Adapted from the new book The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland, published by Abrams Press. © 2020 Libby Copeland
23andMe’s senior director of research, Joanna Mountain, says she’s long wondered how recreational DNA testing affects our thinking about genetic differences. This is more than a mere academic concern. More than than 30 million people have spit into vials or swabbed their cheeks in an ongoing search for family, history, and identity that has transformed America into a nation of seekers in recent years, and 23andMe’s database contains about a third of them. We test to find genetic relatives and to get those little ethnicity pie charts that promise to tell us how Irish, Korean, or Nigerian we are. But, as I reported on the industry for my book, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing Is Upending Who We Are, I found myself wondering whether these pie charts are bringing us together or driving us apart. This is a question with special resonance at this moment, as we wrestle with how race leads to disparate experiences in matters of policing, pandemic-related health outcomes, and countless aspects of daily life in America.
When 23andMe was founded in 2006, its primary goals were to offer consumers access to their own genetic information so they could better manage their health, and to create a vast database of genomic information for research. It didn’t set out to help people explore their ethnic and racial identities, but over time it became clear to Mountain that this was part of the work it was doing. In 2008, the company debuted something called Ancestry Painting, which attempted to show customers’ ancestral mixes by dividing their chromosomes into crude geographic categories—Africa, Asia, and Europe—based on the technology available at the time. “It was very disturbing for me because it aligned closely with the big three racial categories,” says Mountain, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics and was formerly a professor at Stanford. She worried such a simplistic breakdown might reinforce people’s notions of essential biological difference along racial lines.
But in time, the company’s results improved, becoming more refined. Mountain started hearing more and more stories about consumers discovering unexpected ancestral stories, including ones that crossed the color line, and she wondered what effect such results might be having. When consumers discovered this diversity within themselves, would that make them more flexible in how they thought about race? Meanwhile, 23andMe was studying this diversity as well as the legacy of historical constructions of race. In 2015, 23andMe population geneticist Kasia Bryc, along with Mountain, Harvard geneticist David Reich, and others, published a study from the company’s consumer data revealing that close to 4 percent of those who identified as white Americans had at least 1 percent African ancestry, consistent with an African ancestor within the last 11 generations or so. (In Southern states like South Carolina and Louisiana, about 12 percent of whites had 1 percent African ancestry or more.) The work prompted Henry Louis Gates Jr. to observe, “What hasn’t been confirmed until now is how many self-identified ‘white’ women and men are walking around today with recent ‘hidden’ African ancestry in their families—you know, white people, who, at least according to the old, notorious ‘one-drop rule’ of the Jim Crow era, would have been considered legally ‘black.’ ”
Research is demonstrating the importance of how we frame discussions of genetic difference. In DNA Is Not Destiny, cultural psychologist Steven J. Heine shows that American subjects who tend to believe that genes determine life outcomes also tend to be more bigoted toward Black Americans. “Thinking about genes as underlying essences and having racist thoughts seem to go hand in hand,” he writes. But if the way we approach such questions can doom us, it can also save us. Heine points to more research showing that when we focus on our sameness, we do better, as in his study showing that adults prompted to consider genetic commonalities are more likely to offer environmental explanations for racial stereotypes.
We don’t yet know what impact the technology of DNA testing is having on attitudes about genetic difference. Mountain helped design a study conducted by Northwestern University that found one-third of Americans believed that genetics “totally” determines racial identity, and she hopes future collaborations can gauge whether DNA testing causes this belief to grow or shrink. Beyond this, research on the topic is in the early stages. A 2014 study out of Columbia University found that having subjects read a newspaper article about genetic ancestry tests appeared to “magnify the degree, generality, profundity, and essentialness of the racial differences people perceive to exist,” but additional work suggests that the effects are not so clear-cut. Professor Anita Foeman of Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, who studies people’s experiences of ancestry testing, told me she thinks the technology is opening up much more complex and sophisticated conversations about race. In one talk I watched, she put up pictures of a diverse range of people and invited the audience to speculate on who matched a particular pie chart. The blond woman was part Asian, according to testing, while the child of Indian immigrants had European ancestry. It was impossible to predict, which was exactly Foeman’s point—the genomics age can’t help but blow up our neat categories.
Sociologist Wendy Roth, now at the University of Pennsylvania, has found evidence for both theories: that ancestry testing reinforces our sense of immutable racial categories and it breaks them down. The difference depends on the test takers themselves. In a recent paper, she found that a tester’s knowledge of genetics made the biggest difference in how they understood the implications of a test. Among more than 800 subjects, Roth found that for those with high knowledge of genetics, taking a consumer DNA test generally reduced their belief in genetic essentialism. For those who went in with very low knowledge of genetics, “there’s some indication that it may actually increase belief in genetic essentialism,” she says. In previous research, Roth had observed that people were also motivated toward racial essentialism—or away from it—based on what they wanted to believe. One subject pleased to discover apparent Basque origins said it reinforced her sense that race was something revealed by DNA, while another subject, who wasn’t eager to embrace the Middle Eastern origins suggested by his test, preferred to see race as a social and economic construct.
“The way people interpret scientific evidence is not neutral,” Roth told one audience, likening the way people interpret ancestry tests to what they see when they look at Rorschach tests. Which gets us to another point: How people determine what portions of their pie charts to claim and what portions to ignore is a complex process indeed. People filter their ethnicity estimates through a complex web of cultural and personal realities. They bring ideas about truth and authenticity, fantasies about different cultures, and notions of the past. They bring their loyalties and longings and resentments, not to mention their genealogical knowledge for times when the paper trail clashes with the genetic one. In other words, they don’t accept their results uncritically.
But sometimes, those pie charts can offer them just what they’ve been looking for. On 23andMe’s podcast, Spit, company co-founder Anne Wojcicki told the story of an adoptee who wrote to say how meaningful the company’s ancestry composition report had been in her life. Upon discovering her true genetic heritage, she had quit her Bay Area job and gone to live with her people, an Indigenous population near the Arctic Circle. She told Wojcicki she felt at home for the first time. “And I take this story,” Wojcicki recounted, “and I walk over to my research team and I go, ‘You better be right.’ ”
Indeed, they’d better. Because consumer genomics is changing how some of us see ourselves. Wendy Roth has found that most testers tend to stick with the ethnic identity they had before the test, even when results reveal something unexpected. But for the sizable minority motivated to consider another identity, they pick and choose what to claim, often weaving the new knowledge in with an existing identity. What they choose is based on their aspirations and on how others respond to their claims to a newfound ancestry. In that sense, their ethnic identities are indeed—as philosopher Françoise Baylis describes it—a kind of ongoing social negotiation.
Interviewing 100 early adopters of DNA testing, Roth and colleagues found that white testers seemed more driven than other groups to seek out new ethnic and racial affiliations.
These seekers offered a host of explanations. They spoke of a desire to gain a sense of belonging and identity, and to distinguish themselves from what they saw as the blandness of being “just white.” Roth told me she was struck in her interviews by how many European Americans had lost connection to their ancestral roots.
But Roth also noticed that white testers were drawn to the “cultural cachet” of being multiracial. “For our white respondents, it is not being non-white that is most desirable, but having a bit of something non-white,” Roth observed. Roth found that testers who identified as Black or African American were far less inclined to incorporate new ancestral knowledge into their identities. In part, that’s because they tended to identify strongly and positively with their existing identities; unlike white respondents, they did not describe their race as boring and plain. As well, Roth says, the routine rape of Black women by white men under slavery, and a historical construction of race based on notions of white purity, meant the African Americans she interviewed had always assumed they were more than one thing. Finding evidence of other ancestries “doesn’t change the label that society applies to them and it doesn’t change the way that they think about what it means to be African American,” Roth says. A man interviewed in one of Foeman’s studies captured this point: “My momma used to tell me, ‘If the cops stop you, they’re not going to ask if your momma is from Ireland,’ ” said the subject, a dreadlocked university professor who identifies as Black, after getting DNA results suggesting he was primarily of European descent. “Even though I know that race is a social construction, it is as real as oxygen,” he said.
The DNA age forces reconciliation with the past, and with the countless ways in which it lingers and shapes our perspectives now. It forces reconciliation with what our culture, politics, and policies have told us about what race means. On the one hand, Wendy Roth finds her work demonstrating people’s selectivity heartening. It suggests that scientific knowledge is just part of how people construct their identities. On the other hand, Roth says, who picks and chooses what new information to incorporate into their identity is telling. The ability of white people to claim multiraciality or Blackness as something symbolic and “exotic,” to be revealed on a case-by-case basis when it suits them, means genetic ancestry testing may be reinforcing the privileges of those who already experience them.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.