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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The answer to that is hard to pin down, too. According to a study by Margaret K. Nelson in the Journal of Family Theory & Review, some researchers have grappled with the possibility that fictive kinship among whites “has become rare with remnants only among the working classes within religious communities … or in isolated rural areas.” But that’s far from clear. 

Further complicating the issue are Nelson’s findings that, for whatever reason, researchers tend to use the term “fictive kinship” much more when they’re specifically focusing on black subjects than when they aren’t. In studies of gay communities, for example, we hear “the family we choose” for the same types of arrangements. That makes comparing the data among different racial groups tough.

There is more consensus around the idea that the types of faux-familial relationships that come with the volunteered “cousin” label have a lot of perks. They “broaden mutual support networks, create a sense of community and enhance social control.”

There’s even a case to be made that picking and naming one’s own extended family makes more sense all the time. As the 2013 Globe and Mail article on the topic predicted, “People are living longer and families are stretched geographically, so we are more likely to embrace substitutes and additions to fill familial rosters.”

So maybe a better question than “Why do black people have so many cousins?” is “Why do you have so few?”

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.

Previously in Race Manners: “Why Is It Such a Spectacle When White Men Can Dance Well?