white child. So stop telling the people lies. Stop making out there's the world of difference between black and white because real scientists know that race is socially constructed and that black people and white people have more genetic difference within their respective racial groups than between.

"But most Caribbean people, though black-skinned, have European DNA because in the days of slavery, many plantation owners raped female slaves, and so introduced European DNA into the black gene pool."

Incredibly simplistic account of race relations during slavery and since in the Caribbean. ARGH!

"The Caribbean father will have less European DNA than African DNA, so it's more likely he'll pass on African DNA – but rarely, and I've worked it out to be around one in 500 sets of twins where there's a couple of this genetic mix, the father will pass on a lot of European DNA to one child and mostly African DNA to the other. The result will be one white child and one black."

I'm no biologist, but is this man trying to say that African DNA blights European DNA? When it comes to skin tone, maybe, but I'm not sure this is the case for DNA that relates to other things. Maybe it's just bad editing by the Guardian. But I know black people who have had their DNA tested and it led them right back to Ireland, not West Africa.

"Why does a child who is half-white and half-black have to be black? Especially when his skin colour is quite clearly white! In some ways it made me feel irrelevant – as though my colour didn't matter. There seemed to be no right for him to be like me."

Apart from the fact that I do think this young man does look like he has some black in him, and I do think his twin looks like he has some white in him, I'm worried that they were raised as 'white' and the other 'black', and that they were encouraged to call themselves either white or black, because if they are twins from the same parents aren't they both white and black?

"It is interesting that it was the white twin, Daniel, and not the black twin who was on the receiving end of racism – but, though it's counter-intuitive, Alyson agrees that it betrayed very deep-seated prejudices. "Those kids couldn't stand the fact that, as they saw it, this white kid was actually black. It was as though they wanted to punish him for daring to call himself white," she says."

No, it's not interesting that the white twin was experiencing overt racism. It's obvious because white is seen as superior and black is seen as inferior, but his mother is telling him that he is white so therefore has a right to call himself white and goes out into the world doing this, but his brother who is darker, is not told he has has the right to call himself white, so he doesn't and no one attacks him for wanting to 'trade-up' his race like they do with his white looking brother. That's not surprising at all to me.

I couldn't read any further, I was so disheartened.


  1. Charmaine, this is brilliant piece. Another example of why it is important to have our perspectives out into the mix because otherwise, this seemingly innocent look at the fascinating look at one black and one white twin, is as you have insightfully drawn out, so steeped in white privileged ignorance and fear.

  2. I'm glad to see this piece has been written. These twins were actually featured as part of a prgramme about such twins on the BBC as part of a season of programmes on race. I too tire of these pieces, every few years an example of this "miracle occurance" is featured in the press.

    I watched one of the programmes on the subject (the one that featured these two actually) and it made me sad that in most cases it was the 'white' twin that had experienced most issues with their identity, partly I think because much was made about their ability to 'pass' and to 'trade up', and the alleged uniqueness of their situation whereas the 'black' twins just seemed more able (or were merely left) to get on and accept what most other black or 'conventionally' mixed race people do on a daily basis.

    I couldn't help thinking that in most of these cases if the 'white' twin of the pairing had been born as a single birth no fuss would have been made at all, and the birth would be seen for what it was I mixed race child with some features more prominent of one genetic race type as opposed to another.


  4. I happened on your site by accident today... I'm sorry I haven't had time to read your whole article yet. Though I agree with a lot of what I have read so far, I do think the guardian piece in particular was about a lot more than the 'fascination' of the phenomenon of a white and black twin being born to black and white parents. I think that article touched on some very valuable race issues and drew them into the open. Such as the idea that the treatment of the 'white' twin brought some deep seeded prejudices out into the open. And also the idea that he was being told he must identify as 'black' and thus made the mother feel as if she were irrelevant in the equation of her son's genetic make-up--as if it was wrong he would be like her. Also, the idea that the mixed race child must identify as black was quite revealing in highlighting underlying persisting notions of racism - as if being black were something to be ashamed of and thus he had to choose 'black' to identify himself to the world. Quite a terrifying line of reasoning. Furthermore, the article was actually quite beautiful in giving us a micro example of what we should all strive for. Not only had the boys experienced extreme racism, one of them was also gay. And we are told right at the start of the article that they are actually opposites of each other in almost everyday. Yet, despite their vast differences and here fore differing stand points, they value and respect one another and would protect each other from harm. I believe in this case, this guardian article does a lot more than speculate on something that, as you say, this isn't "1976 South Africa, where we actually give our time and effort and direct activity of our brain cells to think about these questions". Personally, reading about the experiences these boys had and the way they care for each other, and the way their parents care for them and each other, made me have renewed faith in humanity. And I'm not all that special, so I'm guessing it affected others similarly. And in my view of the world, that's never a bad thing.

  5. Also, I apologize for the dreadfully messy writing I posted. I was having some trouble with the website and posting this reply. I hope anyone who reads my post is able to decipher my meaning.