I Know You Are, But What Am I? Race, Identity, and DNA

When I mentioned my idea for this blog post’s title, my 12 year-old daughter looked at me quizzically. She had no idea what I was referencing and chalked it up to “lame”, 1970’s speak. But, if you are somewhere in the vicinity of my generation, you might remember giving this playground retort to other children’s assessments of what you looked like or something you did. We don’t say “I know you are, but what am I?” or talk about the rebound effects of rubber and glue anymore, but what we think about each other still matters. For example, historically, people’s racial identities have been determined by how they look, which is an expression of their DNA, their genetic make-up.

No one ever was puzzled by the shade of my skin or the texture of my hair. Saying “She’s black” would be too easy to say. My parents considered themselves Black, and so did all of my family members at least 2 generations back (ethnic identity is a different story, as I have some ancestors who identified as creoles, people of color, and “Frenchmen”, as well as or instead of as black). My blackness is a given, and a large part of that is due to how people have interpreted my and my relatives’ appearances.

Tameka S. Miller

Although things are changing, it is still the case that, in many places in America and elsewhere, if your skin color is brown enough and/or your hair is kinky enough, you tend to be considered Black by others no matter what you, yourself, actually think or feel that you are. Thus, one’s own identity develops in the context of (but not necessarily as a consequence of) the verbal and behavioral expressions that others make based on your appearance. And so, race can be viewed as a social construct rather than only as a biological fact. In other words, society (individuals and their social infrastructures) and culture (what society believes and endorses) define what race is.

DNA and Society

In today’s world, society and culture have provided an outside-of-the-DNA-box experience for people. Whereas DNA traditionally has led to phenotype-based conclusions about race, now it is having a novel impact on how we perceive ourselves and how we discuss race and ethnicity. Because of the proliferation of DNA testing, people have had more access to data about their ancestral origins than ever before. This has enabled people to make more informed and/or self-directed decisions about how they identify themselves. Some DNA results have reinforced identities, while some have resulted in complete identity changes. A person can be whatever race he or she wants (even no race or some other race) rather than be confined to what others say that they are.

According to my favorite online encyclopedia, DNA testing started after decades of exploration with blood typing and serological testing when, in the 1980’s, scientists began using DNA testing to answer questions related to biological relationships, primarily in medical and forensic settings. DNA testing did not become available to the general public until the turn of the latest millennium. Gene Tree was the first company to provide direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing, but, in 2000, Family Tree was the first company to establish the trend of marketing this service to genealogy researchers. In the genealogy research community, there seemed to be a noticeable boom in DNA testing around 2018, when companies vied for the public’s interest with rock-bottom prices. In fact, after the year was over, we discovered that more people bought DNA test kits in 2018 than all other years combined!

My DNA Journey

I ordered my first DNA test kit about five years ago. I don’t think I knew exactly what to expect, but I had some ideas. Prior to taking the test, I had presumed that I had Senegalese heritage because of reports that most of America’s slaves had come from West Africa and that many of Louisiana’s slaves had come from Senegal. One of my deceased cousins was named Ebo, which hinted at African heritage related to the Igbo tribe of Nigeria. In terms of my Old World roots, I figured that I had British and French ancestry. My great grand-mother Ida was very fair-skinned, and her maternal grandfather was one of the prominent, Cajun Guilbeau men in the Lafayette, Louisiana area. My dad’s great-grandfather was a white man whose family was reputed to have originated in Shropshire, England before settling in Virginia. My genealogy research on several other family lines gave me good reason to guess that I was at least 16% white, and that was before DNA testing became widely available to the masses.

Did you know that, according to one study, among self-identified African-American DNA testers, the average percentage of African ancestry is 73% while the average European ancestry is about 24% (there are some geographical variations)?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4289685/

When I finally received my DNA results from the two companies I used for testing, I was excited to see “all” of my racial and ethnic parts. I discovered that there was a general correspondence in results between the two companies: 74% of my heritage was of Sub-Saharan African origin, while 25% was a hodgepodge of European origins, and 1% was of Asian origins. The companies also reported more specific results related the countries and/or tribes that are associated with my DNA. I was intrigued by the information the DNA testing companies provided about my ethnic make-up and my ancestors’ migration patterns in the United States.

My DNA Results and a portrait of my great-great grandmother, Elmire Guilbeau Sam.

DNA can be a challenging subject to explore. You might get something a little different than you expect, which can be exciting, disappointing, shocking, or some blend of emotions. For example, my husband found out that he was 89% African and none of the Irish he expected to be. My African-American identifying stepmother turned out to be about 50% European. Even when the results lead to uncomfortable moments and discussions, DNA testing for genealogy purposes still provides beneficial information. One unexpected benefit is that I have been able to give consent for my data to be used for scientific research. In that way, I can contribute to discoveries that advance medical knowledge about diseases like COVID-19. Professionally speaking, I list it as a recommendation in every genealogy research report I write because it can provide critical leads in resolving research conflicts and overcoming roadblocks; assist in developing hypotheses about relationships; and serve as a means of connecting with previously unknown relatives. Personally speaking, because DNA research is a dynamic process, I can keep track or be updated about how my ethnicity estimates change as a result of the expansion of the DNA companies’ reference populations. In fact, based on the most recent updates reported by one DNA company, I am 13 percentage points less Cameroonian (but much more Nigerian), 6 points more Northwest European, and 5 points more Malian than I was a year ago (and there are no traces of the Asian ancestry first reported 5 years ago).

In conclusion, race is a multidimensional concept that is here to stay. How we view race, however, changes according to what is going on in the society in which we live. And today, in America, race can be viewed as biologically based, socially constructed, and scientifically informed. Moreover, for many people, it is a fluid and dynamic concept. DNA testing for genealogy purposes increasingly shapes our conversations about race and ethnicity. While there has been a natural, if not sharp, decline in DNA test kit orders given some of the national crises we are facing in 2020, the demand for DNA-based information about race still exists. Have you ever done a DNA test to explore your ancestry? How has it impacted your view of race and ethnicity? Please share your thoughts in the comments section or our facebook page.

Published by GenealogyGriot

Tameka Miller is a genealogist, psychologist, and full-time homemaker and homeschool educator. She has been a genealogy researcher and family historian for over 20 years.

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