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“They say that it can’t be true, I don’t have any black blood in me. One of the mothers was so shocked that she went and fetched her husband, her husband's parents and her own parents and brought them to the counsellors office and said ‘look, all my family going back generations are white. We can’t possibly have this sickle cell gene.’” Dyson said that associating the gene with Mediterranean groups distances it from African Ancestry, which makes it easier for white women to accept. But is this not perpetuating racism by pandering to their racial prejudices? This action is merely re-affirming the negative view towards blackness and people of African descent, not addressing it.

Skin Colour: Should it Matter?

By Deborah Gabriel (May 5, 2007)

I deliberately created this dark-skinned black girl comic character because it’s important for youngsters to see dark-skinned black people celebrated and in a position of power. When I look at my auntie and my family members; I see dark skinned black men and women who have made such a tangible contribution and then the [disrespect] that I see dark-skinned people get as a result of their skin colour, is not right. It is not right for us to do it in our community. -- David Neita, Human Rights Lawyer and Poet

Skin colour definitely matters to some people

Elizabeth Anionwu, Head of the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University “Growing up as a small child in the Midlands in the early fifties, I realised that others defined me by my skin colour. I grew up in a convent and in those days there weren’t a lot of black faces. I remember always being asked, ‘where do you come from?’ and realising very quickly that they didn’t want me to answer Birmingham. They were looking at my skin colour."

Elizabeth Anionwu is head of the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice at Thames Valley University. Her mother is white, of Irish origin and her black father was Nigerian. She was born and brought up in the UK and is nearly 60. As a young girl she would be told by bemused strangers that she spoke English very well and asked whether she felt the cold, but these questions were not being asked of her friends.

It dawned on her that she was being singled out because she was black. As a result of her experience, Anionwu has always been interested in the historical legacies of slavery and the impact it has left within sections of the black community and sections of the white community. She told Black Britain: “Its how we relate to each other internally and externally and the dreadful legacy that there’s much more poverty among people of darker skin than white skin.”

Anionwu is also a member of the trustees of the Dana Centre, a trendy venue in London which hosts debates on contemporary science, technology and culture. She suggested it would be a good idea to have a debate on skin colour. Does it matter? To some people it matters a great deal.

Simon Dyson is a sociologist at De Montfort University in Leicester with a special interest in sickle cell. He recently conducted research based on the experiences of African and African Caribbean sickle cell counsellors. Although sickle cell is predominantly found in people of African descent, the genes associated with it are inherited separately from the genes that are associated with skin colour. It is therefore possible to have blonde hair, blue eyes and white skin and either be a carrier of sickle cell, or contract sickle cell anaemia.

During the research the counsellors told Dyson that in some cases, mothers who come for counselling who regard themselves as white English become very hostile and unleash their racial prejudices when they discover they have the sickle cell gene. Women have said: “Oh my God, I feel polluted, I feel contaminated,” because they see sickle as a black disease, Dyson told Black Britain.

“They say that it can’t be true, I don’t have any black blood in me. One of the mothers was so shocked that she went and fetched her husband, her husband’s parents and her own parents and brought them to the counsellors office and said ‘look, all my family going back generations are white. We can’t possibly have this sickle cell gene.’”

Whilst these women are effectively saying they have “something horrible inside me, something that’s to do with black people, they suddenly realise that the professional in front of them is a black woman,” Dyson said. It’s a tough job for the black professionals who have to counsel women who have just insulted them.

In many instances, the only way to calm them down is by distancing the sickle cell from any association with black African ancestry. So they may say that the gene could have come from the Romans, who came to Britain with some black battalions and they might have brought the sickle cell gene to the UK.

Dyson said that associating the gene with Mediterranean groups distances it from African Ancestry, which makes it easier for white women to accept. But is this not perpetuating racism by pandering to their racial prejudices? This action is merely re-affirming the negative view towards blackness and people of African descent, not addressing it.

The origins of mankind are black and African, say anthropologists

But Dyson said that there are five types of the sickle cell gene, one of which originates in India and Arabia: “So it is entirely possible that you could have genes associated with sickle cell and have not African ancestry, but Indian and Arabian ancestry.” He admits: “It’s not a perfect solution, it’s a working solution that a number of them came to in order to manage the tension.”

Skin colour matters dreadfully to some people, or to put it more succinctly, not being black matters dreadfully to some people. Yet as geneticist Mark Jobling explained, most anthropologists believe that the origin of the species was in Africa, therefore the original colour of all people was black.

Jobling was part of the team of genetic scientists at the University of Leicester, whose recent research uncovered a genetic link between ‘indigenous’ white men in Yorkshire and West African ancestors. All the men from Yorkshire have a surname that dates back to the mid 14th century.

It is believed that the rare West African Y chromosome which was present in their genes was in inherited by an African ancestor who was living in England at least 250 years ago. So if the history of mankind is of African and therefore black origin, why does skin colour matter today? Is it down to race and racism?

Dyson does not believe that race exists. “As a sociologist, I have difficulty accepting the idea that there is such a thing as race, as opposed to that there is such as thing as racism. Racism is created by culture, but I don’t accept that there is any such thing as distinct biological races,” he contends. So why should skin colour matter?


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