A young man from the marshes, name of Pip, has unexpectedly and from some unnamed source come into “great expectations,” so he makes his way to London to acquire some modest education fit for the gentleman that he is to be. There he meets his tutor, Mr. Pocket, and his wife, Mrs. Pocket. They have quite a few children, who are not brought up, but rather “tumbled up,” because Mrs. Pocket cannot be bothered to attend to them. She is always absorbed in a book about the English peerage.
“I found out within a few hours,” says Pip, “that Mrs. Pocket was the only daughter of a certain quite accidental deceased Knight, who had invented for himself a conviction that his deceased father would have been made a Baronet but for somebody’s determined opposition arising out of entirely personal motives—the Sovereign’s, the Prime Minister’s, the Lord Chancellor’s, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s, anybody’s—and had tacked himself on to the nobles of the earth in right of this quite supposititious fact.” And so she grew up “as one who in the nature of things must marry a title, and who has to be guarded from the acquisition of plebeian domestic knowledge.”
Such is the magic of the right kind of blood. Mrs. Pocket would have been at home among the genealogical precisians of the old American South, sorting people into correct divisions according to the percentage of negro or native blood in their veins, quadroons or octoroons as the case might be. In Sewanee, that bit of Creole might disqualify you for entry into the University of the South. I don’t know. In America today, a family legend that a thrice-great-uncle was or may have been part cigar store Indian wins you some points for enrollment at Harvard.
Ms. Pocket, and her allies Ms. Paqit, Ms. Phakat, and Ms. Octavia-Pequeta, might also be at home in the United States Congress. Donald Trump has suggested, in his boorish way, that the four self-designated members of “the squad,” newly elected congresswomen whose attitude toward the United States seems to range from contempt to hatred, should go back to the countries whence they came, fix them, and return to show us how it is done. I will not comment on the specifics of their quarrel. I note only that the president has been criticized for attacking “women of color.”
For the life of me, I do not know what that designation means. It cannot denote race—whatever that means. One of the women is African American. Two are Semitic Caucasians, and one is an Iberian Caucasian. Does it denote color in the old sense, the melanin content in the skin? Is that how low we have sunk?
I want to know specifically what the hues are on the new color wheel. A married couple emigrate from Spain to Mexico, and their children emigrate to the United States. Do they count as people of color? What about people who come to New York from Madrid without a stop at Guadalajara? Do they count?
A Spanish man marries a woman in Cuba whose grandfather was part Seminole. Do their children count? What about my friend in Cape Breton, a French Canadian who has a Mikmak ancestor? Does he count? What about his children?
The French and the native Indians often intermarried, ever since the early conversion of the great sachem Membertou to Christianity. Do French Canadians in general count, then? Or is Spain more colorful than France? Or perhaps darker-skinned Indians count more than do the lighter-skinned Indians of the north?
Do Portuguese Catholics from Lisbon count, if they have dark complexions and some Moorish blood? Do Portuguese Catholics from São Paulo count, if they have light complexions and no Guarani blood? What of the Moors and people from the Maghreb? Does a Berber with red hair count? Berbers speak a language that is neither Indo-European nor Semitic, though they are mostly Muslim in religion and Caucasian in physical features.
What about Iranians? Do they count? They speak a language that is Indo-European, and though they are also mostly Muslim, they come from a people as ancient as the Greeks—from a people who intermarried with those Greeks, and with Assyrians, Medes, Lydians, Hebrews, and many others. Would the last shah of Iran count?
Do Jews in Israel count? They are Semitic, like the Arabs, and speak a Semitic language, like the Copts and the Somalis. Do they not count if their skin is too light?
Do Turks count? They are Caucasian in appearance, but they come from eastern and central Asia, and their language, like that of the Berbers, is neither Indo-European nor Semitic. I am darker skinned than most Turks. Do Armenians count? They too are darker than the Turks, but they are largely Christian, and they do speak a language in the Indo-European family. Do Armenians win an extra point because they were the victims of a genocidal massacre perpetrated by the Turks?
Do Cossacks count—or rather Kazakhs? If they come from Kazakhstan, does that count for more than if they come from Moscow or Warsaw? If the Kazakh blood has been long mingled with Slavic blood, will it be too diluted to count? Do any Russians count? Do Russians count if they come from the far east and have Mongol blood? Does the mayor of Irkutsk count? Where do Laplanders fall, with some Mongol blood and mixed Mongol and European features?
Does a dark Caucasian from the Punjab count? If he speaks Bengali and reads Sanskrit, languages both related to English, and he is a Roman Catholic, does that count for less than if he were a Jain or a Sikh? The Maltese are Roman Catholic, situated between Europe and Africa, speaking an African language written in the Roman alphabet. Do they count? Would their shade be darker if they wrote in Arabic cursive? If they were Muslim?
I would lay $1,000 even money that you cannot tell a Maltese man from a Sicilian. In fact, you would be hard put to tell a Tunisian from a Sicilian. Do Sicilians count? Someone of Southern Italian heritage, as I am, no doubt has blood in his veins that comes from every group that invaded the island over the centuries: French, Spanish, Viking, Albanian, Greek, and Moorish. Are we “white”? What about the Ainu from the northernmost island of Japan?
At which a sane person would throw up his hands in despair and cry out, “What is all this nonsense for?”
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