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.
Tatiana, born and raised in Mexico City, Mexico
When I received my Family Tree DNA results I was pretty surprised about my genetic origin percentages. Although I had imagined beforehand that I would have European genes, I never thought they would make up such a high percentage of my result, nor that they would be spread out across those particular regions. I was tickled to find that I had British and Eastern European origins, which allowed me joke to my friends that my affinity with English and Russian culture might have a biological basis – and that there’s more Russian to me than just my name…
When I shared my results with my Mexican friends, a lot of them teased me, saying I was trying to disown my Mexican identity by making out that I’m European. I think this reflects one of the potential negative effects that DNA ancestry testing could have in my country: to reaffirm classist attitudes linked to racial identity.
Personally, I don’t believe the test had any effect whatsoever on my identity, or on my feeling of ‘Mexicanness’, because when I think about my own family history, and about European history in general, it makes sense that my German, Italian and Spanish ancestry might have roots further back in Britain, Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. What really did surprise me, though, and what I couldn’t understand initially was the Central Asian percentage. But, talking it through with Sarah, we thought it could be linked to indigenous American populations, and that seems a reasonable explanation to me.
Preparing this text, and looking back over my results, I’ve been mulling over the question of who is the real parent: the person that bears you, or the person that raises you? I think, for identity, we can ask a similar question: does ‘blood’ make you who you are, or is it your context that moulds you?
I personally believe that you are more the child of the person that raised you, and that your identity depends on your personal experiences. On the other hand, when those experiences hinge on racial preconceptions, the relevance of these tests goes beyond mere curiosity. For me, though, the only thing the test inspired was a greater interest in knowing my family’s history.
You can read Tatiana’s original post here.
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