Back in March, I started a DNA experiment with five friends. I invited each of them to take a genetic ‘ancestry’ test – something that most of them had barely heard of, let alone thought about doing. After sending off their swab or spit sample, I asked each person to describe their expectations regarding their results: What did they expect or hope to find out? What would their ideal result be, based on their own family history, physical appearance and cultural background?
Over the course of the next three months, each of them received their results, provided by different US-based testing companies. After having some time to reflect upon those results, they have each agreed for me to post their reactions to their genomic data, and their thoughts on how they might (or might not) influence their lives and notions of identity. This mini-experiment is inspired by my own PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local conceptions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.
Evlondo, born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana
I was very excited and anxious when I received my results. Although I understood that they would only paint a general picture of my ancestral background, I was happy the test affirmed basic assumptions I made about my family history.
I discussed my results with my immediate family and a few friends. Surprisingly, my family’s response was muted, with mostly “Good for you” platitudes. Although my friends were happy for me, only a few seemed willing to take the plunge as well or engage me in a larger discussion.
The Scandinavian markers immediately caught my attention. Believing that I was descended from the Cherokee Tribe (Native American/Indian), the European origins seemed odd. However, after remembering a few rudimentary facts from my Earth Science classes, and performing a quick Google search, I realized that many scholars assert that Native Americans are descended from Northern Europeans who traveled across the land bridge that connected Europe with North America. (Although there is still some scholarship that refutes this theory.)
In many ways, I think the experience of taking the test has made me think differently about my identity… I feel more closely connected to the human family. Because we all share common ancestry, it is our differences that makes us unique and should be cherished and heralded. These minor fluctuations should not drive us apart, but bring us closer together as a species. This process has allowed me to connect with my extended family and to paint a fuller picture of my background and ancestry, and I anticipate that I will continue working to fill in those gaps well into the future.
However, the test made me realize that the cultural and historical factors that inform the development of our societies may be too ingrained to transcend the part of humanity that almost instinctively classifies difference as “other.”
I often muse about the potential wider impacts of ancestry testing, if more Americans took DNA tests. The first black president of the United States has a white mother and shares an ancestor (and foreign policy goals) with the last vice president, Dick Cheney. But that has not prevented a significant portion of my society from demonizing him solely because of his skin color. (I don’t believe that even half of these feelings are driven by any foreign or domestic policy he has implemented.)
So, I’m not convinced that more DNA tests would lead to a more humane and equitable society. Many Evangelical Christians believe we all share a common ancestor (Adam). But that hasn’t prevented them from working towards a dystopian society.
Despite this, I would encourage more people to take the test, with the hope that learning about our past empowers us to make better choices about our future.
You can read Evlondo’s original post here.
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