By CEO and Co-Founder at PACO Collective
William Faulkner’s 1932 novel “A Light in August” famously features Joe Christmas, a man living in the South who passes as white but suspects he has black ancestry.
If Christmas lived today all he would need is an Internet connection to find out the truth. Companies like 23andMe, Ancestry.com, and African Ancestry have become very successful in helping people shed light on their genetic background. With just a few hundred dollars and a saliva sample for a laboratory analysis, you can reveal the truth.
And the truth is, nearly 4 percent of people who identify as white actually have DNA that is 1 percent or more African in origin, according to a study conducted by 23andMe. The majority of these people live in the South, mostly in South Carolina where 13 percent of people who said they were white, in truth, had African ancestors.
As reported in the New York Times, the ancestry results can lead to various reactions depending on the person. For example, if you have a small percentage of African ancestry, does that mean you now identify as black? “Different people mean different things when they say ‘race,’” said Joseph Pickrell, a computational geneticist at the New York Genome Center laboratory. In the United States, thanks to the centuries-old “one-drop rule,” a person with almost any African ancestry is often identified as black. “That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of the world,” Pickrell said. Countries like Brazil and South Africa, however, define blackness differently.
23andMe researchers anticipated the identity confusion might come up, noting in their report that “ancestry, ethnicity, identity, and race are complex labels that result from visible traits, such as skin color, and from cultural, economic, geographical, and social factors.” In other words, even if you discover you have a mixed heritage, it is common to identify your race or ethnicity by what you look like. We’ve seen this in celebrities like Halle Berry and Alicia Keys, and public figures like President Barack Obama, who are biracial but largely identify as black.
Overall, the New York Times wonders out loud whether knowing the exact traces of your DNA is even helpful in defining how you self-identify. If testing “tells me I’m 95 percent Ashkenazi Jewish and 5 percent Korean, is that really different from 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish and zero percent Korean?” asked Jonathan Marks, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Marks may be onto something. As the success of these testing kits have proven, we are far more than what we look like in the mirror. The evolution of this country, for example, is one of migration from other countries and to different regions of the U.S. populated by people who looked very different from them. The so-called “melting pot” is also a genetic container where people can never be certain who they are despite what they might look like — even white supremacists.
Researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles studied over 3,000 Internet forum posts from white supremacists for more than a decade and found that, more often than not, users disclosed ancestry tests that showed non-European ancestry even though they self-identify as purebloods. For obvious reasons, most hate groups believe that the tests are a conspiracy and do not find them valid.
If Americans are waking up to understanding the secrets of their DNA are not what they assumed, it’s a good thing. It may help them understand they play an important role in in this country’s wider story. We may not all look the same, but underneath, we may share a partial heritage. As the U.S. moves towards becoming a majority minority population, the cultural crosscurrents should feel natural and even familiar.