My PhD research looks at genetic ancestry testing and genealogical practices in different post-slavery societies, and how these phenomena are influencing our notions of personal identity and human kinship and difference.
As a mini-experiment, I have roped five friends into taking DNA ancestry tests with me. We are from different national and cultural backgrounds, aged between 25-35 years old, and we are all awaiting our autosomal test results. I have asked each person to describe their expectations and hopes regarding their genetic test results, with the aim of highlighting the ways in which our national and cultural backgrounds – as well as our physical appearances – prime our ideas about what our likely or desired ancestral origins might be.
Sarah, born and raised in the East Midlands, England
What are your expectations regarding your genetic ancestry test result?
I’m anticipating seeing one long, monotonous block of colour: European. Three of my grandparents were born in England, and the fourth was born in Poland and fled the country as a young man, during the Second World War. Contrary to the popular belief among Americans, not all Europeans know that much about their recent ancestry, although this is probably mainly down to a lack of interest. I, for one, know practically nothing about my great-grandparents, although I heard recently that one of them was Scottish. I’m highly doubtful that a genetic test would be able to distinguish between different regions within the British Isles, so I don’t expect to get any extra information about the specific origins of my recent ancestors. Britain has had longstanding links with other parts of northern and western Europe, so I’m sure some Scandinavian and Germanic markers will come up, and this might account for my blonde hair and blue eyes (the rest of my immediate family are brunettes). This would be borne out by my surname as well, which I recently discovered is of German origin – although when I travel abroad, people tend to assume it’s Jewish.
What would be your ideal genetic ancestry test result?
To be honest, I find it difficult to get overly excited about my result, as it seems fairly unlikely to me that it would show anything much aside from a great swathe of northern European markers. As is usually the case, the part of my ancestry that most interests me is the part that I have least chances of finding out about: my grandfather’s roots in Poland. Who knows, his family could have migrated from further east or south: the Urals or the Balkans, perhaps. Or maybe I will discover some ‘Ashkenazi Jewish’ markers – that would raise some interesting questions.
I have to admit I don’t feel any spiritual or ‘genetic’ connection to any particular part of the world; rather, I prefer to think that our identity is constantly being shaped and influenced by the way we are raised; the friendships we make; and the experiences we gather over the course of a lifetime. In my opinion, the really interesting part of researching your ancestry is finding out more about how your ancestors lived; who they fell in love with; and what they made of their circumstances. And a genetic test can’t tell me that.
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