I don’t know if you’ve noticed this too,but in the last couple of years, the incredible scientific feat of decoding the human genomehas passed from the world of esoteric science, into the world of the mundane.
These days, for less than the price of two theatre tickets,you can, and I quote,‘Bring your ancestry to life through your DNA’.
The market-leading company, 23andMe, will apparently use their worldwide database of genetic sequencing to give you personalized information on your ancestry composition, any DNA relatives you may have lurking undiscovered in your family tree, and even your Neanderthal percentage.
And it occurs to me that whilst it may do one no harm to discover that you’re a few percent Neanderthal (after all, so is everyone else), or that you’re only 25% European, alongside sub-Saharan African or East Asian ancestry;discovering that you have a direct match on their database for a sister living in Australia that you previously knew nothing about may be rather more problematic.
Of course, there may be some health benefits in terms of inherited genetic diseases, but quite what one is supposed to do with the information that you have a slightly increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease is a bit of a mystery to me at the moment.
Anyway, the health reporting isn’t what’s driving this new industry in personalized DNA sequencing.
People are, it seems to me, buying into this because they are curious to understand more about their identity.
‘Who am I?’ is one of the defining questions of our time. Am I a European, an African, or an Asian; a mongrel or a Neanderthal? Who should I identify with? Which tribe do I belong to?
In a globalized world of instant communication,and social networks that transcend all geographical barriers, it seems that we are living through a ‘crisis of belonging’.
It’s the same question that drives the huge interest in family tree research:‘Who am I?’ Or, to quote the BBC, ‘Who do you think you are?’ – the title of course of the ever-popular TV show in which celebrities discover, and I quote, ‘secrets and surprises from their past.’
Except it’s not from their past at all– much of what is discovered, and the stories that are told,are from many generations before anyone alive now was even born.
Logically, of course, it’s all nonsense: you don’t have to go back very many generations before you have more ancestors than there were people living in the entire world!
The time of the Norman Conquest in the 11th Century achieves this by a fact of three or more.
Which means that, basically, we’re all massively in-bred. There is no ‘pure line’ in any of us.
So, defining ourselves by our genetic or ancestral heritage is a logical nonsense.
But it continues to make emotional sense, and people keep doing it,
as the events in Charlottesville over the last couple of weeks have vividly and tragically demonstrated.
And as I said, I think this is because we have, in our ever-diverse Western Society, a crisis of belonging.
We don’t know who we are.
We’re programmed, at a genetic level, to live in villages of about 2-300 people, which is about the number of people you can comfortably get to know and sustain some kind of relationship with.
Any more than this and it becomes quickly overwhelming.
Interestingly, the average number of friends that Facebook users have on the platform is 338, but with a median of 200. The figure 2-300 is about right for a community.
Churches often struggle to grow beyond 300, because they start to feel impersonal, and people get lost.
It seems we most naturally relate to smaller communities; and so, faced with the vastness of our world,
with all its diversity of ethnicity, gender; sexuality, social standing; political opinion, and religious conviction,
we search for meaning, for identity, for that elusive ‘sense of belonging’;
and we do it by seeking answer to the question of who we are:
Are white or black, British or English, European or French, African, Asian, Neanderthal, whatever…?
Which at one level is fine. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of quiet genealogical research,
I’m partial to it myself, and there’s nothing inherently dangerous about having your DNA sequenced.
But if these things are symptoms of a deeper malaise, if they arise from our crisis of belonging,
then that same sickness can also manifest itself in racism, sexism, white supremacy, neo-Nazism,
homophobia, gay-bashing, and the worst kinds of nationalistic sabre-rattling
such as ‘the world has never seen before’.
But of course, for all of our technological advancements,we aren’t the first generation to experience a crisis of belonging, we aren’t the first generation in which people have struggled to know who they are.
The Roman Empire dominated the known world in the first century and has many parallels to the globalized media and financial empires of our own world.
The Romans were technologically dominant with a massive military machine and an all-encompassing trade and financial network, all held together by the religious ideology of Emperor-worship.
People who, just a generation before had no experience of life beyond their village found the Roman Empire on their doorstep, informing them in no uncertain terms that they were now part of something much bigger.
The ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity of the Roman Empire was greater than at any time before it in human history and it was something which would not be repeated until relatively modern times.
And so in the first century, people faced their own crisis of belonging. To whom did they belong? To Rome or to Galatia? To Philippi, or to Palestine, or to Jerusalem? Who were they to regard as their tribe, as their people?
Great, this is something that have happened before.But the questions still remain.
How do we handle a world living with the consequences of a crisis of belonging?
How do we deal with ethnic tensions that blight our towns and cities, from Cologne, to Paris, to London, to Sweden, to Palestine, to the streets of Homeland America.
I will say, particularly in the light of Charlottesville, that Black Lives Matter.
And before we say that Charlottesville is not London (one of the greatest and ethnically diverse city in the world) and that we it doesn’t happen here – believe me it does.
The London riots of the 2001 were when I first became aware of the power of ethnic difference to incite violence, and I now know that they took place in those very cities where white people had become enriched with very little care of their ethnic minority neighbours.
We live in a deeply divided country, and a deeply divided city, with people of all different nationalities, living and working side-by-side.
And yet, according to this guardian article if you are a black graduate of a British university, you will earn on average 23.1% less than your white fellow graduates.
Since 2010 there has been a 49% increase in the number of ethnic minority 16- to 24-year-olds who are long-term unemployed, while in the same period there has been a fall of 2% in long-term unemployment among white people in the same age category.
Black workers are more than twice as likely to be in insecure forms of employment such as temporary contracts or working for an agency.
Black people are far more often the victims of crime and you are more than twice as likely to be murdered if you are black in England and Wales.
When accused of crimes, black people are three times more likely to be prosecuted and sentenced than white people.
Saying that Black Lives Matter is not the same as saying White lives don’t matter any more than saying that Children’s lives matter would be the same as saying that adult lives don’t matter.
But we have to recognize that we live with a heritage of ethnic oppression
There is nowhere here for white privilege to hide and simply saying that ‘I’m not a racist’ doesn’t get anyone off the hook.
In 2007, the bicentenary of the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, I was part of the discussions at Trinity College Dublin as to whether it would be appropriate for the Irish government to offer an apology for their complicity in the ongoing legacy of slavery.
And I heard some interesting responses:
‘We never owned slaves, so what have we got to apologise for ?’
‘We didn’t ask to be born white, and asking me to apologise for
who we are is just racism in reverse.’
The insight I took from this was that a lot of people are diminished by white privilege.
It has been said that when you are used to privilege, equality feels like discrimination and many white people will cry foul when their supremacy is challenged.
We need to understand that equality is only equality if it works equally for both white and non-white.