Irish Roots


June 29 2015

Can you change your ancestors?

John Grenham

In the course of the controversy a few weeks ago over Rachel Dolezal, the American woman born white who adopted an African-American identity, her mother said something that jumped out at me: "You can't change your ancestors."

This looks incontrovertible. Facts are facts, you can't change the past. But of course we change the past all the time. The prevailing view of 1916 in Ireland today is very different to the prevailing view fifty years ago. History is constantly being contested and rewritten.

And people have regularly changed their ancestors. In early Ireland, after an upstart had defeated the legitimate ruler, his most urgent task was the assembly of a pedigree proving him to be - surprise - actually a distant relative of the legitimate ruler, and thus no longer an upstart. One traditional branch of genealogy (the "black hats") has long specialised in plausible blue blood, no questions asked: How many generations would Sir like?

So can ethnicity, with its implication of common ancestors, be purely a cultural construct? In the West at least, we now accept trans-gender identity, that people physically of one gender can in fact be of another. Is there not a good case for trans-ethnic identity, that people like Rachel Dolezal, physically of one ethnicity, can in fact belong to another?

It's quite a seductive idea. Race and nation are obviously rooted in political and cultural allegiances. More often than not, we draw the border between "us" and "them" based on nothing more than accents, cooking styles and invented history.

But there is more than culture to the differences between us. Like it or not, races or nations do have their own characteristics, their own flaws and talents, and large parts of these stem from inheritance. To recognise this is not racist, any more than ignoring it is egalitarian.

So we're stuck with our ancestors. But they are only the raw material of who we can be, a starting point, not a destiny.

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