Fraternal twins can look as similar or dissimilar as any other siblings — from features to size and height to hair color. So when they’re born with different skin tones, it’s not really a big deal.
Or at least it shouldn’t be.
But somehow, thanks to the often confusing topic of racial identity, stories like People magazine’s “Biracial Twins Born in Illinois: ‘It’s So Rare’” still make headlines.
“Twins in Quincy, Illinois, are garnering attention and not just because they are super adorable,” People reported Tuesday. “Nine-month-old Kalani inherited her mother Whitney Meyer’s lighter complexion, while twin sister Jarani got her darker complexion from her father, Tomas Dean. Meyer is Caucasian, while Dean is African-American.”
The article goes on to suggest that one twin is black and the other is white. It doesn’t exactly spell that out, but very fact that it’s featured in a magazine along with their mother’s exclamation, “Sure enough they’re biracial twins!” suggests that these twins are “so rare” because their complexions are different enough that they belong to different racial groups.
It's just the most recent in a series of stories of fraternal twins (almost always with one black parent and one white parent) born with such dramatic variations in complexion they're perceived this way. The fascination with each these situations and their accompanying images is a reminder of how fluid and subjective the racial categories we're all familiar with are.
What "black and white twins" can teach us about race: It's not (scientifically) real
Kalani and Jarani, are not the only twins whose tales are sensationalized in the "Black and White Twins: born a minute apart" vein. In reality, these stories are simply overblown reports on siblings who, because of normal genetic variations that show up in more striking ways in their cases, have different complexions. Their difference in skin tone is really quite similar to a set of twins with a pair of blue eyes and a pair of brown eyes, or one with freckles and one without.
But the fascination and excitement about them highlights just how flimsy and open to interpretation the racial categories we use around the world are.
It's a reminder that the racial categories we use are fickle, flexible, open to interpretation, and have just as many exceptions as they do rules when it comes to their criteria for membership.
Racial classifications didn't always exist. Of course, there were always people in different parts of the world who had some physical traits in common, but they weren't forced into rigid categories. Discrimination and stereotypes existed, but they were based on country of origin, religion, or culture, not so-called scientific distinctions.
With the 1776 edition of his book On the Natural Variety of Mankind, German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is credited with creating one of the first race-based classifications. He decided on five categories: "Caucasian, the white race; Mongolian, the yellow race; Malayan, the brown race, Ethiopian, the black race, and American, the red race."
Those are pretty rough categories, and they’ve changed over time, often for political reasons. And they still vary from place to place, depending on cultural perspectives. That helps explain why many people’s racial identity matches their siblings’ and also lines up perfectly with how the world sees them. But those whose racial identity is more complicated provide dramatic reminders that racial categories were created by humans, not biology, and not all humans agree with the exact criteria for membership. Racial classification is not at all an exact science.
Another recent example was the 2015 profile of Lucy and Maria Aylmer, whom the New York Post called a “set of biracial twins in the UK who are turning heads because one is black and the other is white." The then-18-year-olds’ father identifies as white, and their mother is "half-Jamaican" (and, we're to assume, identifies as black). The Post described the Aylmer twins as "biracial," and also said in the very same sentence that one is white and the other is black. The fact that the two, despite having the same parents, did indeed think of themselves as belonging to two different racial groups ("I am white and Maria is black," Lucy told the Post) proves there's a lot more than biology or heritage informing racial identity.
So do the races of your parents decide if you’re black or white, or is it your looks? The way Kalani, Jarani, Maria, and Lucy are seen and categorized will depend on who’s doing the categorizing. And, hard as it may be to believe, there are no objective tests (even ancestry tests don’t come with a rule for exactly how much African ancestry makes a person “black”) to decide who’s right.
Race might not be “real,” but that doesn't mean it’s not important
Of course, none of this changes the fact that the concept of race is hugely important in our lives, in the United States, in the UK where the older set of twins live, and around the world.
There's no question that the way people categorize Kalani and Jarani, and the way they think of themselves, will affect their lives.
That's because even though race is highly subjective, racism and discrimination based on what people believe about race are very real. The racial categories to which we're assigned, based on how we look to others or how we identify, can determine real-life experiences, inspire hate, drive political outcomes, and make the difference between life and death.
But it's still important to remember that these consequences are the result of human-created racial categories that are based on shaky reasoning and shady motivations — like attempting to justify slavery. This makes the borders of the various groups impossible to pin down and renders modern debates about how particular people should identify futile.
Whether People readers think these two babies actually belong in different racial categories or not is a pretty low-stakes debate. But in a world where lazy, uncritical thinking about race — from the confusion about how to characterize President Obama that followed him throughout his term to Donald Trump’s regular conflation of black people with “inner city” residents to his assaults on Mexican immigrants as rapists — is an epidemic, it’s worth taking the time to think about the labels we apply and why.