I’ve written before, on several occasions, about solving the problem of racism by strict individualism – a studied refusal to allow what we know about genetic population differences and differing means in measures like IQ to distort our judgment of individuals. The bell curve is not the point; the mass is not the individual. Ancestry is not destiny. Sanity demands that we recognize the difference.
But ancestry may matter after all. I’m going to tell you a personal story now about one of the most powerful moments in my life. I’m not sure what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. But it was certainly interesting to live through.
To understand this story, you have to know at least two things about me. One is about my twenty-year attachment to Asian hand-to-hand martial arts. The other is where my ancestors were from.
I’ve been training in various Asian hand-to-hand styles since 1982, and seriously since 1990. Shotokan, tae kwon do, aikido, wing chun, and the variant jiu jitsu that’s part of MMA. Some bits and pieces of other stuff, too – Japanese sword and staff and naginata, Philippine stick-fighting, the odd move from penjak silat. I’ve been both a student and instructor (and a pretty capable instructor, at that – one of my frustrations is that my teaching ability often exceeds my physical skills). I love this stuff, and I’ve reached the point where I eat new styles like candy. Once I’ve got a decent handle on MMA, krav maga will probably be next.
It wouldn’t be stretching things at all to say that being a martial artist, in the sense loosely defined by the whole mutually-influencing Asian group of hand-to-hand traditions, is an important part of my identity — my own sense of who I am. I have many of the indicia you’d expect with that; I love wu xia movies, I’m attracted to and strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, and I was all excited the first time I went to Japan because it’s the motherland of so many of these hand-to-hand styles.
But I’m not genetically Asian at all. Oh boy am I not. My ancestry is a mix of French, Irish, Scots, and I think mostly – on both sides – Rhinelander Germans. My father’s family hailed from Alsace-Lorraine, probably petty gentry; my mother’s ancestors were Swiss-German burghers from the region of Zurich. My genes are written in my face and build; I’ve been to Zurich, and the locals there thought I looked Swiss-German, and I did notice that I disappeared on those streets. I have blue eyes and pale freckly skin and was blond as a child; other than the odd bit of Amerind that family tradition ascribes, I’m about as white as a white boy can get.
This has never mattered to me much. Most of my impressionable years were spent outside the U.S., so I never acquired any of the American neuroses about race, neither the prejudices nor the guilt. I was a crib bilingual and changed continents (not to say countries) every few years as a child; cosmopolitanism is in my bones. I had to learn adaptability back then, so my level of do-not-care about tribal/ethnic markers like skin color or what language people speak is very high.
My ancestry or “race”, accordingly, is not a central part of my self-definition. Certainly not the way being a martial artist or a hacker is; the former is an accident of birth, the latter two are things I chose and reaffirmed through hard work over many years.
I guess there’s actually a third piece of necessary background: I’m not romantic about swords. I know this because I have lots of friends who are. I can use one competently, thank you, but I learned how in order to extend my general competence as a martial artist rather than from having an attachment to that weapon. Being a swordsman wasn’t a major childhood fantasy for me; in fact, when I saw the classic Errol Flynn movie version of Robin Hood, the part that made me go “I wanna do that!” wasn’t the famous duel with Guy of Gisbourne, it was the quarterstaff fight with Little John.
OK, that’s all the scene-setting. Now for the story…
In 2005 I went to my first sword camp. I got six days of tough, physically and mentally demanding training. How to move. How to strike with a sword. How to parry. How to block with a shield. And at night I had to watch tournaments and battles…passed swordsmen having huge fun that I couldn’t join because I hadn’t passed my Basic qualification yet. It was quite frustrating.
In the training as it was then done, your graduation day ended with a passage ordeal called the Hundred and began with your first fight. That is, your first duel with another student, as opposed to just drilling in moves and fighting techniques. On the word of my instructor, I took up sword and shield, faced my opponent across the duelling ground, and we saluted each other.
Remember the moment in the first Lord of the Rings movie where Aragorn salutes the Witch-King with his sword before fighting him? Like that; a considered gesture of respect to the foe, a mark of chivalry, an affirmation of the warrior’s own honor. And, as I saluted, I had a moment outside time.
Suddenly everything clicked. This was right in a way that, oddly, I’d never quite felt in twenty years of Asian hand-to-hand. I had bowed to an opponent before, of course…but as I brought the sword up to my face in salute I felt as though three thousand years of the shades of my ancestors had suddenly materialized behind me, nodding and smiling and with a great silent shout of “THIS IS WHAT YOU ARE!”. And I remembered that, after all, my ancestors hadn’t been peasants in the Yangtze Valley or the Kanto plain; they were tribesmen in the great forests of Iron Age Europe. And the sword and the shield and I were one.
Five years later, I still don’t know quite what that moment meant or where it come from. Because I’m still not romantic about swords. And what I was left with all those possibly-fictive ghosts had registered their approval wasn’t Aryan pride, it was bemusement. Huh…so my ancestry matters after all. Who knew?