“Our country has struggled to reckon with the horrors of the past. Could DNA tests help?
The consumer genetics testing company 23andMe this month announced that it is going public through a merger with a company founded by the billionaire Richard Branson, in a deal that valued it at $3.5 billion. This was just the latest big deal for the industry: Last year, the Blackstone Group acquired a majority stake in Ancestry, a 23andMe competitor, for $4.7 billion.
These investments are happening as the possibilities contained in our DNA have become more tangible and immediate — both in terms of our aspirations for the future, and our understanding of the past.
The debate around race consuming America right now is coinciding with a technological phenomenon — at-home genetic testing kits — revealing many of us are not who we thought we were. Some customers of the major DNA testing companies, which collectively have sold 37 million of these kits, are getting results that surprise them.
Perhaps they or a parent was adopted or donor-conceived and never told, or their families hid their genetic ancestries as an escape from discrimination. Maybe Dad isn’t their dad, genetically speaking, or they have a sister they never knew about. Some people are discovering their ancestors were Black, or Jewish. Others are learning their African-American lineages contain more European ancestry than they thought.
Our country, riven by wounds old and new over centuries of racist mistreatment, hasn’t figured how to acknowledge the full horrors of the past and all the ways those horrors continue. The images from the Capitol Hill incursion drove that home: Violent white invaders were met with a more acquiescent police reception than peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters had months earlier; a rioter carried a Confederate flag through the Capitol building, while a noose hung outside.
Despite the reductionism that sometimes frames discussions of the “ethnicity estimates” that the genetic testing industry offers customers — Ancestry, for instance, is responsible for a disturbing ad relying on ethnic tropes and yoking genes to greatness, attributing a figure skater’s “grace” to her Asian heritage, and her “precision” to her Scandinavian roots — this moment may offer us an important opportunity to grapple with the blunt facts of our nation’s history. After all, to heal from the past, we first have to be willing to see it for what it was.
A Black graduate student I interviewed, who is descended from a white slave owner and an enslaved woman, was able to use DNA results and research to determine the likely identity of this slave owner and to connect with a white cousin who also descended from him.
“I feel like it’s a little bit more awkward for her because she hadn’t known about us,” the graduate student said of this white cousin. “We kind of just appeared out of nowhere, and I’m pretty sure that’s not what she was banking on.”
Recent research conducted by 23andMe demonstrates how America’s brutal history is revealed through our genes. While the majority of enslaved people brought to the Americas were male, the study found enslaved women had a disproportionate impact on the gene pool of their descendants, evidence of the systematic rape and sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women. “Our genes tell a story that’s unflinching,” said Anita Foeman, a professor at West Chester University who studies people’s experiences with consumer DNA testing.
A 23andMe study from 2015 revealed that close to 4 percent of the company’s 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 calculatedthat 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 we’re shaped by community, family and personal experience, DNA and identity are not the same.
But what’s 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 they’re 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 she’d 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 can’t evolve.”