Two Christmases ago my wife presented me with one of those “23andMe” genetic testing kits so that we could get an idea of, I suppose, who and what I actually am. Not being all that thrilled with her present at the time the test kit went up on a shelf in my closet and sat there for a year or so. Months later on she asked if I had ever used it. I hadn’t so I went upstairs, brought it down, did the test sampling and posted it the next morning.
About two weeks later 23andMe sent back my genetic results and… apparently… I might be one the whitest men in America. Who knew? At least when I called their customer service line to ask “What does all these percentages crap mean?‘” the shift supervisor told me so. Well, what he actually said was “Huh, never seen this before, go figure man, you are really White!”. I’m not sure how they can accurately determine that but there it is. It’s been pretty obvious I’m strongly Caucasian as there is tons of white all over me.
But hearing him say that didn’t elicit much joy for me. Because there were no glaring ‘stepping out of line’ as it were by my ancestors I don’t have any exotic and mysterious blood running through my veins, just whole white milk. I wish that I had a long-ago great-grandfather who was a swashbuckling English Pirate (or French as I’m some of that also) who drank a bit too much rum one night in Jamaica and rolled around with a local cutie without any clothes or a sheepskin on. But no.
I’m not proud or anything of those results. I take them with a grain of salt anyway and feel sort of blah about the whole thing. I’d much rather win the lottery if I had to be ‘special’ in any way like that.
I mention all the above for a specific reason. While I was shopping the other day a young Black girl in the checkout line in front of me suddenly turned, pointed at me and said “What would someone like him know about all this – he’s just another old white guy.” She and her friends were talking about the Black Lives Matter movement protests and then Boom! suddenly I was also a topic of their conversation.
This was very strange for two reasons – first was that I wasn’t involved in talking with her or anyone else at the time so it was a pure surprise. Secondly, it started me really contemplating what factors makes a person who and what they are. Are the externals of a person the whole story or does experience count more than genetics in our lives?
What that young woman saw was a big older white guy. She automatically believed that I couldn’t possibly have any positive ideas or experiences about anything to do with minorities – that I lived in some sort of a white cocoon and thus there couldn’t possibly be any commonalities between us.
What she didn’t know, really couldn’t have known, is that I have surrounded myself with a family of all colors, stripes and sizes. Forty years ago I married a Native American/Pacific Islander from the Big Island of Hawai’i. We have two children (adults now) who are part Japanese, Chinese, Hawai’ian and German/English Caucasian. On top of that one child is a gender neutral/non-binary who is married to a Jewish man. Our son is a guy who dates only black women and looks like a Japanese movie idol. The whole tossed salad in one familial unit.
So in reality I am the least interesting guy in my own family as far as genetic backgrounds go. I’m amazingly interesting in all others ways – just ask anyone! However that woman who pointed at me saw precisely what she wanted to see and I was something to have as an example in her making a point and was her version of anyone who isn’t exactly like her.
Having those two things happen in my life; the genetic test and then later the encounter with the girl in the store, has been the catalyst to take some hard and truthful looks at who I was, who I am, and who I still want to be. I grew up in one of the whitest neighborhoods in one of the whitest cities, Pittsburgh, in the United States. As a young adult I had to start unlearning and shedding prejudices and biases that were purposely taught to us kids and that helped having my eyes opened even wider as a young husband and father.
But I personally and specifically chose to unlearn and leave behind those negative lessons and in doing so I believe it has made me a better, more aware and understanding person. At least it feels that way to me and I do my very best to put words and thoughts into helpful actions for others. When pointed at I easily could have shot back with some pithy remark and maybe even gotten angry at her. But what she led me to do instead was drive home, sit down and do some deep thinking.
There shouldn’t ever be a time in our lives that we don’t want to keep growing and be better people. That’s what maturity is and even though my family will adamantly deny this, I am pretty damn mature… especially for an old, tall white guy. I have a placard over my den door that reads “Do one good thing and learn one new thing every day“. It really would have been better if that young lady had turned and asked my opinion rather than doing what she did – she might have learned one new thing that day.