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Remember That You Are Probably Not 100% Any Single Ethnicity

16/11/2016 16:39
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Recently, a debate on Danish national TV sparked controversy when Martin Henriksen, a member of Parliament for the far-right Danish People's Party, and an 18-year-old half-Iranian, half-Danish high school student, Jens Philip Yazdani, were talking. Mr. Yazdani asserted his Danish identity as someone born and bred in Denmark, and Martin Henriksen interrupted him with: "This is not how one becomes Danish. [...] One can't say that just because one brings the whole world to Denmark [...] and they then get some children, that those children become Danish. This is a simplification of the debate, and one that is insulting to those generations that have built this land" (Excerpted from here).

Without delving into the politics of asserting that immigrants can never, according to Martin Henriksen's interruption, become Danish, or the fact that Mr. Yazdani himself is half-Danish, having an Iranian father and Danish mother, what struck me first was the sheer ludicrousness of making such a statement, and in Denmark at that.

Denmark, like all the Scandinavian countries, has a proud Viking heritage. And what is one of the main things Vikings were famous for? Travelling to and settling in foreign lands. Everyone here knows about Vikings coming to the British Isles. But the Vikings went much further: they arrived in America centuries before Christopher Columbus did, and went as far south as North Africa too. They travelled well beyond Europe. And everywhere they went, they mixed with the native people. Not only with Celts and Anglo-Saxons, but also with Native Americans, Berbers of North Africa, and countless others. The politics of denying that immigrants can assimilate aside, is Martin Henriksen forgetting his own ancestors' legacy?

Not only the Vikings, but the majority of ancient and historic peoples travelled and mixed with others. As the French-born American Jewish literary critic, essayist, philosopher, novelist and educator George Steiner wrote:

Nationalism is the venom of our age. It has brought Europe to the edge of ruin. It drives the new states of Asia and Africa like crazed lemmings. By proclaiming himself a Ghanaian, a Nicaraguan, a Maltese, a man spares himself vexation. He need not ravel out what he is, where his humanity lies. He becomes one of an armed, coherent pack. Every mob impulse in modern politics, every totalitarian design, feeds on nationalism, on the drug of hatred which makes human beings bare their teeth across a wall, across ten yards of waste ground. Even if it be against his harried will, his weariness, the Jew - or some Jews, at least - may have an exemplary role. To show that where trees have roots, men have legs and are each other's guests. If the potential of civilization is not to be destroyed, we shall have to develop more complex, more provisional loyalties. There are, as Socrates taught, necessary treasons to make the city freer and more open to man. Even a Great Society is a bounded, transient thing compared to the free play of the mind and the anarchic discipline of its dreams.

(From George Steiner, 'A Kind of Survivor' [pp.132-3], 1965.)

Indeed, what many nationalists, racists and xenophobes forget is that humans have legs and travel. Your ancestors have not stayed in the same place since the beginning of time. You are most likely not 100% British. You are probably not 100% anything. And that's the beauty of genealogy and indeed of humanity: to be a mixture of more than one ethnicity, to be related even very distantly to someone in another country or on the other side of the world. So unless you are from a tribe in the Amazon that has had no contact with outsiders until now, you are most certainly not 100% one ethnicity. And that is wonderful.

So when politicians like Denmark's Martin Henriksen, or closer to home, the former British National Party leader Nick Griffin, say that certain ethnicities "can't be Danish/British", what would really be the answer is to make them take DNA tests themselves, to realise that they are not 100% anything either.

I myself took an ancestry DNA test a few years ago, and it confirmed what I already knew: my ancestors were from the Caucasus and the Levant, which makes sense since I have Iranian, Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Jewish and perhaps also Arab heritage.

Though my own ancestry DNA test results didn't surprise me since I'm interested in genealogy, many people were surprised to find out that they have ancestry from the very ethnicities and cultures that they fear and dislike the most. I believe that everybody should take an ancestry DNA test because it's good to know that your ancestors were as diverse as the stars in the sky. And that group you fear the most? Your great-great-great-great grandfather may well have been one of them.

As an Iranian woman, what makes no sense to me is the anti-Arabism many Iranians display. From frustration about the current Iranian regime and the political Islam of the state, some Iranians have gone as far as deleting Arabic vocabulary from their Persian language (which is like taking out all of the Norman/Latin-origin words out of English: almost impossible. Even on an alphabetical level, just as we use the Latin alphabet for English, the modern Persian alphabet is borrowed from Arabic) and have anti-Arab views, proudly reminding everyone that "Persians are not Arabs". But what they do not realise is that when the Arab invaders came to Persia, they obviously mixed with the native people just as Viking and Anglo-Saxon invaders mixed with Celts in the British Isles. Most Iranians probably have some Arab heritage somewhere down the line.

Equally, as a British woman, I find it ludicrous that certain far-right politicians can tell people like me that we're "not British" simply because of our heritage or ethnicity. If I am not British, well, then neither are you.

This realisation that we are all, as humans, related and one and the same, is especially important in today's cold political climate where far-right nationalist political sentiments and groups are on the rise, where refugees are hated and seen as "them", as people coming into "our" country, because we are superior just for the fact that we were born where we were born and not in, for example, Syria. Today more than ever is it important to realise that your nation is not a monolith, that you are not 100% any ethnicity and that your ancestors, too, were almost certainly once immigrants.

Whether you hate foreigners or not, doesn't mean that your ancestors didn't travel around and reproduce with people from other ethnicities, and thus your ancestors themselves were at one point immigrants too, and you are a mix of many heritages. Rather than looking at this fact with fear, it should be recognised as what it really is: a beautiful thing.

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