Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The concept of "sang-mêlé" and the lie of racial purity

EDIT 9 May 2018: My theory of Haitian ancestry is proven wrong. Our African DNA comes from a different line! The figures I give for my own African ancestry in this blog post are therefore inaccurate.

In certain places, at certain points in history, governments have been obsessed with race.

For example, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, there was an extremely detailed system for classifying people according to their ancestral background. The Saint-Domingue system was similar to the Spanish casta system, but even more detailed. The categories ranged from nègre/nègresse (a person assumed to be of fully African ancestry), to sang-mêlé (a person with distant African ancestry) to blanc (a person assumed to be of unmixed European ancestry):

1/1 (fully African ancestry): nègre/nègresse
1/2 (one parent of fully African ancestry): mulâtre/mulâtresse
1/4 (one grandparent): quarteron
1/8 (one great-grandparent): métis
1/16 (one great-great-grandparent): mamelouc
1/32 (one 3rd great-grandparent): quarteronné
1/64 (one 4th great-grandparent) to 1/∞: sang-mêlé
0 (no African ancestry): blanc

According to the Saint-Domingue system, any person who had any known African blood could never be fully white: "D'un blanc et d'une sang mêlé, vient un sang mêlé qui approche du blanc." In other words, through an extreme application of the one-drop rule, these people would be categorized as sang-mêlé ("mixed-blood") no matter how distant their African ancestry. Even a person of 1/128 or 1/256 African ancestry would be sang-mêlé and therefore of lower status than a person of ostensibly pure European descent. In fact, some people, such as the colonist and slave-owner Moreau de Saint-Méry (1750-1819), claimed to be able to tell if a person was 1/512 African! (Joan Dayan: Haiti, History, and the Gods, pp. 234-235).

The question is: In a society that took racial classifications to this extreme level of detail, what person could claim, in good faith, that he or she was 100% anything? 1/512 means one out of 512 seventh-great-grandparents. Moreau de Saint-Méry was born in 1750, and given an average generation length of between 20 and 30 years, his 7th-great-grandparents would have been born between 1450 and 1550. I'm absolutely sure that Moreau would not have known the identity of every single one of them (this is extremely rare even today, even among nobility and royalty), and there is a very real statistical possibility that one of them might not have been European. In other words, the French colonial practice of assigning other people an inferior status on the basis of their distant ancestry was not only repulsive and inhumane; it was also obviously hypocritical and arbitrary.

Also, if someone of 1/512 African ancestry was considered Black, then why should not someone of 1/512 European ancestry be given the opportunity to define themselves as white? Why should not someone of 1/512 indigenous Taíno ancestry be defined as Taíno? Hypodescent, the practice of assigning people of mixed ancestry to the group with the lowest status, is yet another illustration of the arbitrary nature of "racial" classifications.

Genetic and genealogical evidence strongly point towards a certain 4th great-grandfather of mine being the illegitimate son of Pierre Dérival Lévêque (1788-1852) from Haiti. Dérival was born while Haiti was still the colony of Saint-Domingue, and his parents seem to have been a man of 5/8 African descent (the documented son of a Black enslaved woman and her mixed-race owner) and a woman reportedly of 1/2 African descent. In other words, Dérival would have been 9/16 African (thereby classified as a mulâtre), and I would be 9/2048 through him (9/2048 is slightly more than 1/256). Even though there is still some uncertainty as to whether our Haitian ancestor was in fact Dérival, it seems quite clear that we do descend from a Haitian man of mixed African and European descent. In other words, according to the old racial classification system in Saint-Domingue, my paternal grandmother's whole family are certainly sang-mêlés.

I don't think anyone would be able to tell by looking at us. I don't think anyone would even have imagined it to be possible. Aren't Norwegians supposed to be the whitest of the white?

The racial ideology of Saint-Domingue was, in its essence, no more than a tool of economic repression and exploitation, a way of safeguarding a highly stratified social system which benefited some people at the cost of others. This was the heart of the colonial enterprise. Why should I concern myself with the French colonial racial classification system now, and make it the basis of a blog post? Why should any of this matter in 2018? It matters because my own ancestors suffered under this system. To them, it was real. To them, it meant a life of slavery or, at the very best, as a second-class citizen. More importantly, however, these things matter because racism is still real.

In order to combat racism, we must combat the very idea of "racial purity". We must fight the notion that groups of people are inherently different from one another. We must fight the notion that the colour of your skin is a marker of your personality, your intellect, your capabilities. And in order to do so, those of us who are "white" (i.e. look and act they way a "white" person is expected to look and act) must stop being emotionally invested in our own whiteness.

This does not imply a naïve "colour-blindness". White privilege (indeed, white supremacy) exists, and we need to acknowledge that and to continue working to dismantle it. However, at the same time, we must stop reenacting Moreau de Saint-Méry's pretense of ancestral purity. I see this pretense, or at least this assumption, over and over again in the genealogical community, and perhaps especially in genetic genealogy forums where notions of race are constantly challenged by often surprising DNA evidence.

It is perfectly possible to acknowledge your whiteness on the outside while also acknowledging your mixedness on the inside (or potential mixedness, which in this case means the same thing in terms of one's attitude). Or, put differently: It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that you are seen and treated as white within the current configurations of society, while still acknowledging that on the inside, you are just another human being, and that there are no races in any objective biological sense, only fellow human beings. Only if we start thinking like this can we truly begin to feel a sense of community encompassing all of humanity and blurring the boundary between "us" and "them". This is true for everyone, not just whites, but we must begin with ourselves.

White as my skin may be; as a homage to my ancestors, and as a political stand against racism, I proudly embrace the label sang-mêlée. Although originally intended as a tool of division and oppression, this label can be turned on its head to express an essential unifying fact of human life: The fact that none of us have ever been, or can ever be, "racially pure".

Indeed, we are all sang-mêlés.


  1. Excellent! Unfortunately, in the U.S. now under Trump, the white supremacists have come out of the woodwork because they feel emboldened to do so by the things he's said and done. All of the that used to be thinly veiled, but now they come right out and say it. I'm ashamed for my country.

  2. Well, yes, it's shameful, but thankfully, those people are not representative of the whole country (any country!) Also, in some ways it's actually good that they're coming out into the open with their opinions and revealing their true colours. At least now we know what they were thinking all along. Now we can argue with them and fight their supremacist ideology directly.