I recently read these two articles, both about the children of orphaned men who used DNA testing to discover unexpected ethnic identities:
I actually read the second one first, but I think if you’re going to read them, do it in this order.
The crux of both articles is that a family found its ethnic identity challenged by the results of home DNA kits. I won’t give away exactly what happens, but I will say that I found the reactions of the family in the first article to be painfully stupid, and that I agree more with the author of the second article, who thinks ethnicity has a lot less bearing on identity than how you were raised.
It’s that last point that I keep going back to. I spend a lot of time in my work thinking and talking (and ranting) about lived experience and culture and how the ways you act are more your identity than your abstract sense of your family’s past. Even as much as we seem to know as a society that behavior is not racially encoded, we (especially Americans) still love to talk about strange racist stereotypes as if they’re true (“I love potatoes because I’m Irish and it’s in my blood!”). Because the American mythology is about being displaced (no one is “from” here, right?), where we all “came from” is the most important way we can distinguish ourselves. We’re not a melting pot, we’re a cabinet of curiosities, with lots of little compartments that neatly divide different interesting specimens from around the world, except sometimes those specimens get mixed up and isn’t that delightful. The fact is that no one born in America came from somewhere else, though – we are American, and any foreign identity that we try to retreat to is ultimately a fantasy. Of course there are American subcultures that are informed by many foreign identities, but these are also fundamentally American, because they only exist here.
What bothers me about these tests is that people use them to adopt cultures they previously thought they had no connection to, as if somehow that now adds an entire set of experiences to their personal history they never had before. I spent 30 minutes at a wedding a few months ago listening to a woman tell me about how DNA testing had revealed to her that her Sicilian background actually meant that she was part Arab and wasn’t that interesting! She, of course, is in no way culturally Arab based on her own personal experiences or upbringing. But now she feels a sudden affinity for this “rich” culture. Which I think is one way of saying “I’m not as white as I thought, and that makes me more interesting!”. This especially bugs me because she didn’t need to do any DNA testing to find out she’s a little bit Arab, she just needed to read an actual book instead of some random pamphlet about Sicily that just waxes poetic about tomatoes and someone’s nonna. But a step further is that if she thought Arab culture (as a very broad concept) was interesting, she could just learn about it without needing a personal connection, and if she didn’t think it was interesting before she (supposedly) had a personal connection, then what’s the point now?
On the other end of the spectrum of these DNA test results, a friend of mine recently told me that through an Ancestry.com test she discovered that she is not biologically related to her father and that her parents actually used a sperm donor. She figured it out pretty quickly – Ancestry linked her to her biological paternal grandfather, who told her that his son was a sperm donor when he was in college in the region where she grew up – and she immediately asked her parents, who came clean. This changes absolutely nothing about her personal history. It probably changes her medical history a little, though to an insignificant extent. And it changes her ethnic mythology – instead of being slightly of Danish descent, she is actually slightly of English descent. But in the end it really doesn’t matter. She is not a different person. It’s like she was pointing at a rock and calling it basalt when it was actually obsidian – it’s still pretty much the same thing, it just has a different name (insert Shakespeare quote here).
I guess in the end I think that this whole fuss about DNA ancestry is a semantic issue, and that any choices you make based on what you find out about yourself just reveals some arbitrary judgements about what makes you you. The first thing I thought of when I read the second article I linked to above was that if my husband and I both took these DNA tests, we would get really similar results even though we have superficially very different ethnic backgrounds. I am Ashkenazi Jewish, he is a combination of Lebanese, Norwegian, and German. We both have semitic, Germanic, and northern European backgrounds (as far as we know). But we have completely different family histories that led to completely different upbringings. Apart from discovering that I carry a gene for congenital deafness, my Jewish DNA (if such a thing exists) has no bearing on how I think about myself. Rather, my Jewish cultural identity, which has interpreted the experience of Jewishness and made certain genetic traits significant to me in particular ways, is what shapes my sense of self and my life experiences. For instance, I could have exactly the same hair color and texture if I were of Syrian descent, and the fact of my hair color and texture would still have shaped some of my experiences as a teenage girl (read: very awkward, always messy), but how I was told to interpret that could have been different only because I would have decided that my hair was due to being Syrian and not Jewish. Even more importantly, we choose the identities we prioritize. My husband is probably more Germanic than he is Norwegian or Lebanese, but that identity doesn’t mean anything to him, because he didn’t grow up eating schnitzel, he grew up eating lefsa and kibbe. But even more importantly, because his family story on both sides was based around those ethnic identities – their moralities and values, their stories of migration, their standards of how to exist in the world.
So here’s where I come back around to my favorite topic – facts that are not facts. If you did not know that you had a particular ethnic background, because it was not part of your culture or your lived experience in any way, is it really your ethnic background? Does it matter at all? If you start to act on that background, are you “learning about your roots” or are you putting on a costume of the most superficial elements of the culture associated with that ethnic group? Now, there is definitely something to be said for using these kinds of realizations to break down your own biases – if you think you are entirely British, for instance, only to discover that you have a lot of African ancestry, maybe learning that fact can help you overcome some outdated ideas about how bad slavery was. But even if we accept that situation, we are basically saying that because we fail in our compassion for people whose experiences seem foreign, we can only recognize injustice (or, conversely, beauty) once we see it in ourselves. That is profoundly self-centered.
At the end of the day, as sappy as this is to say, I think we all need to think of ourselves as citizens of the world, constantly challenging ourselves to imagine that every other person’s home is our home and their history is our history. After all, if all someone needs to feel kinship is a bar graph, then actually building connections through lived experience has to be worth more. Our personal identities should be our identities – they are how we understand the world around us because they are what shape our ways of processing information – and we can still use those to find those especially close connections to people who have had similar experiences, but we shouldn’t use those identities to dictate the limits of who we are or what our culture is.