Ancestry, ethnicity and the hopeless confusions of race

Lorenzo M Warby
13 min readMay 16, 2021


Yes, ancestry matters but not in the way that makes race talk sensible.

A 1904 depiction of Asian ethnicities.

The early medieval scholar Regino of Prum wrote the following:

Diversae nationes popularum interse discrepant genere moribus lingua legibus.

For those (such as myself) not up on the their Latin, that translates as:

The peoples of various nations differ by origin, customs, languages and laws.

This quote has been much cited since. Its fourfold formula was frequently used by medieval writers. For instance, Bishop Bernard of St David’s wrote to Pope Innocent II referring to:

…populos nostre provincie natione, lingua, legibus et moribus, iudiciis et consuetudinibus discrepare

In English,

…the peoples of our province are distinct in nation, language, laws and customs, judgements and manners

But manners are part of customs and laws entail judgements, so it is a more poetic version of the same fourfold formula.

About law

This was a region and an era where your law could be as much about which group you belonged to as where you lived. A single sovereignty could readily entail a variety of systems of law. A single system of law (e.g. Brehon law) could operate across several sovereignties. A non-resident in a city involved in a legal dispute might be asked what laws he lived under.

For much of the medieval period in Europe, particularly early in the medieval period, law was: the custom of the area. Which tended to mean: whatever we remember doing, last time this came up.

Henry II, the first Plantagenet king of England, used his Chancery and royal judges to develop what became the common law precisely because different people in different parts of England had different law (Norman, Saxon, Danish), with local variations. Royal judges would offer judgements that were both common across England and sought to synthesise the common elements between existing local laws, creating the common law of England.

Common law can be understood as evolving customary law. One of its many fine features is that it provides a structure of law without any Parliament, or other legislating authority, having to issue any specific law. A system of law with, moreover, an inherent tendency to move towards consistency. Something that is not a notable feature of statutory law.

In the modern era, law is very much a matter of state jurisdictions. So, setting law aside, that leaves us with origin (so descent or ancestry), customs and language as identifying an ethnic group. (Nation is ambiguous between state and people, but it is ethnicity that we are concerned with here.)

Ethnicity is something that develops in a mixture of separation (you overwhelmingly interact with members of the same group) and differentiation (there is one or more other groups that are identified as not being of the same group). Geographical separation means that folk can much more easily have specific customs and a specific language. (And, of course, specific laws.)

Ancestry matters because it is how customs and language are transferred across the generations. Yet the key thing is connections between people and common features that arise from the patterns of connection. A child adopted as a baby will be raised in the ethnicity of their adoptive parents and local community, regardless of their genetic ancestry. People are overwhelmingly raised by one or more biological parents, or adopted within the same group, so ancestry tracks ethnicity very strongly. But it does not drive ethnicity.

The overwhelmingly dominant connection between ancestry and the ethnicity in which folk are raised, drives some muddy thinking about ethnicity (and race). The notion that DNA tests can determine ethnicity, particularly for policing boundaries between ethnicities in intermingled communities, is deeply confused thinking. The bits of ethnicity that matter are your customs, your language, your expectations, your received framings, your patterns of connection. None of that is genetic or genetically defined.

Ethnicities can arise and fade away while genetic lineages continue. In his The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott notes that people and families in Southeast Asia would periodically choose new cultural identities, creating “crazy quilt” ethnic enclaves that ethnographers found perplexing. Ethnicities are nowhere near as primordial as is often pretended and ethnic identities can often be situational and strategic.

Race has come to refer to continental ancestry and the concept, and its associated social meanings, has had the most social power when folk of different continental ancestry interact. Most notoriously in the Americas where settlers from one continent (Europe) invaded another continent (North or South America, as the case may be), imported slaves from a third continent (Africa) and then received migrants from a fourth continent (Asia). That skin tone and other physical features were strong indicators of continental ancestry interacted with these very different social roles to make race talk an easy, and sadly convenient, option.

Yet continental ancestry on its own does not tell us what customs or languages you, or anyone else, has. No continental group, including Australian Aborigines, is a single ethnic or cultural group or users of a single language. Nor are they a single breeding population. Hence the speciousness of race — continental ancestry — as an analytical category, however convenient it has been to invest social meanings in physical markers of ancestry. Particularly as a divide-and-dominate dynamic.

Race as continental ancestry is also a long way from the C14th chronicler John of Fordun describing Scotland as a land of one nation but two races:

Mores autem Scotorum secundum diversitatem linguarum variantur ; duabus enim utuntur linguis, Scotica videlicet et Theutonica, cuius linguae gens maritimas possidet et planas regiones, Scoticae vero montanas inhabitat et insulas ulteriores. Maritima quoque domestica gens est et culta, fida, patiens et urbana, vestitu siquidem honesta, civilis atque pacifica, circa cultum divinum devota, sed et obviandis hostium iniuriis semper prona. Insulana vero sive montana, ferina gens est et indomita, rudis et immorigerata, raptu capax, otium diligens, ingenio docilis et callida, forma spectabilis, sed amictu deformis, populo quidem Anglorum et linguae, sed et propriae nationi, propter linguarum diversitatem, infesta iugiter et crudelis. Regi tamen et regno fidelis et obediens, necnon faciliter legibus subdita, si regatur.

Or, in English:

The manners of the Scots vary according to their language, for they employ two languages, Scottish [Gaelic] and Teutonic [Scots/English]. The race of Teutonic language has the sea coasts and lowlands, that of Scottish language inhabits the mountainous areas and the outer isles. The race of the sea coasts is domesticated, civilized, faithful, patient, cultivated, decently dressed, refined and peaceable, devout in church worship, yet always ready to withstand any harm done by its enemies. The island or mountain race, however, is wild, untamed, primitive, intractable, inclined to plunder, leisure-loving, quick to learn, skilful, handsome in appearance but vilely dressed, and continually fiercely opposed to the English people and language, but also to their own nation, on account of the difference of language. Nevertheless they are loyal and obedient to the king and the kingdom, and also easily subdued to the laws, if they are ruled properly.


DNA as a convenient sorting mechanism is only likely to be reached for if people of different ethnicities (so different ancestries) are intermingling. If everyone lives in villages of the same ethnicity, but are aware of there being villages of a different ethnicity over there, the issue does not arise. It is only if folk within the same larger community have varied ancestries (and so varied ethnicities) that it is going to seem sensible to look for some “sure” marker, such as biological ancestry or (once the technology exists) DNA testing.

The problems of maintaining separate identities in a situation of intermingling is what led to the development of the “one drop” rule in the US. If you had any element of African ancestry you were “black” (i.e. not “white”). It is a sign of how intense the stigmatising social meanings attached to being “black” were, the extension of the inherited dishonour of slavery onto their descendants, that no mulatto or mixed-race identity emerged in the US, in contrast to much of the rest of the Americas.

Ironically, this pattern was largely because electoral politics — who could vote and for whom — mattered so much more in the US. In societies with proportionately smaller settler elites, where voting was not much of an issue, it tended to be convenient to have an intermediary group as social buffer and suppliers of services. In such situations, one gets gradations of ancestry rather than sharp continental-ancestry (“race”) divisions, where elite ancestry provides the most benefits and slave or indigenous ancestry the most handicaps.

With the current attempts within the US and the wider Anglosphere to stigmatise the social meaning of “whiteness”, we are nowadays getting the same one-drop rule exclusion working in contemporary society, but going the other way so that any degree of non-European ancestry confers a presumptive moral advantage, making one “a person of colour”. But this just flips the pejorative effect while also wrestling with the problem of differentiation in intermingled societies. Situations of intermingling are much more likely to see situational or strategic use of ethnic (or racial) identities.

To impose simple, dividing, categories on intermingled populations requires systematically ignoring (inconvenient) ancestry. The original “one-drop” rule in the US meant ignoring any European ancestry among those with African ancestry. The new version similarly generally involves ignoring any European ancestry among “persons of colour”.

There is a long history of ignoring inconvenient ancestry. Patrilineal kin-groups generally ignored maternal ancestry, as matrilineal kin-groups generally ignored paternal ancestry. But the point in such cases was very much to enforce differentiating boundaries.

The great advantage of DNA is that it reveals the complexities of ancestry. It does not track the complexities of culture. It does, however, point to how genetic lineages pass through, and into, cultures.


The use of public policy to impose residential segregation in the US, to the extent of attempting to break up integrated neighbourhoods, was another way of wrestling with problems of differentiation among intermingled folk.

The enforced spread of residential segregation in the US, including attempts to segregate previously integrated neighbourhoods, is set out in Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. A note in the book quantifies the path of residential segregation, including its intensification under FDR’s New Deal. In the ten largest US cities:

…in 1880, the neighborhood (block) on which the typical African American lived was only 15 percent black; by 1910 it was 30 percent, and by 1930, even after the Great Migration, it was still only about 60 percent black. By 1940 the local neighborhood where the typical African American lived was 75 percent black.

Reducing intermixing by residential (and other) segregation is an obvious way to sharpen identity differentiation in a mixed society. This is typically done by giving one group a greater say than another. Whether it was such things as hostile zoning and resident activism in the US producing the aforementioned residential segregation, shuffling people off into reservations or giving one group claims over land that others cannot have.

Such segregation can indeed sharpen identity, but at the cost of giving up the benefits of interaction with the wider society. Denying folk such benefits has often been the purpose of such segregation. It is likely to be the effect of it, regardless of intention.


As is well known, intermarriage, a very intimate form of intermingling, blurs ethnic identity. Hence groups that wish to retain their separate identity either block intermarriage or require outside spouses to convert to their group. Such marriage boundaries then provide a way to continue intense patterns of connection that differentiate the group from outsiders.

Religions have often been very much involved in setting up and policing such boundaries. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, the right sort of boundary laws can turn a minority into a majority:

…the spread of Islam in the Near East where Christianity was heavily entrenched (it was born there) can be attributed to two simple asymmetries. The original Islamic rulers weren’t particularly interested in converting Christians as these provided them with tax revenues — the proselytism of Islam did not address those called “people of the book”, i.e. individuals of Abrahamic faith. In fact, my ancestors who survived thirteen centuries under Muslim rule saw advantages in not being Muslim: mostly in the avoidance of military conscription.

The two asymmetric rules were are as follows. First, if a non Muslim man under the rule of Islam marries a Muslim woman, he needs to convert to Islam — and if either parents of a child happens to be Muslim, the child will be Muslim. Second, becoming Muslim is irreversible, as apostasy is the heaviest crime under the religion, sanctioned by the death penalty. The famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, born Mikhael Demetri Shalhoub, was of Lebanese Christian origins. He converted to Islam to marry a famous Egyptian actress and had to change his name to an Arabic one. He later divorced, but did not revert to the faith of his ancestors.

Under these two asymmetric rules, one can do simple simulations and see how a small Islamic group occupying Christian (Coptic) Egypt can lead, over the centuries, to the Copts becoming a tiny minority. All one needs is a small rate of interfaith marriages.

Such boundaries and group identities have often been reinforced by participation in common rituals.

Vanishing heritage

John Wood Jnr has observed that, on the Euro-American (“white”) side of his family, folk can talk about a heritage reaching back to Europe. As can Asians with Asia or recent African immigrants with Africa. On the (slave-descended) African-American side of his family, there is a striking absence of such. The descendants of American slaves have no such identifiable specific ancestral heritage(s), as slavery mixed ethnicities together while slaves had no family rights.

As sociologist Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the social death that slavery entailed, and the consequent natal alienation, separating slaves from any acknowledged line of ancestry or family rights, defined the slave far more then being property did. (Medieval serfs, for example did not suffer any such social death, any such alienation from family and heritage.) The process of Transatlantic exile of slaves, and their descendants, was much more profound than that experienced by others arriving in the US and the rest of the Americas.

The descendants of slaves imported into the Americas have the most “American” identities, as they have had to create their identities within the Americas and within the context of European settlement. (Indigenous Americans have identities that reach back before European settlement, so are not anchored in the creation of new societies that American implies.) It is not accidental that various quintessential American cultural forms, such as Jazz and Blues, are grounded in the experience of American slaves and their descendants.

Within the US, the descendants of American slaves were an ethnic identity defined by “race”, i.e. African ancestry. They are now an identity submerged by “race”, as Afro-Caribbeans and recent African immigrants are both also “black”. (Though there is some evidence that American-born generations of such migrants may be at last somewhat socialised into attitudes of the descendants of American slaves; another instance of the effects of intermingling.)

That no descendant of American slaves has graced the Presidential nomination ticket of either major US Party is very much obscured by focusing on race rather than ethnicity. (President Obama and Vice-President Harris are both examples of migrant heritage, not US slave heritage.)


Culture is a notoriously ambiguous term, with literally hundreds of definitions being offered by social scientists. Custom also suffers from a certain ambiguity. Fortunately, philosopher Cristina Bicchieri has done the work, setting out a rigorous theory of norms that helps clarify thinking on these matters. This is done formally in The Grammar of Society and with a more practical focus in Norms in the Wild.

Using Prof. Bicchieri’s definitions:

  • Customs are things you regularly do because they work for you. They may generate expectations among other folk but they are not driven by such expectations.
  • Conventions are things you do because other people do them. They both generate, and are driven by, expectations. Language and fashion are classic convention-driven activities. Conventions allow people to coordinate with each other.
  • Social norms drive things you do because other people expect you to do them and are likely to sanction you if you do not.
  • Moral norms drive things you do because you believe it is the right thing to do regardless of the expectations of others.

The use of custom by Regino of Prum as quoted above clearly covers customs, conventions and social norms. In mixed societies, folk adopt and lose customs. They adopt and lose conventions. Both customs and conventions lose their distinctiveness, blurring identity. Similarly with social norms. So, once again, we can see the power of connection and the problems of intermingling.

Thinking in terms of custom, convention and social norms brings out the power of religion as a creator and preserver of identity. For participating in common rituals can be a great binding and a differentiating mechanism. Indeed, they are much of the social effect of ritual.

Corrosive contradictions

But thinking in terms of custom, convention and social norms also brings out how much politicising and legalising identity becomes a morass of corrosive contradictions. Such attempts to differentiate seek to draw lines in ways that social intermingling must undermine.

One ends up being at war with such intermingling — and so at war with any overarching common identity — while creating endless possibilities for strategic game-playing that is likely to be highly socially corrosive in its effects. Such identity-games can create simple categories that are appealing in their simplicity and disastrous in their lack of nuanced realism.

Ethnicities evolve. They change, emerge, weaken, strengthen, mingle and divide according to circumstances. Attempting to create a legal, moral and political order based on primordial, unmixed and fixed identities is to build a series of noxious fictions into the social order that are at war with the complexities of the human in ways that invite bad, even disastrous, outcomes.

There is no good form of identity politics. What look to be such (e.g. the various agitations for civil rights, whether for women, African-Americans, indigenous people, same-sex attracted …) have been attempts to gain the benefits of a common status, not a divided and differentiated one. To be judged by the content of one’s character, not some general, differentiated, category. That is true of every emancipation struggle, from the campaigns against slavery onwards.

Intermingling strengthens the case for a common humanity and a common citizenship. Contemporary identity politics do not represent the completion of the processes of celebrating a common humanity, and building a common citizenship, but the overturning of them. Hence contemporary identity politics replicating and adapting past methods for forcing differentiation on intermingled communities. But, then, divide-and-dominate retains its appeal to elites and forcing differentiation has always been very useful for that. As it still is.



Lorenzo M Warby

An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.