DNA Tests, and Sometimes Surprising Results

Students at West Chester University in Pennsylvania have volunteered to take part in ancestry DNA testing. Anita Foeman, a communications professor, says she has found that conversations around race are “complicated and jagged.” CreditWest Chester University

Race and identity in many ways define who we think we are, while modern genetics can challenge those notions. To delve into these issues, I am involved with a communications studies project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania that explores narratives at the intersection of race and identity.

For the last decade, I have invited hundreds of people to be part of ancestry DNA tests. But first I ask people how they identify themselves racially. It has been very interesting to explore their feelings about the differences between how they define themselves and what their DNA makeup shows when the test results come in.

Biologically, our ancestral differences reflect only a 0.1 percent difference in DNA. Yet we often cling to those differences — both in unity with our fellow people of origin and, at times, in divisiveness.

Over all, the experiment has provided a special opportunity to explore the lines of race. I found that as human beings, our strategies for survival are the same, and our similarities far outweigh our differences.

But inside each comment was a longing to find out more. And a long-term, ever-deepening conversation began.

What started out as a curiosity turned into a study. My colleague Bessie Lee Lawton and I began our collaboration in 2012, and a more rigorous protocol was established. Statistical analysis was done to look for patterns not easily gleaned from individual stories.

Speaking in generalities, we found that women were more flexible about their racial identity than men; that people of color expected diversity in their backgrounds more than people of European ancestry; and that younger people were more open to diversity than older ones. People of European background tended to have more anxiety, before and after the test.

Keep in mind that analyzing a person’s ancestry through DNA, means looking back hundreds of years. People receive only half of their DNA from each parent, and therefore the race or identity of either parent may be too diluted to show up in these tests.

Participants in the research study were asked to predict their ancestral backgrounds before test results come in.CreditWest Chester University

As a black girl growing up in the 1960s, I often felt race undermined me. I was expected to love Motown, but not ballet. I was praised for speaking standard English, but my interest in the sciences was never appreciated and certainly not cultivated. Random doors opened; others closed.

It took me 10 years before I tested myself. What I found both confirmed and shook my perspective. My background included African heritage from the Gold Coast, including Nigeria and Ghana, intermingled with British and Scandinavian. I suspect this reflects the impact of the brutal Viking Age and later the English in the slave trade.

I have a smattering of Asian genes, most likely from indigenous Americans crossing the Bering Strait. For Americans, about 4 percent of our ancestry traced to Asia may actually reflect Native American roots.

However, my grandfather shared with me years ago that in his birthplace of Mobile, Ala., his earliest memories were of Chinese merchants living alongside poor black folks like him. So who knows?

Today I look at faces, even my own, with new recognition. I see that people regularly share narratives that miss something their physical features suggest, and sometimes we find ancestry that we would not have imagined. It is a new twist on an old narrative made possible by cutting-edge science.

The conversation is complicated and jagged, and it mercifully undermines neat, simplistic stories.

Over the last 11 years, more than 2,000 people have taken part in our DNA ancestry project. Below are the stories from a handful of them.

Anita Foeman, professor of communications studies

Source: New York Times