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February 02, 2016

#TheHybridLife: What It Means To Be A Multiracial Millenial

Text by Prabha Chandran

As races intermingle, mixed bloodlines are blurring cultural boundaries and hybridness has a whole new meaning in the 21st century

It was an exhibition called Under My Skin on the fluidity of race and identity in Seattle two years ago that was an epiphany. A group of artists used candid images and narratives to explore their mixed genetic ancestries, a culture morphed from Asian and American traditions and a sense, not of unbelonging, but of being part of an evolving future breed of humans. No longer international gypsies, apologetic about being outsiders in their country of birth, they saw themselves as forerunners of a brave new world where ‘people are increasingly ethnically ambiguous’. A Japanese-American artist who took part in the show said that people like them ‘can choose what race we are’, as much as one might choose, say, a house or a pet.

A rainbow family
This is not a fanciful argument anymore and that epiphany has strengthened my own mixed moorings. When my immediate family gathers around the table for Christmas, we have two Norwegians (grandfather and father), a Gabonese daughter-in-law, three Afro-Nordic grandchildren who probably also inherited some Arctic Sami genes, two Indian stepsons and an Indian mother. Our extended family includes a brother-in-law who is a New Zealander and a son-in-law who is half Tunisian-half Dutch with a child who has added Indian genes to her diverse ancestry.

We are a rainbow family and we look it — with a cacophony of tongues, a multitude of customs, religious beliefs, cuisines and values. While the young ones are true genetic hybrids who can theoretically decide what race and identity they prefer as they mature, the elders are sometimes mentally, emotionally and physically challenged by their own evolving sense of self in a world where boundaries and rules have failed to keep pace with global identities.

Much can be lost in transit and translation for the multiracial millenials, as attitudes — and certainly  laws — have failed to stay in sync with human migration and evolution. Interracial families can be proscribed by different visa, employment and tax regimes, often causing duplication of expenses and tedious paperwork, not to mention loss of rights in countries where they may stay for limited periods only, even as immediate family members. It was Albert Einstein who described himself as a world citizen and supported the idea throughout his life, famously saying, “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

World citizenship
Since then, nationalism, too, has become a lot uglier than measles, acquiring at times a xenophobic or terroristic edge at variance with the unifying impetus of globalisation. We remain a long way from the Baha’i concept paper shared at the first session of the UN’s Commission on Sustainable Development in 1993 which said, “World citizenship begins with an acceptance of the oneness of the human family and the interconnectedness of the nations of the Earth, our home.” A global passport and citizenship of our planet may seem unthinkable today, but so was 3D printing of the human heart in the past.

‘Hybridness of being’ in the 21st century then is an evolutionary process born at one level of science and technology, which has artfully extended our natural intelligence, giving us superhuman abilities, increasing mastery over nature and unbiblical lifespans. At another, it is the blurring of once distinct cultures, races and creeds to create a reality much bigger than the sum of its parts. As races intermingle more freely, a new generation of multi-ethnic millenials is well represented at the heights of global sports, entertainment, politics and businesses. Think Halle Berry, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs and Tiger Woods. Woods conveys his multiracial heritage by inventing the word ‘Cablinasian’ to describe his Caucasian, Black, Indian (Native American) and Asian ancestry. Perhaps we will have census papers with similar categories in the not-too-distant future.

In famously diverse London you can walk the length of Oxford Street without seeing a white Londoner — they are becoming a minority in their own city. There are now 1.2 million people across Britain who described themselves as ‘mixed’ in a 2011 census, making it the fastest-growing ethnic minority group. In New York, census figures reveal 67 per cent of the population consists of ethnic minorities. While the rise of ‘beige Britain’ and Latin Americans is met with resignation or alarm depending on which side of the racial divide one sits, widely reported predictions that mixed races will be the single largest ethnic minority group by the end of this decade make it clear that a major demographic shift is under way.

A genetic cocktail
Some years ago, in fact, National Geographic magazine commissioned a much-debated 50-th anniversary project on what Americans would look like in the future. The result was a series of breathtakingly beautiful faces emerging from a genetic cocktail of Afro, Latino, Indian and Caucasian traits. These faces remain a favourite Google search and it’s easy to see why. Some of the world’s most beautiful women are multiracial — supermodel Naomi Campbell is part Jamaican and part Chinese, Beyonce is a stunning blend of African American, Irish and Creole while actor Kate Upton, who scorched the cover of Sports Illustrated in her swimsuit, is a fortuitous mix of English, Dutch and Scottish.

A 2010 study on human attraction conducted by Cardiff University, UK, of 1,205 black, white and mixed-race faces from Facebook communities, found respondents overwhelmingly attracted to mixed-race faces.

Dr Michael Lewis, lead researcher of the study, reminds us of a more complex explanation for the attraction. First posited by Darwin in 1876, it is a biological phenomenon called heterosis or hybrid vigour.

This predicts that cross-breeding will lead to offsprings that are genetically fitter than their parents. “This tends to be linked to attractiveness,” said Dr Lewis.

Interracial alliances
We’ve come a long way from 1967 when the term ‘hybrid’ was not merely an insult, but also a crime in the USA. The law at the time required imprisonment for marrying a Black or White person not of one’s race. It took a brave mixed couple, the aptly named Richard Loving and his Black bride, Mildred Jeter, to challenge the racist law on miscegenation from behind prison bars where they were lodged in 1958. With the help of a rising young lawyer named Robert Kennedy, they successfully petitioned the Supreme Court in a civil rights suit, to jettison the law. By 2010, around 15 per cent of new marriages in the USA were between individuals of different races or ethnicities, more than double the number in 1980, according to a report by the Pew Research Center.This, of course, excludes the huge number of people currently living and working in countries not their own, people who assume a transient local identity before moving to their next international posting.

Unlike the Americans however, the British had no laws on segregation and their colonial history is rife with interracial alliances. In his seminal book, White Mughals, historian William Dalrymple documents a period in the late 18th-early 19th century when one in three British men in India were married to an Indian woman. The book reveals the interethnic liaisons of British officers, such as those of Major-General Charles Stuart and, most poignantly, the story of a love affair in which the British East India Company Resident of Hyderabad, Captain James Achilles Kirkpatrick, converted to Islam to marry the love of his life, Khair-un-Nissa Begum, a Hyderabadi noblewoman of royal Persian descent. A generation of Anglo-Indians bears testimony to this chapter in Indian history. Indeed, there are anthropologists who argue there are no pure races and this is illustrated well in the North of India where a series of conquering marauders from Central Asia, Persia, Mongolia, Greece and the Middle East have left their genetic stamps on the population.

The hippie movement
Similarly, we can trace the hybridisation of culture in our times to the hippie movement that began in the late ’60s in America. Author and entrepreneur, Bina Ramani, herself a British-Sindhi originally from Pakistan, married to a Canadian artist, was living in San Francisco where it was was born. “The hippie movement was a hybrid culture of its own, bringing together Eastern and Western ideals, lifestyles and music in a whole new idiom of brotherhood, peace and love.”

John Lennon crooned, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance,’ as people from all over the world flocked to the new gurus of a raging counterculture — led by Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the first of a series of Indian godmen who offered spiritual solace to Western seekers. ‘Make Love Not War’ was the favourite slogan on cheap batik T-shirts, which along with scruffy jeans and love beads formed the uniform of hippies, beatniks, freaks, yogis, dropouts and druggies.

Ironically, when I met Olav Ofstad, my Norwegian husband, many decades later, it was this shared past that formed a common backdrop to the music we still listen to, the books we’ve read and our work in post-conflict areas and peace-building respectively. The hippies gave rise to a hybrid global culture encompassing the world through the Internet with breathtaking speed.

Impact of Science  
No story on the ‘hybridness of being’, however, can ignore the profound impact that science continues to have on human beings. As the world shrinks, we have expanded our ideas of what and who we are. Technology extends our sensory limits so we can ‘see’ the farthest constellations while we thrill to the secret heartbeat of an unborn child. We discover new species in the remotest depths of the Mariana trench at 36,000 feet below sea level or the South Pole. We can live for extended periods in the International Space Station and we are building our own version of the sun right here in France on Earth. Nature is giving up its secrets and some of its powers and we are wresting this knowledge to extend our mastery over life itself.

But what does all this mean for 21st-century humans? We are already using a hybrid combination of human and artificial intelligence to manage extremely complex systems and procedures that make the modern world functional. Robots build our cars, go to Mars and a new generation of extreme robots may one day be in the forefront of firefighting if scientists at Virginia Tech get it right. Scientists predict in a decade’s time we will be connected to a cloud of artificial intelligence far superior to our own brains, which will give us superhuman abilities.

Chip-driven abilities
Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, foretells that humans will become hybrids in the 2030s. “That means our brains will be able to connect directly to the cloud, where there will be thousands of computers, and those computers will augment our existing intelligence.” He said the brain connection will be via nanobots — tiny robots made from DNA strands. “Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking,” he said. The bigger and more complex the cloud, the more advanced our thinking. By the time we get to the late 2030s or the early 2040s, Kurzweil believes our thinking will be predominately non-biological.

But more than a decade ago another British scientist, Professor Kevin Warwick, had a chip implanted in his wrist which was connected to his computer and gadgets in his house so that they would be switched on with a ‘thought command’. Warwick, now deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University, is the author of I, Cyborg and he once regaled an audience in Delhi with a menu of his chip-driven abilities, which included downloading dreams and memories and communicating wordlessly with another human who had a similar chip implant on the other side of the Atlantic. Cyborgs exist. They move around with titanium knees, battery-operated pacemakers, plastic stents, cochlear implants, metal and polymer teeth and transplanted corneas, hearts, livers and kidneys.

The use of tools and technology has changed the fundamental idea of what a human being is. The 3D printing of organoids, including a brain and kidneys, are being attempted in advanced laboratories in the US while biotech companies like Organov in San Diego — the Sillicon Valley of biomedical technology — have 3D printed working blood vessels and brain tissues successfully transplanted in rats. A kidney is the first whole organ they are working on. Another scientist, Lawrence Bonassar, is growing artificial ears using biomaterials, robotics and 3D printing. By comparison, the use of stem cells to replicate damaged organs is almost passé in this brave new world where the decoding of the human genome paves the way for more god-like interventions, making natural selection, as explained by Darwin, almost quaint. Or is it?

Our ability to navigate our environment and change our bodies for the better or worse has never been greater. But just as we are changing nature, nature is changing us. And the future belongs to the multiracial millennials for whom the Earth is already a stepping stone to a mind-boggling universe of possibilities…. Maybe the true hybrids are yet to take birth.

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