I HAVE DAD’S SINUSES, MUM’S bad back and my uncle’s chest (I use it for storage in the garage). My genes gave me itchy allergies, but at least those genes also had itchy feet; unlike nearly all humans in history, my genes wanted to travel. If you are reading this in New Zealand, your genes, too, must have travelled around the planet to be here. Even my smattering of indigenous Māori genes found their way across the Pacific not that many centuries ago. Compared with most humans in history, our genes are remarkably mobile.
Cheddar Man – no relation to Ches and Dale – was a chap who lived 9000 years ago in Somerset and then conveniently expired in a cave, creating a famous skeleton for posterity. When his DNA was tested, it was found that Adrian Targett, who lived just down the road from the cave, was Cheddar Man’s descendant. Nine thousand years and his family hadn’t even changed their post-code. True, humanity has spread around the globe, but they’ve done it at a snail’s pace. When they found a nice place, like Cheddar, they settled down and made cheese.
The tendency is not only to stay local but to marry the girl next door as well. A study asked people to judge the beauty of various faces and also took measurements of each face’s features. The faces thought most attractive had measurements that lay slap in the middle of the range for an observer’s racial group. Beauty for them was what was typical, average normality for their particular group. Something (innate or cultural) holds us in one place and draws us to people … just like us.
Thank goodness there were a few wild ones who broke the mould. Hooray for our travelling forebears who left places like Cheddar and wandered the planet and liked who they found there. If you give my family tree a good hard shake, evidence of lots of embraced diversity (and diverse embracing) will fall out. My genes have travelled from just about every continent to assemble themselves into me, and I bet there were some great stories along the way.
I’m fascinated to know how my Scottish great-grandfather wooed a Ngā Puhi lass. I would loved to have met my early 19th century forbear, who scandalized his Irish town by bringing home an Afro-American wife from the West Indies. Somehow, I think I should be able to dance and play basketball better than I do. But (and this is what I want to talk about) that’s just a stale, racial stereotype that I should’ve let shrivel a long time ago.
This is my challenge. I am a decided anti-racist, but there are still some parts of me that haven’t caught up with that decision. Philosophically, I am entirely multicultural, but there are still some reflexes and instincts lurking in the basement of my brain that probably track back to Cheddar Man. Little prejudices and stereotypes still pop into my head without being invited. We have all inherited an innate suspicion of people who are different … a psychology that inclines us to think that our group, race or nation is better. Maybe it’s a comfortable, human and natural tendency but, in my opinion, that xenophobia is the most dangerous thing in the world.
The thing that really changed me was a movie I saw years ago called, ‘From Mao to Mozart’ about Chinese musicians. I don’t know why I was at the theatre, because I had always thought Chinese music sounded like a traffic accident involving a van full of cats and saucepans. The astounding thing is the movie showed me their beautiful humanity. I’ve since been to China several times. I still don’t like Chinese opera, but I love the Chinese.
Hooray for changing attitudes – both my own and those I see in our culture. New Zealand is changing. My neighbours are Laotian, South African, Chilean and British. My daughter-in-law is Ukrainian. My taste-buds belong to India. My credit card debt is Chinese. Nothing is perfect, but it’s getting better. Somewhere in my genetic memory, a black woman is dancing with a Celt, and there’s a lot of laughter going on as they talk about possibilities. Also in that gene code is a grumpy ancient Briton eating cheese and wondering, “where the heck are we?” But I don’t hear from him so much these days.
AFTER DECADES STUDYING FAMILY LIFE, JOHN NOW FOCUSSES ON THE ‘PRIME-TIME’ ISSUES OF LATER MIDDLE AGE. CHECK HIM OUT ON JOHNCOWAN.CO.NZ – ESPECIALLY IF YOU NEED SOME WRITING, EVENT SPEAKING, VIDEOS MADE, OR SOMEONE TO HAVE A COFFEE WITH.