Opinion | DNA and Race: What Ancestry and 23andMe Reveal – The New York Times

Posted By on February 16, 2021

A 23andMe study from 2015 revealed that close to 4 percent of the companys customers who identified as white Americans had at least 1 percent African ancestry, consistent with an African ancestor within the last 11 generations or so. About 12 percent of whites from Southern states like South Carolina and Louisiana had 1 percent or more of African ancestry.

The Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has calculated that there are millions of contemporary whites who, according to the old, notorious one- drop rule of the Jim Crow era, would have been considered legally black proof not only of the absurdity of that definition of difference, he writes, but of the power of modern science to blow up false narratives about race and about American history. If modern DNA tests had existed during the heyday of mainstream eugenics in the early 20th century, Dr. Gates and others have suggested, they might have served as direct repudiation of that pseudoscience.

So, what happens when Americans learn about the diversity within themselves? The jury is still out on whether direct-to-consumer genetic testing reinforces our sense of immutable racial categories or breaks them down.

Research by Wendy Roth, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that customers basic knowledge of genetics going into testing may play a role in whether tests accentuate or reduce their racial essentialism. Besides, we are not our ethnicity estimates: For a variety of reasons, including the ways in which were shaped by community, family and personal experience, DNA and identity are not the same.

But whats clear from research and from my conversations with hundreds of consumers is that genetic revelations can inspire journeys of self-discovery, helping people rewrite their understandings not only of their families but of their orientations as Americans.

Some people I spoke with recounted how theyre thinking long and hard, for the first time, about what boxes to check on medical forms asking for race. Some have legally changed their names to reflect their forebears. Others are using research to illuminate the lives of ancestors in Africa before the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

One man I interviewed discovered through DNA and genealogy that his grandfather was Black, and that his mother claimed fictional Sicilian heritage to protect her family from the discrimination shed experienced growing up. He has spent the years since researching the Vermont community where his mom grew up, meeting his Black relatives, and rethinking his place in America. The truth about the past is so important, he told me without it, We cant evolve.

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Opinion | DNA and Race: What Ancestry and 23andMe Reveal - The New York Times

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