Gene Expression

Being black as a state of mind


A few days ago I pointed out that actors with visible Asian ancestry, such as Keanu Reeves, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Dean Cain, can play white characters, while those with visible African ancestry can not (I will leave it to debate whether you think Rashida Jones or Jennifer Beals are violations of that rule or not). On the other hand, it does seem that people with no visible African ancestry can identify as black American due to the norm of hypodescent. For example, consider Walter White, who identified as a black man despite his visible white European appearance. White used his ability to “pass” during his long Civil Rights career since he could operate “undercover.”

One of the unsurprising things which modern genomics is uncovering is that though the median African American has European admixture on the order of ~20%, there is a wide variance. Consider this plot (I’ve reedited it a bit, the figure can be found in this paper) :


Note that one individual in the sample who was black identified is likely mostly European in ancestry. On this note, Dienekes points to a new study on African and African American genetics which concludes:

The rich mosaic of African-American ancestry. Among the 365 African-Americans in the study, individuals had as little as 1 percent West African ancestry and as much as 99 percent. There are significant implications for pharmacogenomic studies and assessment of disease risk. It appears that the range of genetic ancestry captured under the term African-American is extremely diverse, suggesting that caution should be used in prescribing treatment based on differential guidelines for African-Americans. A median proportion of European ancestry in African-Americans of 18.5 percent, with large variation among individuals.

If an individual is 1 percent African in ancestry, I would assume that a doctor would not make a decision guided by their social identification of group identity, as opposed to the genetic reality! But I’ve noticed drug guidelines which request that you tell your doctor if you are Asian, so who knows?

Here’s the press release for the paper alluded to above.


  1. #1 luna1580
    December 22, 2009

    don’t all current “treatment[s] based on differential guidelines for African-Americans” basically have nothing to do with genetic realities anyway?

    seriously, have drug companies who have found results like “being african-american may be a risk factor for diabetes” even paused to consider diet as a risk factor for diabetes? and then checked if the african-americans they looked at had geographical or cultural reasons for generally following a different diet than whomever they were being compared to? did they look at people who appear or identify as “black” in canada and the UK and sweden, etc. to see if people with some visible recent african genetic heritage appear to have a consistently increased risk of any disorder when they live in a different cultural setting and probably have slightly different dietary trends?

    unless any “race-based” medical guidelines have been actually shown to be based on genetics i am always very suspicious about what other factors those making such “guidelines” may have forgotten to consider.

  2. #2 Shay
    December 22, 2009

    It is unclear how this study defined African-American. Were these individuals whose families have been in the country for five or more generations, or did the study include people who are immigrants (or the children or grandchildren of immigrants, some of whom whose very recent lineage may be from Central, East, or southern Africa)?

    Because it’s unclear from the information at hand, it’s possible that the African-Americans with as little as 1% West African ancestry could be mainly of Central African, East African, or southern African ancestry, instead of overwhelmingly of European descent. E.g., I am African-American, and my mitochondrial DNA test linked me to Central Africa and a sliver of West Africa. I suspect that my entire genetic lineage would show a mixture of Central and West African ancestry.

  3. #3 razib
    December 22, 2009

    , it’s possible that the African-Americans with as little as 1% West African ancestry could be mainly of Central African, East African, or southern African ancestry, instead of overwhelmingly of European descent.

    hm. good point.

  4. #4 diana
    December 22, 2009

    LOL – What was Walter White, the “undercover white man”???

    When I hear of things like this I say, no wonder some people say “race is a social construct.” Because in the US, historically, that’s just what it is. It’s unfair for “race realists” to deny this.

    In my world, race is what you look like, and Walter White would be, well, white.

    But I don’t make the rules.

  5. #5 razib
    December 22, 2009

    LOL – What was Walter White, the “undercover white man”???

    yes, he was. white used his white appearance to attend all-white events and meetings from which blacks like him were excluded. apparently his family had some issues because his mother was a blue-eyed blonde (he had blue eyes and blonde hair as well) and people would assume she was a race-mixer when she was sitting in the black area of public accommodations. it often had to be explained that they were a black family and not a white one….

  6. #6 mnuez
    December 22, 2009

    “white used his white appearance to attend all-white events an meetings from which blacks like him were excluded.”

    Razib, this may be the funniest sentence I’ve read in a long while. Who the hell knew you had such a capacity for deadpan humor?! Shame on you for going into science and punditry and thereby depriving the world of a sardonic wit.

  7. #7 razib
    December 22, 2009

    i’m told i’m quite an amusing person in “real life” :-) but yeah, couldn’t help myself there.

  8. #8 patrick
    December 22, 2009

    There was quite a bit of slave-trade activity in west-central Africa (Congo and Angola), and I believe most African Americans have ancestry from this region as well as from more northerly, non-Bantu-speaking parts of West Africa.
    As for eastern and southern Africa, the Portuguese were active in those areas (the Dutch also in southern Africa, of course), and they might well have occasionally sold slaves to the British who imported them to their American colonies. Given the role of the Portuguese in these areas, I suspect that black Brazilians might have more S and E African ancestry than black Americans.

  9. #9 diana
    December 22, 2009

    Of course we can’t truly ascertain how many of the white people at these supposedly white events actually were white.

  10. #10 Isabel
    December 23, 2009

    It would be interesting to see if the European portion of Black-American genotypes could be further analyzed. Has it been? It is often asserted that the admixture was mainly a result of coerced relations with the male slave owners, who were a fairly uniform small upper class Brit society. In this case there would be mainly male white ancestors and few female. Can we measure this? No matter how black a man would appear today, after such a union he would still carry an intact “white” Y chromosome.

    On the other hand there was supposedly some mixture with white indentured servants/slaves in the early days of the colonies especially, which would have been lower class brit, Scottish and Irish.

  11. #11 Longma
    December 23, 2009

    Just for kicks, my Y Chromosome is from Angola. I’m African American, my MTDNA results point to the Senegal/Gambia region. I know my mother’s family are Louisiana Creole stock and we think came to Louisiana from Haiti with their owners after the Haitian revolution, my father’s family is from North Carolina and to me look like unmixed black Africans (well most of them). My admixture test also show me as being about 10% Caucasian and 2% Native. So yes, African Americans are quite genetically diverse if you consider that Africa has more genetic diversity than any other continent, without adding in any extra-continental heritage.

  12. #12 Tod
    December 23, 2009

    Lighting and make-up are more able to de-emphasize Asian features than African.

    There are few ‘Asian’ leading roles so part Asian actors have little incentive to try to pass for Asian.

    The NAACP was not a black organisation in WW day, not until 1975 did it have a African American president. When Marcus Garvey visited NAACP headquarters in 1917, he saw so many white faces that he stormed out, complaining that it was a white organization. Walter dumped his African American wife to marry a white woman.

  13. #13 trajan23
    December 23, 2009

    Walter White was also well known for promoting Lena Horne while simultaneously denigrating Hattie Mcdaniel. Perhaps an example of the “damn near White” Walter White favoring the Euro phenotype over the African?

    As an aside, I watched the WIZ (the all Black version of The Wizard of Oz)with my grade school age nephews a few months back. In response to their queries as to the nature of the film, I told them that it was a Black version of OZ. At that moment, Lena Horne materialized on the screen, prompting all three of my nephews to exclaim that I was wrong, since Lena Horne was obviously White. I then had to explain to them that, despite Horne’s looks ,she counts as a Black women in the USA.

  14. #14 diana
    December 23, 2009

    I had to be told that Lena Horne was black when I was growing up. I could hardly believe it.

    Now, of course, she looks totally black to me. How could I have missed that fact?

    On the subject of race, Americans are completely crazy.

  15. #15 diana
    December 23, 2009

    “Walter White was also well known for promoting Lena Horne while simultaneously denigrating Hattie Mcdaniel. Perhaps an example of the “damn near White” Walter White favoring the Euro phenotype over the African?”


    A cynic might interpret WW’s blackness as a clever way to get to the top of the heap with little or no effort. Better a top-drawer black man than a mediocre white man. If he hadn’t been black, what would he have done with his life?

    References to current events are purely coincidental, but certain themes do rhyme and recur.

    Relevant to this is a glance backwards at the whole pre-1950s civil rights movement. To a huge degree it was a genteel marriage between the colored elite and Jews. In the 1950s the uprising occurred and the black peasantry asserted their rights. It’s strange to think of Revs. King & Abernathy and co. as militant but that’s what they were in the context of the Walter White crowd.

    (BTW, I believe that White’s white wife was Jewish.)

  16. #16 razib
    December 23, 2009

    i don’t know much about white’s early life than fragments i’ve read, but it doesn’t seem like being a black identified dude who looked white was that advantageous in that era. i mean, how far could the black elite even go? i think white ascribes his rejection of passing to the race riots which his families experienced, though they were able to “blend in” while other blacks were targeted. but psychological motivation is complex, so it could be both, and white could be sincere in what *he* thinks his motives were. it seems that one thing with hattie mcdaniel is that she tended to play less glamorous roles, and perhaps he didn’t think it reflected well on the race?

  17. #17 diana
    December 25, 2009

    Re: Hattie McDaniel, I don’t know.

    I don’t doubt that he was sincere. I think he really felt black. And I’m not ascribing insincerity to him at all. I’m just considering the possibility that this was a choice, and that he got something quite tangible out of the deal.

    As far as how far the colored elite could go in those days, they could do anything, except rule whites. There were black doctors, lawyers, etc. The only area where they lacked was in science and applied science, because what opportunities would they have had?

    Re: physical insecurity, someone who looked like White wasn’t likely to be physically attacked when racists went looking for blacks.

    So, cynically, it seems to me that the only downside of being “black” was the forfeiture of the possibility to become a top-drawer white. In return he got the opportunity to be a top-drawer black. Not a bad bargain.

    There’s an interesting consideration of the tradeoffs (first class blackness in return for mediocre whiteness) in THE SWEETER THE JUICE.

  18. #18 nebbish
    December 26, 2009

    “(BTW, I believe that White’s white wife was Jewish.)”

    According to wiki, his second wife, Poppy Cannon, was Jewish.

  19. #19 diana
    December 27, 2009


    Yes. She was a food writer and achieved a sort of half life resuscitation with all the stuff being written about Julia Child after Child’s death. Cannon was a convenience food proponent in public and a gourmand in private.

    I guess she and Walter were well-matched!

    What did White say about Hattie McDaniel?

  20. #20 Peter Lund
    December 28, 2009

    What, the Flashdance girl was “black”?!

    I never knew.

    (Dane, born in 1970, the movie was huge over here. I don’t think any of the girls in my class knew!)

  21. #21 jay
    December 29, 2009

    The differences in medical treatment should be considered (and I believe they usually are) from a Bayesian approach, what you do know about the patient can alter the statistical chances various option. You generally want to give your best shot first