Still Holding Out for a Second Opinion: Carlos’s Story II

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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3 thoughts on “Still Holding Out for a Second Opinion: Carlos’s Story II

  1. Very interesting blog, i also enjoyed reading all the reactions to the DNA results. If i can make a suggestion for a “second opinion” Carlos was asking for: Ancestry.com is the only DNA testing company to provide a detailed regional breakdown of West/Central African ancestry instead of treating it as one monolithic part of your genome. Carlos being from Bahia it would be fascinating to see how much “Nigerian” versus “Benin/Togo” versus “Southeastern Bantu” (= a proxy for especially Angolan ancestry) he would score on their test. In addition it’s analysis of minor Native American ancestry is also pretty much on point from what i’ve seen.

    http://blogs.ancestry.com/techroots/ancestrydna-makes-scientific-breakthrough-in-West-African-ethnicity/

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    • Thanks for your comment, Felipe! I would agree with you that Ancestry is the company that has focused most on giving a detailed breakdown of West African genetic contributions. The main drawback is that the company currently only offers tests within the US at the moment (or rather, allows them to be bought with an American credit card), so it’s difficult for outsiders to get hold of them… Also, given that the product is only offered to North Americans, I suspect the reference databases are mostly constructed with a North American clientele in mind, so it might not turn out to quite as useful for Brazilians, whose ancestors did not necessarily all come from the same regions of Africa as those of African (North) Americans.

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      • Yes it’s unfortunate that right now the test can only be bought using a US mailing address/credit card. But who knows with a little “jeito” this hurdle can still be overcome 😉

        About the reference populations being used by Ancestry, i have reason to believe there would be Yoruba from Nigeria, Fon from Benin and Bakongo from Congo among them. These are all ethnicities with well documented presence in Brazil and especially Bahia, so the AncestryDNA test might actually be quite tailored to cover Brazilian’s African ancestry as well. When it comes to capturing any possible Angolan or Mozambican ancestry I imagine the Southeastern Bantu category should be able to detect it fairly well.

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