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.
Kate, born and raised in Shapleigh, Maine
My initial reaction upon receiving the results of my 23andMe test was mostly confirming what I already knew, with a few surprises. Having spent some time in the past doing a genealogy of my family tree, I knew most of my family history already. I was surprised to see African ancestry within my tree. While we had suspicions, this was the only confirmation that I’ve gotten that showed a small amount of African ancestry. The rest of my results were basically what I expected: more heavily weighted toward English/Irish and Italian/Spanish, which follows what my genealogy had already told me.
When I spoke to my parents about my results, they were really intrigued by it – especially my dad, who will probably be taking his own ancestry test. My best friend thought it was amusing that there was East Asian ancestry in my results, since she is Filipino-American and we have routinely throughout our lives been mistaken for sisters. My mom thought the 0.1% Ashkenazi Jewish heritage that showed up to be very interesting, since we had no inkling that there would be Jewish heritage within our family. We have been largely unaware of my mother’s mother’s genealogy prior to my great grandparents, who immigrated from Italy. Prior to their immigration, very little is known, so the ancestry test helped fill in some blanks for her.
I think the results that were the most exciting and interesting were the African ancestry and the Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, as both were unexpected and are currently unexplained. While the Ashkenazi Jewish heritage may be explained by immigration within Europe prior to coming to America, the African ancestry is mysterious, which makes it exciting. I am phenotypically white, and there is no oral or family history of anyone with African heritage within my family. It does open up a whole avenue of questions that may never be answered, which I think adds a level of interest and excitement to understanding where this ancestry came from.
I don’t think the ancestry results have led to too much change in my personal identity, but it has opened up a line of query about my maternal line prior to immigration to the USA. As that side of my family is fairly mysterious, it has led to questions about who they were and where they came from. The Spanish/Iberian ancestry as well as that of northern Africa and sub-Saharan Africa could lead to some answers. Perhaps they were mariners or travellers of some kind; I probably will never know, but the results of the test have begged for answers, and perhaps some future searching in Italy itself.
I’m not sure if taking a DNA test will change the way I live my life, but I think the experience has opened up questions about my family’s past and who they were. I got re-interested in looking at my genealogy after some time away from it. I’ve decided that perhaps the only way to figure out some of the questions I have would be to go to Italy for research, which is both an excuse to travel and eat delicious local cuisine as well as a desire to reconnect with my heritage.
I think if more people were to take DNA ancestry tests in the US this would certainly allow for a broader understanding of race among the general population. Most people do not understand what race actually is, and how it ties in to ethnicity. Perhaps it would lessen the distinction between the races in America, particularly since we are living in a time of increased racial tension. Maybe if more white Americans found that they had some non-white ancestry they would become more sensitive to issues of race. I can only speak to the way it may work in American society, however. In other countries, it may have a negative effect upon people of African descent.
You can read Kate’s original post here.
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