As more Americans take advantage of genetic testing to pinpoint the makeup of their DNA, the technology is coming head-to-head with the country’s deep-rooted obsession with race and racial myths. This is perhaps no more true than for the growing number of self-identified European-Americans who learn they are actually part African.
For those who are surprised by their genetic heritage, the new information can often set into motion a complicated recalibration of how they view their identity.
Nicole Persley, who grew up in Nokesville, Virginia, was stunned to learn that she is part African. Her youth could not have been whiter. In the 1970s and ’80s in her rural home town, she went to school with farmers’ kids who listened to country music and sometimes made racist jokes. She was, as she recalls, “basically raised a Southern white girl.”
But as a student at the University of Michigan: “My roommate was black. My friends were black. I was dating a black man.” And they saw something different in her facial features and hair.
While African-Americans generally assume that they may carry non-African DNA dating back to sexual relations between masters and slaves, many white Americans like Persley grow up believing that their ancestry is fully European, a belief manifested in things from kitschy “100 percent Irish” T-shirts to more-sinister racial “purity” affiliations.
Now, for under $100, it has become increasingly easy to spit into a vial and receive a scientifically accurate assessment of one’s genetic makeup. Companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com provide a list of countries or regions where the predominant genetic traits match those of one’s forebears. (There is no DNA category for race, because a genetic marker for it does not exist.) Read more…