Why Do Black People Have So Many Cousins?

Race Manners: People from a variety of backgrounds know the better question just might be, “Why wouldn’t you want to choose your own family?”

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Dear Race Manners:

Why do black people seem to have so many cousins (or call so many people “cousin”)? I’m white. Just wondering! —Curious About Cousins

You’re already beginning to answer your own question by noting that, to the extent that there are racial differences here, they’re likely going to be chalked up to a “call so many people ‘cousin’ ” thing versus a “have so many cousins” thing.

Promoting someone to blood-relative status for reasons independent of biology, marriage or adoption is what social scientists call “fictive kinship.” And for plenty of folks, these “fictive” ties are just as important as “real” ones. The specific type of arrangement under which a non-biologically related person gets bumped up to “cousin” (or a parent’s friend is called “aunt” or “uncle”) is dubbed “nonkin conversion.”

That’s a fancy term for an informal process that comes naturally—and practically—to a lot of people, and has for some time. In one of the earliest and most popular accounts of how it all works, Carol Stack’s 1974 book, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community, chronicled the ways in which poor African Americans in one community got by in part by depending on “cooperative support networks” that included people who weren’t necessarily biologically related.

But is having “fictive kin” (aka “play”) cousins only—or even mostly—a black thing? You’re not the first one to ask. But it’s doubtful.

Yes, kinship has, according to an article on the phenomenon last year in the Globe and Mail, been linked by some ethnographers to West African traditions, while others think it may represent slavery’s residual effect on the family unit.

There’s also a 2013 study indicating that African Americans and Caribbean blacks have more of these types of relationships than non-Hispanic whites. And, anecdotally, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania reports that African immigrants in that state replace absent extended family with “fictive kin,” which it sizes up as “members of the same ethnic or national community who play the role that family would at home.”

No doubt about it: If you look into “fictive kinship,” most of what pops up will be about black people. But when I asked around, I found plenty of evidence to suggest that it can also be found in nonblack families, with all the same patterns and benefits.

One woman reported that on the side of her family with Ecuadoran roots, it worked like this:

Out of a sign of respect, we are mostly asked to call our parents’ friends/social circle tía or tío. (Doña is for the more mature old ladies.) It only stands to reason that all of their kids are our cousins.

I remember being really embarrassed when someone asked me how many siblings my parents had [for me to have] so many cousins, and why were my cousins Puerto Rican if I wasn’t?

And here’s how a Midwesterner with Assyrian heritage explained how he got his bonus cousins—and why:

Assyrians of the last few generations are big on play cousins; it’s a very prevalent social bond.

Although I have something like 50 first and second cousins, I’m closest to my play cousins, and that’s not uncommon.

Part of the reason is that Assyrians in the old countries after the genocides lived in segregated and besieged communities, so community care of kids was essential. Lots of families were also decimated, so [they] had to rely on neighbors for things that extended family would usually do (child care, harvests, repairing chicken coops, defending the churches from marauding gangs, etc.). Our parents tell stories of having neighbors’ parents scold them for wandering into the wrong neighborhood or arguing with the wrong people.

Since your aunts and uncles were either trapped across a border, dead or scattered by Diaspora, families would adopt each other as aunts and uncles, and kids were expected to show them respect and treat them like family.

That followed to America, particularly Chicago, where the community settled in small, dense, working-class neighborhoods where there was not insignificant street violence. Our parents’ friends were introduced to us as aunts and uncles; we had to listen to them, etc., and so their kids were our cousins. 

Wait, so is it that everyone except nonimmigrant white Americans is doing it?