Genetics has transformed many of our notions of race, ethnicity and identity. How do you identify your ancestry when checking off ethnic options on an official form? How do you identify yourself informally with friends and family? Have you ever “changed” your ethnic self-identification because of a DNA test? These and related questions were the topics discussed at a 90-minute colloquium at the 12th Annual International Diversity Conference held on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, June 12.
Photo: Solomon Bibo is America’s only recognized Jewish Indian Chief.
The title of the public discussion was “Perspectives on Ethnic Identity: Epigenetics, Marketing, DNA and Genealogy.” It was organized by Donald Yates and moderated by Gregory Baskin. Presenters included:
Dr. Anne Marie Fine, Scottsdale, Ariz. naturopathic physician, who spoke on the emerging field of epigenetics, the multi-generational factors that “turn on and turn off” your genes.
Elizabeth Hirschman, Rutgers University, who addressed the history of anti-discrimination law in the United States, from 1790 to the present.
Wendy Roth, University of British Columbia, author of the just-published book Race Migrations: Latinos and the Cultural Transformation of Race, who presented the results of ongoing surveys of consumers of DNA testing, with an emphasis on changing notions of ethnic identification.
Donald Yates, who presented a paper on overlapping ethnic identity in Bernard Malamud’s The People, George Tabori‘s “Weisman and Copperface: A Jewish Western” and three early twentieth-century poets writing in Modern Hebrew, Benjamin Nahun Silkiner, Israel Efros and Ephraim E. Lisitzky. Yates’ paper was titled “Dying Campfires: Jews, Indians and Descendant Organizations” and included a comparison of Marranos (Sephardic crypto-Jews) with so-called Wannabe Indians (descendants of Indians who want to join a Federally recognized tribe but are barred from applying for membership for various reasons).
Both categories of ethnic belonging, Yates showed, are often rejected by official authorities like rabbinical courts and the Bureau of Indian Affairs because adherents are seen to be only selectively practicing the group’s customs and traditions.
Of the Marranos, for instance, Benzion Netanyahu wrote, “The Marranos ought to be treated realistically according to what they actually were — not unwilling, but willingconverts, and consequently traitors to the Jewish religion and enemies of the Jewish people.” In other words, Conversos chose to practice some Jewish, some Christian customs, or to hide their true beliefs with an insincere profession of Christianity.
In the same way, Cherokee and other Indian descendant organizations were criticized by William Quinn in an article that served as a sort of legal brief on the subject of Wannabe Indians published in 1989 in American Indian Quarterly. “Wannabe Indians are scorned by ‘real’ Indians because they pick and choose what customs they will adopt, because they have a ‘distorted notion of the way in which Indians live and behave,'” Yates concluded.
Read Yates’ paper.