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?”
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.
Source: The Root | JENÉE DESMOND-HARRIS