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.
Carlos, born and raised in Salvador, Bahia
Receiving my African Ancestry results was surprising and frustrating at the same time. Surprising because I didn’t imagine I would have such a high European percentage, despite knowing about the whole miscegenation process in Brazil. Obviously, because of some of my physical characteristics (my hair texture, my lightish brown skin colour), I thought I would have some kind of European percentage – but not as high as that. My frustration was to do with the indigenous percentage, which, according to this test, doesn’t exist. I found it really surprising that the test found no trace of that.
I spoke to my parents and some of my friends about my results after I received them. Like me, my mum was surprised that there was no indigenous component to my results, because, according to oral history in her side of the family, my maternal great-grandmother was Indian. As for my dad, though, he seemed pretty on board with the test results. My paternal grandfather, while far from being white, had lighter skin and straighter hair, so apparently on that basis my dad wasn’t too surprised about me having a relatively high European result.
My friends, on the other hand, found my high European percentage strange; they, like me, had imagined I would have a higher indigenous result, which would explain my hair and skin characteristics. It was this lack of indigenous percentage that impacted me most overall about my test. To be honest, I still want a second opinion, perhaps from a different company. I think the percentages should be revised.
Overall, though, the testing experience didn’t change the way I think about myself. Identity, as we know, is relative; it is based on how individuals see themselves and how they are seen by others, and constructed through our day to day contacts and confrontations. In the case of the Afro-descendant population in Brazil, identity is formed through daily clashes with the white population; with the police (who tend to target the black population, and treat them violently), etc. In this sense, the test revealed nothing that I didn’t already know, or that could change my sense of identity and belonging, which has been constructed over many years of struggle.
In terms of the potential social effects of ‘ancestry’ testing, I think it is important for the Brazilian population to have access to their identity. I believe this interest in origins is much greater among the black bourgeoisie and intelligentsia than in the population at large. These people know that they are descendants of Africans who were enslaved in Brazil. I think it’s obvious that if a mass genetic programme of this type were to be set up, it would greatly improve this particular public’s self-esteem, which is fundamentally related to slavery.
The latest manifestations of racism in Brazil are mere proof that we still live in a state of ignorance, and that a large proportion of the Brazilian population still believe that skin colour is a valid criterium to support theories of racial superiority. Perhaps, in light of this, and given that Brazil’s black population have enormous difficulties in tracing their ancestry, a quicker test that could tell people which region their ancestors came from would have a positive effect on the black population – but it would in no way resolve the problem of race relations in Brazil.
You can read Carlos’s original post here.
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