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.
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?
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 email@example.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.
Previously in Race Manners: “Why Is It Such a Spectacle When White Men Can Dance Well?”