Ideas about people, nations and ethnicities determine whether we build bridges or walls. For instance, in 2022, we have different ideas about Ukraine as a nation. This discussion about cultural and ethnic differences is about ideas, about DNA analysis, perspectives on cultural difference, and ways of thinking.

DNA analysis

Henry Louis Gates Jr, a leading African American scholar at Harvard, devotes his life to studying African American literature and culture. Recently he did a DNA analysis and found he is also of European ancestry, including Irish. A friend joked: “who would have guessed that a Black scholar who has spent so much of his professional life searching for his long-veiled African ancestry would finally find it—only to discover that he’s half a white man.”1 Members of the far-right Stormfront, the oldest white supremacy group in the US, who took DNA tests to find confirmation of their ‘whiteness,’ were upset with their results and then argued that the tests were ‘rigged’ to ‘spread multiculturalism’ and that the non-European findings were merely ‘noise DNA’.2 Rather than changing their racial purity worldview, they sought recourse in conspiracy theories such as that DNA tests are a tool of the ‘Zionist Occupied Government’.3

Gates notes that DNA analysis changes the language in which we understand race or ethnicity. Genetic analysis upends 19th century categories of race, color, ethnicity, nation and geography and provides us not just with new data but also with new perspectives.

“Japanese may not like hearing that they share 80 percent of their DNA with Koreans,” yet archeological findings show the diverse origins of Japan’s population from Southeast Asia, southern China, Northeast Asia, Siberia and Mongol backgrounds.4 National cultures are collages of many influences. Migrants and diasporas have contributed much, usually unacknowledged, of what is attributed to nations. Just like national cultures are collages of many influences, so are we ourselves. And likewise we usually don’t acknowledge our mixed, mélange character. We’re not just our upfront identity, what it says on the label, but also subliminal undercurrents and identities. At times this is part of family lore. Or it is expressed in names. Edward Said implies an Arabic lineage and an Anglo outlook. He studied English literature and later turned to comparative literature. Kwame Anthony Appiah combines Fante/Ashanti names and an Anglo name. In effect, multiethnicity is ordinary and is often acknowledged.

For research I did DNA analysis with three companies to see whether they concur and whether they match family records; the answer to both questions is yes. I found out that I descend from 42 ethnic groups from across the world over a period of 250 years or so, 1630-1870. Also I am touched and inspired by all the places I have traveled to, worked in and carry memories of. Multiethnicity isn’t outside us: DNA analysis shows that multiethnicity is within us. Hence, respect for ethnic and cultural diversity actually follows from self-knowledge. Respect for other ethnicities is a courtesy we owe to ourselves. Respect for multiethnicity is a matter of self-respect.

DNA analysis also unsettles geographical categories—categories that bear the imprint of a time period. Research shows that European gene pools are half Asian, from steppe herders from the Black Sea to the Urals and Altai mountains who went west. Farmers in Europe did not simply evolve from hunters and gatherers in the same region; nomadic herders from the Asian steppes contributed about half the genes of North European and British skeletons beginning around 5,000 years ago. Sheep and cattle herders who fanned out from the steppes northeast of the Black Sea and Ukraine into Europe are also the likely explanation for the common origin of languages from Irish to Sanskrit: “Indo-European languages probably originated in the steppes just two millennia before the Christian era.”5 If we widen our angle further and think not just in terms of history but in terms of evolution, there, too, is Africa. Didn’t Picasso say that African art is the true classical art?


How is this kind of information received, processed and communicated? How information is processed depends on our perspective. In relation to cultural difference and globalization and culture, three major models stand out.

First is convergence — the idea that all cultural difference issues stem from and lead back to a central civilizational source or destination, be it ancient Egypt (a common assumption in the 19th century), or ‘all roads lead to Rome’ (the empire or the Roman Catholic church). A universalism that is symbolized and represented over and over, in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers (Piazza Navona, Rome), in the Adoration of the Magi, and the Three Kings worshipping the Christ child, a favorite theme in 14th century paintings. Convergence thinking updates ideas that all societies will eventually converge on a single religion, a civilizational or imperial center (Egypt, China, Persia, Greece, Rome); on science and progress; on modernization and industrialism (during the cold war); on liberal democracy (The End of History) and the Washington consensus (during the 1990s).

A second major view is that cultural differences stem from fundamental cleavages and divisions and will never return to cleavages, as in Homer on the barbarians, non-Greek speakers, Rudyard Kipling’s “East is East and West is West and ne’er the twain shall meet”, the barbarians at the gate, an apocalypse of Balkanization awaits us, the clash of civilizations, ‘the jungle grows back’. Differences are fundamental and lasting, and conflict is inevitable.

The third paradigm is blending, mixing and history as a cocktail mixer. There are many kinds of blending, such as geographical osmosis (sauerkraut on one side of the Rhine, choucroute on another), the South in the North (North Africans and Middle Easterners in Europe; South Americans in North America), postcolonial blending (Caribbeans, South Asians, Anglophone Africans in the UK, Indonesians and Surinamese in the Netherlands, Zairians in Belgium, Vietnamese in France), fashion blending such as ‘ethnic chic’, and world music.

Thus, three perspectives on cultural difference are cultural convergence or growing sameness, cultural differentialism or lasting difference, and cultural hybridization or ongoing mixing. These perspectives coexist, intermingle and also generate dramatically different scenarios of globalization. Convergence leads to globalization as westernization or Americanization, cultural standardization in the global sweep of McDonaldization, Disneyfication, Barbiefication, ‘Coca Colonization’, the gradual fulfillment of classic modernization theses — which ignores oriental globalization, Easternization and the ongoing Asian turn.

Differentialism yields the idea that globalization is superficial only: the real dynamic is regionalization, the formation of regional blocs, which correspond with civilizational clusters, so the future of globalization is regional rivalry, clash of civilizations and clash of capitalisms. This ignores overarching trends such as tech interweaving, international institutions, finance, transnational corporations and corporate tie-ups. The mixing perspective views globalization as hybridization processes across locations, institutions and identities — e.g. Netflix is decentralized. Globalization processes, past and present, are open-ended and as much processes of Easternization as westernization and many interstitial influences. Each of these views has followers in different cultures and settings.

A handicap in dealing with cultural and ethnic differences is the kind of categories we habitually use. One hurdle is aggregate categories, jumbo concepts such as nationalism, democracy, race, capitalism, without refinement — what kind of nationalism, inward looking or outward looking; what kind of capitalism, high-exploitation plantation economy capitalism or social market capitalism? Another problem is binary thinking — democracy versus authoritarianism, capitalism versus communism; so rejection of one practically entails the full embrace of the other, regardless of its variants. A further question is context — meanings are usually context-dependent. Contexts vary widely across cultural settings, which can yield misunderstandings, and contexts can change fast, as in the difference between February 23rd and February 24th, 2022.

Identity is of different stripes — ascribed identity, French or German, Dalit or Brahmin. Achieved identity — a professional degree or status. Aspirational identity. Fantasy identity. Instagram identity.

If we turn back to DNA on a philosophical wavelength, striking is that our collective history involves commonality in origins, deep in time, and compartmentalizations of identity over time. Ethnic and national antagonisms are both fateful and temporary. Ethnic, religious and national demarcations germinate, rise, peak, change and then fade over time. Compartmentalizations of our collective life are of all times; they are both fateful attunements to specific space-time configurations and provisional ad-hoc arrangements. Nest building and belonging are context bound; they belong to specific time-space configurations. Self-other and master-slave relationships — that loom so large in our awareness, past and present — no matter their temporary sway, are of limited duration. Stretch the context, in space, as travel and migration do, and identity transforms and widens. Stretch the context in space and time, as DNA analysis does, and identity widens and becomes more fluid and porous.


1 Gates Jr, H. R. and A. Curran, DNA provides a new language to talk about race, New York Times, March 6, 2022.
2 Padawer, R., Decoding the story of yourself, New York Times Magazine, November 18, 2018: 2-11.
3 Ebner, Julia 2020 Going dark: The secret social lives of extremists. London, Bloomsbury.
4 Reich, David, ‘Race’ in the age of modern genetics, New York Times, March 25 2018.
5 Mann, C. C., A family portrait for all humanity, Wall Street Journal, November 4-5, 2017.