I took a DNA test last year.
I credit even knowing about the test to Justine Larbalestier. You see, a few years ago I read her absolutely phenomenal Liar, and major plot point in the book (which features a mixed-race protagonist who may or may not also be supernatural in origin... and it only gets weirder from there) revolves around everyone in her high school class getting their genealogical DNA tested. (So it's basically like the blood type test in Twilight, but with permission slips and teacher responsibility and meaningful social commentary.)
I'd never heard of genealogical DNA testing before this, and here Justine Larbalestier was explaining it in all its awesome science-nerdliness glory. She explained how science could supposedly tell us everything about our ancestry -- where we'd come from and who our forebears had been -- without all that tedious need for unreliable records and moldy old documents. And then just when she had me hooked, she turned around and explained all the drawbacks and controversy surrounding the practice -- and all the reasons why geneticists are still sounding strong notes of caution over early adoption and full-scale embracing of the technology:
Yayeko held up her hand. "The test's ability to identify your DNA is dependent on what DNA is available to the company."
She turned to the board and started drawing a DNA spiral. The light caught particles of chalk floating in the air. I could smell it, taste it on the tip of my tongue.
"This test was done," Yayeko said, "by comparing your DNA" -- she pointed to the spiral she'd drawn -- "with the DNA in that particular company's database. What percentage of the world's DNA do you think they're likely to have? Five percent? Ten? Fifteen?"
Brandon looked at Will. No one said anything. I couldn't imagine it would be a very big percentage. The world is so big. There are so many people in it.
"Less than 1 percent," Yayeko said at last. "Considerably less. So they have a very small database of DNA. A database that does not contain the DNA of everyone in the world."
She waited a moment as we digested that. I was wondering how they could tell us anything at all about ourselves if they had so little data. I still wasn't going to open my results.
"They take their DNA from ‘pure' sources -- African, European, and Asian groups where there's been relatively little marrying into different groups. But there are very few ‘pure' people left in the world. Many people argue that these tests work from a faulty premise."
The class was silent. What was Yayeko saying? That the test couldn't tell us anything? That there was no such thing as race? I looked around the room and saw lots of frowning faces. All except Brandon, who was doodling on his hand.
"The company looks for markers in our DNA that they have identified as African or Asian or Europe an or Native American. But with so little of the world's DNA mapped, the odds that they are correctly identifying the markers in your DNA are not high. Say they identify one of your markers as African. It may be that they are identifying your unmapped marker from another part of the world with their mapped marker from somewhere in Africa."
"Does that mean if the test says you've got no African DNA, it's wrong?" Sondra asked. She's very light-skinned. Lighter than Chantal even, several shades lighter than me. White people usually think she's white, despite her relaxed curls and full lips. She'd been still since reading her results. Like me and Zach she hadn't said a word.
"Definitely," Yayeko said firmly. "If we did the test with a different company using a different database your results would change. Biologically speaking, the so-called races have more similarities than they have differences. There is only one race: the human race.
My hopes, so quickly raised, were dashed. There wasn't a scientific magic bullet to instantly tell me where I was from and who my people were. It was back to the moldy old documents dug from the attics of deceased grandparents and to sifting through historical records on Ancestry.com where everyone's name is spelled at least three different ways: once for their birth certificate, once for their marriage certificate, and once for their death certificate. Illiteracy, creativity, or indecision: I wasn't sure which, but my ancestors hadn't made it a priority to make things easy for me.
I'm interested in genealogy because my family doesn't quite know where it's from... and we don't quite know where we're going. We're not a close-knit family by most definitions of the word; the family reunions on Mom's side petered out after the catastrophic incident where Grandfather led a rambling group prayer over a rapidly cooling dinner where he opined that it was a shame that my mother's son -- my half-brother -- went to Hell like he did after that fatal motorcycle accident. The family reunions on my father's side lasted a little longer, but were ultimately broken up after a falling out over whether or not the gay members of the family could bring their life-partners to Grandma's funeral.
(I'm not one of those people to reflexively say that all religion is evil, but it's not brought the best of joy to my extended family, I'm afraid.)
As for where we're going on my paternal / maiden-name side, a surprising number of the folks in my generation and the one just before just aren't procreating, either because they can't or they won't. With each passing year, it looks like our branch of the old family tree is going to be a dead-end and it'll be up to some very distant cousins to carry on what was once my name.
And the funny thing is, we have lots of genealogical records. We've got stuff going through the paternal line back to before the American Revolutionary War, and we still can't figure out where we crossed over from Somewhere to Here. We're European American, through-and-through, brought over in the mists of the early 1600s -- possibly even earlier -- and were apparently deeply committed to marrying only other European Americans with similar pedigrees because it's been almost impossible to find any non-European Americans to put into the family tree so that we might say "here! here is our heritage".
I suppose you could say our heritage is "American" (or at least "European American") but there's something about that which has always been vaguely unsettling to me. I suppose being here in America for 400+ years makes it my home, but I still can't shake the feeling that I'm not from here, that somewhere and sometime my family immigrated here from elsewhere and that elusive elsewhere has been bothering me for years.
Last year, Ancestry.com announced that they were jumping on the genealogical DNA bandwagon. But they wouldn't have the problems that Justine Larbalestier and the other scientists kept pointing out, because Ancestry.com wouldn't just be relying on 'pure' markers; they'd be cross-referencing member DNA with the DNA of all the other participating members. This wouldn't be a system built on guesses and attempts to isolate racial purity, but rather a system that would grow organically as more and more members participated. The sciency awesomeness of the project was too much for me to resist, and after a thorough perusal of the site's privacy statement, I signed up and got my cotton swab in the mail.
What was supposed to take a few weeks at the most took months. More people had signed up than Ancestry.com had, apparently, in their wildest dreams imagined. And as the months dragged on with no results in, I tried not to get my hopes up.
But -- gods' help me -- I'll be honest: I wanted something cool. I'm going to admit that, even though I'm ashamed to say it. Specifically, I wanted my results to come back with Native American DNA, and then finally I could maybe feel some kind of connection with the country my family has inhabited for 400+ years. Failing that, I prayed, let me come back with something interesting, exotic, and above all unexpected.
I knew these weren't appropriate feelings to have. I knew that even if my DNA did come back with Native American markers or African DNA or any number of "interesting" locales, that wouldn't magically imbue me with a brand-new shiny heritage that was more exciting than the one I'd ended up with. I certainly knew better than to go out and redecorate the house with "tribal" knickknacks from Hobby Lobby, as that would have been the cherry on the cultural appropriation cake.
But for the first time in my life, while I was waiting for those DNA results, I really truly understood why someone would. I understood the allure of appropriation, the desire to set aside the crummy (or even just bland!) heritage you were given, and pick up a newer, better one while you were down at the corner store. I understood, basically, being Privileged Prince Caspian feeling that being a pampered prince with white privilege was the pits, and couldn't he please have something a little more interesting and exotic and Other for the taking? I got that, on a very personal level.
I didn't, as it turns out, get my wish. My results came back to confirm what anyone looking at our extensive family records could have guessed: we come largely from the British Isles, with a smattering of Central European DNA thrown in.
I can only guess why we came over to America so early and so quickly -- Adventurers? Prospectors? Criminals? Wealthy opportunists? -- and I can raise my eyebrow at my ancestors' insular unwillingness to chose their mates a little more creatively, but in the end none of this was really a surprise. We'll see if my results are "refined" as Ancestry.com fills in more profiles, but it looks like my dream of being magically made more interesting through the discovery of "exotic" DNA dies here.
And I think that's a good thing. But it was interesting for me to note, when I was digging through Liar for the quote way up at the top of the post, that Justine Larbalestier seemed to understand and anticipate my impulse for cultural appropriation. When her fictional high school children open their results, there is this exchange:
Brandon didn't believe it. Or said he didn't. But his 11 percent African made him happy. He started joking about basketball. As if a drop of African DNA would suddenly give him a crossover dribble.
"Oh, please," Tayshawn said, looking at Brandon as if he were something foul stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
"Eleven percent!" Brandon said.
"Which makes you 89 percent dickhead," Tayshawn said.
Everyone laughed. Brandon started to respond but Tayshawn was louder. "Says here I'm 23 percent white. That mean I'm gonna be a stockbroker who can't dance? Please."
Brandon laughed like it didn't bother him. But it did. The look he gave Tayshawn was savage.
Maybe genealogical DNA is something that some of us -- people like me and fictional!Brandon -- just aren't ready for, yet. Maybe we're still too stuck on the Nature side of the debate to forget that "Nature" means a lot more than just the sum of our DNA and that Nurture isn't something to be snubbed as unimportant, either. Maybe it's just too tempting for some of us to want to wake up tomorrow as something Old and something New: the same DNA we always were before, but with a brand new understanding of ourselves that makes us suddenly so much better -- better at basketball, better at feeling connected, better at whatever stereotype you want to reach for.
I'm not proud of the fact that for a time I was -- with the best of intentions -- Othering other cultures in the hopes that I might win the genetic lottery and become a part of that better Other that I had built up in my mind. But I understand now why the allure of cultural appropriation is so strong, because even knowing what I know, I was susceptible to it too.
Ana's Note: Please be aware that this article was written with regards to the "traditional" romanticization and appropriation of other cultures in the sense that we've been discussing in Narnia, with Prince Caspian being implied to be a "True Narnian" because he has built the Narnian culture up in his mind as a fantasy preferable to his current reality, and he is subsequently absorbed into this position of "True Narnian" without having to alter his lifestyle or be meaningfully challenged. I understand wanting to be able to do that via swapping-and-switching a few ancestors and voila! new cultural background and completely different heritage.
This post is not in response to the existence of Trans-Ethnic persons, which I was unaware of while writing this piece and about which I have little information and no opinion. (Since informed opinions require information and I have that in short supply.) What little information I have about Trans-Ethnicity tells me that it is a whole different kettle of fish than what I am attempting to address above, so when linking this piece please be aware of that -- my words and thoughts are meant to help illuminate people with Privilege (like me), but not to cause harm or hurt to the Marginalized.