Black and White Twins?

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Look at the two girls in the picture. Would you say that one is black and the other white? Would you change your answer if you learned that they are twins?

If you want to read up on the story behind this, see the snopes.com entry on them. This newspaper story has some information on the science involved, but it actually gets several things wrong, particularly in calaculating the probabilities. This Mixed Media Watch post and the ensuing discussion had some good analysis. There are more pictures in all three places, including a picture with both parents.

I'm seriously interested in what people think of these girls, not because of some morbid fascination with classifying people but because people's instinctive reactions to this are directly related to my dissertation. Are people instinctively inclined to treat one girl as black and the other as white (rather than both as black, both as white, neither as black or white, or whatever other combinations might be possible)? Is your answer one thing if you don't know they're related and another if you find out that they're twins?

33 Comments

I guess if they were older and I met up with one or the other I would speak to one differently than the other. Of course, once I hear either one of them speak with say a British accent I'll speak to them yet differently again.

Clear as sludge?

Hey Jeremy,

In answer to the intuition check: I would think that one is black and the other white. When told that they were twins (and their exact situation) I would probably think that they were both Mulato.

That said, I don't really know what it is to treat someone as black or as white. But, then again, I grew up in a country where black--white racism is not much of a problem (espacially in the region that I grew up.

On close inspection, you can see they have the same nose.

If you asked me if one was black and the other was white, I would say of course. Upon first being told that they were twins, I wouldn't believe you. Once you finally convinced me they were twins, I would still say that one was black and one was white and attempt to launch into a discussion of what I mean by "black" and "white", since neither is albino nor ebony. Then I would probably launch into ethnic heritage questions, lamenting the fact that it's so difficult to trace african descent in finer detail. I can tell you what parts of Europe and America my Ancestors originally lived. It's much more difficult for people with African roots, and a much more sensitive subject.

To be clear, I'm not so much interested in how you would describe what you mean by the words 'black' and 'white' as applied to people. What I'm interested in is how you instinctively apply those terms to actual people, not how your carefully formulated view of these terms would have you apply them.

I can tell you what parts of Europe and America my Ancestors originally lived. It's much more difficult for people with African roots, and a much more sensitive subject.

Mark, I just finished an anthropology class and the professor told us that (for many, many dollars) a DNA test can give you a (general) area.

She had it done and visited the part of Africa that the test said her ancesters had come from - she said that it was amazing. In this one area, this one people-group had some physical characteristics that she shared with them - premature gray hair, a certain structure of the ear. I don't know how you would find the test or how much it costs, but my professor is a believer that it's pretty accurate.

They do indeed have some very expensive DNA tests that indicate which parts of Africa someone's ancestors might be. It's unreliable in not being able to distinguish ancestors whose relevant genes have not been passed on, and migrations and mixing among peoples of different parts of Africa since the slaves were taken make it less sure, but it's not less sure than the equivalent tests for European and Asian ancestry.

There was a special on PBS about several prominent black Americans doing this. Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker discovered where their ancestors were from. I don't remember if the others actually went to the area in question, but I think they all had the test and got the results.

Even after knowing they're twins (I've come across this story several times), I still call one black and one white.

I think that America is a country of "mutts" - very few of us can point to a place on a map and say, "that's the one place that my ancestors are from".

One of my aunts used to say, "it's not where you came from, it's where you're going that matters."

As far as red and yellow, black and white - There are places where all of us fall short, whether it's racial, marital status, class, there's always a place where we put one people-group over another.

If one uses "color" as an identifier, not a basis for judgement, one of these girls is black, one is white.

Frankly, I think they're both adorable.

My first blush reaction when I saw this post was that of disbelief. I thought it was faked.

My second thought was wow ! So there really is no such thing as race. I mean, yeah we read about it in Zack, or hear about it in commonplace remarks like, "race is only skin deep.", but this photos really make you feel the impact of it all.

That said...

"Are people instinctively inclined to treat one girl as black and the other as white (rather than both as black, both as white, neither as black or white, or whatever other combinations might be possible)? Is your answer one thing if you don't know they're related and another if you find out that they're twins?"

At a subconscious level, maybe I am instinctively inclined to treat one girl as black, and one as white, whether they be twins or not. However that is not something that I would be aware of.

At a conscious level, I would not be inclined to treat one as black or one as white. Nor both as black or white. This is because in my daily interactions with all kinds of people, I do not necessarily parse these things. Its like little kids playing in a sandbox. They dont distinguish between black or white. They just know that someone is their friend.

Now let me get back to mentioning the subconscious bit. I was in North Carolina last week, and drove through historic Burke County (famous for its lynchings). My sensitivities were quite different here. Racism was quite out in the air there. For example, the person whose house I stayed at - his neighbor had told him not to hire any black people for landscaping and such. He told them to grow up.

So while I was in Carolina, I was often conscious of all of the people I came across - whether they were black or not. This is not something I consciously do in the northeast.

I point this out to make mention of the fact that, how people (myself included) treat the twins is dependent on a number of factors to which are given different weightings. I think the fact that they are black and white twins is a factor with huge weigting in the direction of treating people as people, and not in terms of race.

- Raj


i.e. I would not treat one girl as black or one as white... and now even more so because I know that they are twins.

How do you think this supports Zack? I would have thought that it undermines her argument pretty seriously, so I'd like to know how that reasoning would go.

I also want to clarify what I was asking. I wasn't asking if you would treat them differently because of their skin color. I was asking if you would call one black and the other white, if you would classify them one as black and the other white. How you would treat them as people is not at all what I was getting at. This wasn't about whether you treat black people and white people differently. It was about whether you would consider them black or white.

Categorizing people of mixed race is often a strange exercise. I happen to be of Native American ancestry (I am officially enrolled in a tribe) as well as having a large blood quantum from several European groups. Everyone who looks at me would assume that I am white. But when I have to fill out forms where the U.S. federal government requires checking off out racial heritage for purposes of properly counting racial "minorities" I do not know what to check for myself. If allowed, I check more than one category.

What baffles me is how very little black ancestry it seems to take in the U.S., at least, before someone who looks more Caucasian in color and facial features is called a black (or African-American). I consider that there is probably some kind of rascism involved there.

Is Vanessa Williams with her green eyes and most Caucasian features a black, a white, or just a beautiful blend?

There are an increasing number of racially mixed people who are resisting being put in either a black or white category and simply called themselves mixed or a blend, or they probably have some other preferred term.

I suspect that for many people "race" is a skin issue. The old saying is that "Beauty is only skin deep." To a large extent I think that this story of the different skin color twins shows us that "Race is only skin deep" also, at least as we perceive race.

I wish we could come up with better categories, if we even need categories.

This is a good post, Jeremy. It makes me think and I like that.

Wayne, it's the one-drop rule that you're referring to. In southern states especially, all it takes is what was referred to as one drop of black blood, and someone would count as black. There definitely was racism involved, because it stemmed in part from slaveowners' refusal to allow their children through slaves to inherit their property, and segregating them off in another whole class of society prevented that. This continued well beyond the abolition of slavery, as the example of Strom Thurmond's black daughter illustrates.

As for the issue of needing categories, the primary argument for that is that you can't really address racism unless you identify the group that it's directed against.

Hello Parableman,

What I meant was that we "read about this issue in the likes of Zack, Appiah, Jones, etc." regardless of where they stand on this. What I meant was that in reading up on these folks, we come across the issue.

Yes. I would classify one as white and the other as black.

Why?

- Just perhaps for the sake of convenience. I am going along with a whats in place in society already.

Note to Wayne re:

"But when I have to fill out forms where the U.S. federal government requires checking off out racial heritage for purposes of properly counting racial "minorities" I do not know what to check for myself. If allowed, I check more than one category."

Yeah. Really irritating right.

- Raj

Jeremy,

on a slightly different,but certainly related topic, did you ever hear the program on This American Life about the young man who was "black" but didn't come to realize it until he was in his 20's? His white, Italian mother had had a pretty wild life before her marriage (and was pregnant at the wedding), and hoped/expected that her white husband was the father of her son.

It was certainly an interesting story. Seems like it was about 3 years ago if you feel like searching through archives--I assume the show is archived.

I agree with Mark's comment.

Hey Jeremy, there's a short story by Toni Morrison called "Recitatif" that deals with this question. You might have read it already, but if you haven't I recommend it. The reader doesn't know until the end of the story which of the two female characters is black and which is white. It really makes you question some of our basic assumptions of what makes race.

Also, check out a documentary called "The Colour of Fear." Can't remember who it's by.

Cheers!
Jen

Amanda, You couldn't possibly have said it any better. I agree with you 100%, especially on how adorable they both are.

Ooops, I think it was Ellen who I was trying to agree with. Sorry.

PS - Your Aunt is a very smart woman.

This is really not a new thing for people of African American heritage. We as a people have always realized that our blood lines extend past that of Africa...ever since the slave passage. There have been numerous books written about African-American people who could "pass" for white during slavery times. Had there not been these individuals the South would not have been so quick to judge whiteness or blackness by the amount of white or black blood you had in your body. Thus we have the terms mulatto 1/2 black, quadroon 1/4 black to make sure they could identify you regardless of the fairness of your complexion( so glad those terms are outdated.) African-American people as with other races of people have evolved into many shades that are considered "black" which in my view limits White America in defining themselves. I can not believe there are many of us black or white who can honestly say we are pure blood unless we are a member of some royal elite with a system of monitoring the blood line of everyone we meet. The problem is that people need to feel free in acknowledging and appreciating the beauty and differences in people. How boring and unimaginative would this world be with only one type of flower? God has a way of getting our attention.

Efuru, it's one thing to have two people with different amounts of African ancestry looking different. It's quite another to have two people with the same genetic parentage looking so different. It's even more vivid when they're the same age and can be compared this way, and the fact that they're twins also makes it extremely unlikely that they have different fathers even if someone were to raise that doubt (which I don't think most people are even thinking, to their credit).

So why am I all of a sudden getting something like 40 Google searches an hour for this? Did something new happen with this that would lead so many people to be searching for it all of a sudden?

Just last night, I saw a quick blurb on the news about a set of twins that appear to be one black and one white. Then I saw nothing else... looking for a followup...

Jeremy: Reuters has a video on this today for another set of twins; guess it piques people's interest... As far as looks are concerned, I would probably not initially believe the story - it would take some convincing. As for your question, I can't 'treat' a person according to skin colour, but I have seen this happen and it makes my stomach turn no matter what the circumstance. Should we not treat any new person we meet as a potential friend; appreciating the things we have in common and the differences of heritage and experience we bring to the relationship? I grew up in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, intercultural community. Making any notable difference based on accent, skin colour, or abilities was not tolerated by the community and seldom encountered. As I have traveled throughout the world, I have come to realise that this is a rare privilege. For these twins, even though they share the same heritage, same parents and same mixed race, I am sad to think that distinctions will be made by outsiders - even in this day and age - and I only hope that their parents can encourage them to appreciate differences and embrace harmonious living rather than succumb to the influences our racially-segregated world offers. A friend of mine married a white woman and their children (grown now) are also a mix of skin colours; two are very dark like their father, one is fair, blonde and blue eyed like her mother and the youngest actually looks South Asian. They don't consider themselves distinctly black or white, but appreciate the heritage of both parents. They feel slightly jilted when the world needs to put them in a box of colour. They think that is such a limited perspective...

Jeremy: Found the recent story. It's out of Australia...
http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,20623983-421,00.html?from=public_rss

Shan, I'm not talking about racism. What I mean by treating someone as black or white is simply whether you would accept that someone calling the person black or white is saying something true. See my post "I don't really think of you as black" for why it's often bad to ignore racial difference. I'm not asking about whether it's bad to acknowledge racial differences. I think it's bad not to. What I'm asking is whether people will consider one of these babies to be black and the other to be white. It seems to me that people do, and that says something to me about the one-drop rule no longer functioning, despite repeated claims by scholars of race that the one-drop rule is what governs racial classification in the United States.

Oh, and thanks for the link. I was really wondering why so many people were suddenly searching for this. It's nice to have a second news story to confirm the evidence I already had from the first story for one of the claims I'm arguing for in my dissertation.

On the surface your eyes tell you one thing but knowing they are twins throws my mind for a delighted spin. I hope they both have a fantastic sense of humor because they will have the ability to alter the reality of many people just by being who they are.

And they are SO cute!

This is amazing. I have sort of a simular situation. I have a beautiful 9month old baby girl and shes light skinned and my husband and I are dark skinned. She looks a lot like me when I was a baby, and she does have some features like my husband at times. Hes looking at me like is this really my baby. I'm also saying did this baby get switched at birth. Seeing these twins shows how genetics really work.

I would say that they are mix because of their parents one of their parents could be black the other white when combine you can have both with the same skin complextion or one darker or lighter i would treat both of them the same because they both have the same parents and are the same race skin does not make one any different from the other the only way they would have been black or white was if one of them parent was of the same race mother black and father black they would be black same as white both parents need to be white in order for their child or children to be white these twins girls just show us how genetics realy work and they are two beatiful twin baby girls and people need to treat them as one race and not one black and one white because they are neither.

Actually, their parents themselves are both mixed, so these children are second-generation mixed.

Another instance of this was reported today

http://www.nbc10.com/news/16909384/detail.html

This one's actually a little different. The ones I've seen have involved both parents who were mixed. This one has one African parent and one German parent. There may not have been any mixing in the recent ancestry of either. If that's true, then this really is a much more rare event. The other ones have been promoted as if they're really rare, but with two mixed parents it's a lot less rare than you'd expect.

It's kind of funny that they're calling the lighter one white. That kid's darker than any of ours (the ones who have been born already, anyway). Without his brother next to him, would they be as willing to call him white? If so, then the one-drop rule really is on its way out. (It's already strong evidence for that, but that would make it even stronger. I'm not sure it's true, though.)

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