Race and identity in many ways define who we think we are, while modern genetics can challenge those notions. To delve into these issues, I am involved with a communications studies project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania that explores narratives at the intersection of race and identity.
For the last decade, I have invited hundreds of people to be part of ancestry DNA tests. But first I ask people how they identify themselves racially. It has been very interesting to explore their feelings about the differences between how they define themselves and what their DNA makeup shows when the test results come in.
Biologically, our ancestral differences reflect only a 0.1 percent difference in DNA. Yet we often cling to those differences — both in unity with our fellow people of origin and, at times, in divisiveness.
Over all, the experiment has provided a special opportunity to explore the lines of race. I found that as human beings, our strategies for survival are the same, and our similarities far outweigh our differences.
Not surprising, some volunteers came up with stereotypes like “I thought my biological father might be black; I heard he liked basketball,” or “Wow, a little Asian; that’s why my son is good at math!” Some had hoped the DNA tests would allow them to challenge prejudices in their own families.
But inside each comment was a longing to find out more. And a long-term, ever-deepening conversation began.
What started out as a curiosity turned into a study. My colleague Bessie Lee Lawton and I began our collaboration in 2012, and a more rigorous protocol was established. Statistical analysis was done to look for patterns not easily gleaned from individual stories.
Speaking in generalities, we found that women were more flexible about their racial identity than men; that people of color expected diversity in their backgrounds more than people of European ancestry; and that younger people were more open to diversity than older ones. People of European background tended to have more anxiety, before and after the test.
Keep in mind that analyzing a person’s ancestry through DNA, means looking back hundreds of years. People receive only half of their DNA from each parent, and therefore the race or identity of either parent may be too diluted to show up in these tests.
As a black girl growing up in the 1960s, I often felt race undermined me. I was expected to love Motown, but not ballet. I was praised for speaking standard English, but my interest in the sciences was never appreciated and certainly not cultivated. Random doors opened; others closed.
It took me 10 years before I tested myself. What I found both confirmed and shook my perspective. My background included African heritage from the Gold Coast, including Nigeria and Ghana, intermingled with British and Scandinavian. I suspect this reflects the impact of the brutal Viking Age and later the English in the slave trade.
I have a smattering of Asian genes, most likely from indigenous Americans crossing the Bering Strait. For Americans, about 4 percent of our ancestry traced to Asia may actually reflect Native American roots.
However, my grandfather shared with me years ago that in his birthplace of Mobile, Ala., his earliest memories were of Chinese merchants living alongside poor black folks like him. So who knows?
Today I look at faces, even my own, with new recognition. I see that people regularly share narratives that miss something their physical features suggest, and sometimes we find ancestry that we would not have imagined. It is a new twist on an old narrative made possible by cutting-edge science.
The conversation is complicated and jagged, and it mercifully undermines neat, simplistic stories.
Over the last 11 years, more than 2,000 people have taken part in our DNA ancestry project. Be;low are the stories from a handful of them.
— Anita Foeman, professor of communications studies
Have you had your DNA tested to find your ancestry? If so, did you find anything surprising or intriguing? Share your thoughts with us by email to email@example.com
Identifies as: African-American
Results: 78% African, 17% European, 2% Asian, 2% West Asian, 1% Pacific Islander
Thoughts about her ancestry results: When I questioned my Aunt Morra when there was no Native American in my profile, she said, “Oh honey, we just thought that was a nice story to tell, especially since we have such nice high cheekbone structure.”
Identifies as: White
Results: 99% European, 1% Middle Eastern
Thoughts about his ancestry results: Since coming to college I have seen so many new people, had new experiences. Finding some Middle Eastern in my background was one of them. That fact caught my mother off guard.
Identifies as: Black; father is black and mother is white
Results: 91% European, 5% Middle Eastern, 2% Hispanic; less than 1% African and Asian
Thoughts about his ancestry results: What are you trying to do to me? You have caused a lot of problems in my family. I know my nose is sharp and my skin is light, but my politics are as black as night. Today, I don’t identify as mixed. I reject my white privilege in a racist America. There is no way that I or my kids will identify as anything other than black.
Identifies as: Multiracial (black and white)
Results: 48% African, 37% European, 14% Native American, 1% Other
Author’s note: Erica was tested twice. The first time, results from the lab came back as predominantly Latina, which does not reflect a single geographic region. She protested that characterization so vehemently that we asked for a rerun based on strictly geographic lines. Her profile then came back as above, which she described as “correct.”
Identifies as: Indian
Results: 93% Asian, 7% Pacific Islander
Thoughts about his ancestry results: I believe that we can all trace our roots back to Africa. I believe in being a citizen of the world, and we humans are all connected by flesh and blood.
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