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WHEN AMANDA WANKLIN and Michael Biggs fell in love, they “didn’t give a toss” about the challenges they might face as a biracial couple, Amanda says. “What was more important was what we wanted together.”
They settled down in Birmingham, England, eager to start a family. On July 3, 2006, Amanda gave birth to fraternal twin girls, and the ecstatic parents gave their daughters intertwined names: One would be Millie Marcia Madge Biggs, the other Marcia Millie Madge Biggs.
From a young age the girls had similar features but very different color schemes. Marcia had light brown hair and fair skin like her English-born mother. Millie had black hair and brown skin like her father, who’s of Jamaican descent. “We never worried about it; we just accepted it,” Michael says.
“When they were first born,” Amanda recalls, “I would be pushing them in the pram, and people would look at me and then look at my one daughter and then look at my other daughter. And then I’d get asked the question: ‘Are they twins?’”
“‘But one’s white and one’s black.’”
“Yes. It’s genes.”
People who commented on the girls weren’t openly hostile or judgmental—just very curious, Amanda says. And then “as time went on, people just saw the beauty in them.”
Amanda, who works as a home-care aide, calls Millie and Marcia her “one in a million” miracle. But it’s not that rare that a biracial couple would have fraternal twins who each look more like one parent than the other, says statistical geneticist Alicia Martin.
Fraternal twins account for about one in 100 births. When a biracial couple has fraternal twins, the traits that emerge in each child depend on numerous variables, including “where the parents’ ancestors are from and complex pigment genetics,” says Martin, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
And research on skin color is further complicated by a history of “study biases that mean we know more about what makes lighter skin light than what makes darker skin dark,” she says.
In genetic terms, skin color “is not a binary trait” with only two possibilities, Martin notes. “It’s a quantitative trait, and everyone has some gradient on this spectrum.”
Historically, when humans have drawn lines of identity—separating Us from Them—they’ve often relied on skin color as a proxy for race. But the 21st-century understanding of human genetics tells us that the whole idea of race is a human invention.
Modern science confirms “that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history”—the result of mutations, migrations, natural selection, the isolation of some populations, and interbreeding among others, writes science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. They are not racial differences because the very concept of race—to quote DNA-sequencing pioneer Craig Venter—“has no genetic or scientific basis.”
And yet 50 years after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., racial identity has reemerged as a fundamental dividing line in our world.
We’re devoting the April issue of National Geographic to the complicated issue of race.
The Race Issue includes a story about how scientific ideas of race originated, a letter from our editor exploring National Geographic’s own checkered history on race, and a video-driven feature documenting the phenomenon of black men getting stopped by police while driving.
This month’s issue is just a starting point. We’re doing stories on the evolving identities of key ethnic, religious, and racial groups throughout 2018.