Andrew Graham-Dixon (I’ve always liked him, partly because he’s a good art critic but mainly because his full name differs from mine only by a consonant and a hyphen), had a programme on Channel 4 last night called “100% English”.
He writes an article about it in The Telegraph:
...Take eight people, all of them white, all born and raised in England - and all convinced, some militantly so, that they are 100 per cent English. Persuade each of them to give us a DNA sample and submit it to a series of state-of-the-art tests to uncover where they really come from. The tests would involve comparing their DNA with a global databank that divides the world into four ancient population groups - European, East Asian, Sub-Saharan African and Native American.
….What linked them all was the sincerely held belief that they were English through and through. Their definitions of what it takes to be 'English' varied widely. For one, being born here was enough. For another, it was necessary to be descended directly from the pre-1066 inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England - or, at least, to feel a profound kinship with those peoples. For another, the acid test was simply whether a person supported the England football and cricket teams.
One gentleman, in for a larger surprise than most, was convinced that he was 100 per cent English. His definition of what he meant by that? All of his relatives had been born here, for at least 12 generations. When pressed, he admitted he did not know this for sure, but was certain that it must be the case.
I presented Dr Thomas with this criterion as a measure of Englishness and asked him, using it as a guide, how many 'English' people currently lived in England. The scientist thought about it. 'At a rough guess? Er, zero.' Such a thing would only have been possible if a particular social group, isolated from the rest of society, had inbred for centuries.
When all this was explained to our participant, he took the point and was ultimately rather relieved to learn that he was anything but English, according to his own, original standards. 'I guess we're all mongrels,' was his phlegmatic response to the results of his gene test - which showed, in fact, that much of his genetic make-up pointed to origins in Russia and Eurasia.
Intriguingly, new information about himself began to change his attitude to others, too. When I had met him for the first time, we had talked about immigration and his concern that it was diluting the essential pool of 'Englishness'. I remarked that the process could just as easily be seen as an enhancement and, one way or another, we had got on to the subject of football. I had mentioned Ian Wright, the former England footballer, born in England and patriotic in his passion for England's increasingly forlorn World Cup hopes - and, of course, black.
'Ah yes, but he's not English,' had come back the reply. 'You can't have black skin and call yourself English.' But when confronted with the facts about his own genes, later in the film, he simply changed his mind. 'Yeah, all right then, you can be black and English. I was wrong.'
He actually started to say: “But I still maintain that if a Jamaican couple or a German or an Italian couple come to England and have a child, then the child is not Engli-" and then he interrupted himself: “Oh but hang on, this throws all that out the window, because how far back do you go?”
This moment was a wonderful example of somebody openly and honestly changing his mind and admitting, live on camera, that he was completely wrong about something he’d believed all of his life, when presented with scientific evidence and irrefutable logic. A vanishingly rare thing, to say the least.
As Graham-Dixon says:
It was not until almost the end of the film that the full potential power of these tests was brought home to me, when one of our contributors, Damen Barks, an 18-year-old trainee soldier, made what struck me as a wonderfully precise remark. 'For racists to find out that part of them may be what they have discriminated against for years, well that would certainly throw them off their game,' he said. For Damen, his own test was a real moment of genetic catharsis - he was astonished when he discovered that he had DNA originating from at least a quarter of the globe. You could see his sense of his own global horizons visibly expanding on camera.
These tests should be made compulsory at school age: it would do far more to eliminate racism than any amount of advertising campaigns.
The programme could have done with a bit more context, but it was a fascinating one, with two conclusions to be drawn:
1) nationality is really just about geography and state of mind
2) thanks to science, we now know that race is really illusory, and can only meaningfully be talked about in percentages and tendencies, not in absolutes.