On this weblog a few months ago Zach Latif mentioned that he worried about individuals transforming conventional South Asian constructs of racial/ethnic/caste hierarchy and making them even more concrete by using frameworks such as “Ancestral North Indian” vs. “Ancestral South Indian.” Thanks to the release of the Reich et al. data set, now that can be done. Dienekes has posted a plot of South Asian ancestral components (I am DOD075). Light green is ANI, and dark green ASI (light blue is East Eurasian, and dark blue is African):
I like genomics because it makes concrete the terms of debate of racial/ethnic superiority which are implicit. As someone raised in areas with very few South Asians I’ve been pretty insulated from this sort of stuff, at least in the brown context (I am more familiar with people who are proud of their Mayflower ancestry than their Brahmin ancestry). Only by knowing brown people in my adulthood and reading weblogs like Sepia Mutiny have I been able to read between the lines in terms of rank order of value. Here are some observations I’ve made (I am not sure of the generality of such observations). I’m skipping over the South Asian obsession with “fair skin,” since that’s self-evident and requires no deeper inquiry.
- There is a graded hierarchy from Punjabis to Malayalis/Tamils of racial worth. I infer this by the fact that I’ve noted multiple times individuals from Andhra Pradesh distinguishing themselves from “Madrasis.” These individuals will sometimes assert in contravention of scholarly consensus that Telugu is not a Dravidian language, but an Indo-Aryan one.
- There is a secondary axis of value, top to bottom, from Punjabis to Bengalis, west-to-east. I infer this from the fact that I had a conversation with a woman who had married a Bengali man, who was quite clear that his family were not indigenous Bengalis, but rather originally from Rajasthan. The woman was of European American descent, and didn’t seem to place any value judgement on this, but it was quite clear that this centuries-old migration was very important to the family. This assertion of western ancestry/origin is one I’ve heard from many Bengalis. It is probably rooted in part on truth, but in part on attempts to distance oneself from the short dark-skinned Bengali peasant (the mass rapes of Bengali women by the Paksitani army was justified in some quarters as improving blood stock. A narrative which I note has reemerged in Darfur).
- Punjabis, Sindhis, etc., are quite clear that other peoples of the subcontinent are ugly, with ugliness proportional to distance from their own physical type. Other peoples of the subcontinent generally accede to this framework. I have seen many times people who are not northwest Indian recount that people have confused them for northwest Indians (which they’re quite happy about). I have never seen a Punjabi note that someone thought they were South Indian. From omission one can infer much.
- South Asians value a physical type as the aesthetic ideal which is actually typical for Iran, and not even Pakistan. For this reason I have stated that brown folk perceive ourselves to be an “ugly race,” since our typical deep brown skin, somewhat broader features and thicker lips, are seen as less than ideal.
- Brown people have an obsession with ancestry from the northwest. Muslims will prioritize Arabs and Persians. But even Hindus (e.g., Kashmiris, Kamboj, etc.) will allude to Persian ancestry (presumably pre-Islamic in this case). Groups such as the Chitpavan Brahmins, Jatts, and Nasrani Christians, will also suggest Near Eastern or Central Asian antecedents (i.e., Jews and Scythians). In contrast, there is generally total amnesia about eastern ancestry, which is relatively common in the Indian northeast, as well as trace but detectable levels of African ancestry in much of Pakistan.
- Brown people also have an obsession with caste, especially being “high caste.” If your caste of origin isn’t indisputably high caste, you recreate it as high caste (e.g., Kayasthas). Non-Hindus also take pride in high caste ancestry, multiple Nasrani Christians have told me that they are descended from Brahmin converts. I express some curiosity as to this datum, because their natural increase must be high indeed, as Kerala today has ten times as many Christians as Brahmins!
I’m open to disputes about these impressions, or elaborations. I tried to broach this general topic several times at Talk Islam, but it never got anywhere, probably because of lack of brown critical mass. I note a contrast between the Han Chinese, who take definitive pride in being autochthons, to the point where Han with clear non-Han ancestry will not acknowledge it (e.g., “Ma” is a Chinese Muslim surname, and there are a significant number of people with that surname, or variants of it, in the Han population, so clearly it indicates some descent from Chinese Muslims, ergo, Central Asians). In contrast, South Asians have a tendency to shouting from the roof tops a sliver of Arab or Persian ancestry.
Genomics will make concrete the hierarchies, and therefore I hope, challenge people’s perception of their validity. That’s a normative preference, not one that I think will necessarily describe reality. I am an individual with minimal group pride, so my own results have pretty much zero impact on my own self-worth, positively or negatively. But the reality that I have so much “eastern” ancestry which my family was unaware of did raise my own consciousness as to the blank spots in our Bengali ethno-cultural creation narrative.