DNA And The Quest For Identity

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Stacey Devlin

“Genetic Testing,” xkcd. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.5

Whether or not family history interests you, it’s hard to escape the recent surge in advertising for genealogy-driven DNA tests, particularly the service offered by genealogy giant Ancestry. Ancestry has been heavily promoting this service through both online ads and television commercials, and it represents a fascinating development for family historians who can now use genetic information to find distant or sparsely documented relatives. However, the main thrust of the ad campaigns has not been to advertise the research benefits of DNA, but to appeal to a search for identity and belonging through our connections to ethnic communities. This introduces a number of problematic ideas around the intersection of genetics, personal identity, and racism. Does DNA really help you find out who you are? And does finding “who you are” entitle you to belong to a community that has never embraced you as a member?

DNA testing services are nothing new, and they all follow the same basic formula: spit into a test tube, pay a processing fee, ship the sample and wait for your results to arrive. These results usually take the form of basic ethnicity and health indicators as well as genetic predispositions towards various diseases. The fresh appeal of genealogy-driven services like Ancestry DNA lies in their databases, which compare every test to all other users in order to identify relatives. This has the potential to reveal previously unknown ancestors or confirm relationships that may have only been guessed at. It’s an exciting new option for genealogists who want to supplement their existing research.

However, the advertising campaigns for these DNA tests appeals more to a quest for identity than to the potential research benefits. This shift in emphasis from documentary evidence to genetics represents a dramatic shift in Ancestry’s marketing. The cornerstone of Ancestry’s empire (and indeed a primary motivation for most genealogists and family historians) has been the concept that knowing who you are comes from your connection to the past and from finding the stories of your ancestors in archival documents. Recent advertising flips this on its head to suggest that knowing who you are comes not from painstaking research, but from discovering your genetic makeup. In other words, genetic information is a marker not only of biological identity, but of personal identity.

“Knowing who you are. Now that’s a great gift,” reads a banner ad for DNA tests on the home page of Ancestry.ca. “What are you? What are you? What are you?” a millennial laughs at the beginning of a Youtube advertisement, going on to explain how Ancestry DNA resolved her identity crisis and provided an answer for when others asked “what” she is.

For the avid researcher and amateur genealogist alike, DNA testing offers reassuringly scientific proof in a field where so much must be pieced together from an incomplete historic record. Genetic information seems to promise insights into our past which are indisputable and not open to interpretation. However, this leads to highly problematic conclusions when we apply the “hard facts” of genetics to our lived experiences and to such charged topics as colonialism and racism.

Genealogy-driven DNA tests take a strange turn at the intersection of genetics, personal identity, and ethnic diversity. One long-form ad films a social experiment where individuals volunteer to do a DNA test. They are later shocked when their results include nations/ethnicities that they previously admitted they were prejudiced against. One woman tearfully claims near the end of the commercial that “there would be no such thing as racism” if such tests were mandatory. After all, we are one human family, and to believe that such a thing as pure race exists is to ignore our collective genetic history.

While it is true that genetics help to reveal the complexities of our ethnic makeup (and thereby subvert the notion of pure races), undoing the ongoing effects of systemic racism can never be as simple as spitting into a tube. This understanding of DNA completely bypasses the complexities of lived experiences and the social environments in which diverse cultures interact. A troubling consequence of this is the idea that DNA can entitle a person to belong to an ethnic community which may have no reason to accept them as a member. It’s endearing when a kindly older man on a commercial jokes about how his test results prompted him to “trade [his] lederhosen for a kilt,” but DNA offers no basis for claiming cultures that have never claimed you in return.

The CBC recently featured an interview with Dr. Kim Tallbear (University of Alberta), Dr. Alondra Nelson (Columbia University), and Dr. Charles Menzies (University of British Columbia), summarized on its website under the title “Sorry, that DNA test doesn’t make you indigenous,” which addressed some of these issues around genetics and racism. The interviewees were responding to a commercial that aired prominently during this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs, which featured a woman discussing her discovery that she is 26 percent Native American. The CBC interview highlighted the fact that belonging to any sort of ethnic community comes with a host of experiences, ways of life, intergenerational history, and perspectives that are completely independent from genetic markers. Dr. Kim Tallbear was also interviewed regarding DNA testing for a July 2016 episode of The Henceforward podcast, in which she similarly argued that genetic markers are not synonymous with identity. Geneticists use information from DNA for very narrowly defined purposes, and when DNA is taken out of the laboratory and into a social context it all too easily becomes a tool for defining indigeneity from without.

In cases where family heritage has been systematically erased (for example, historic slavery in North America), or where such information is inaccessible (as in the case of many adoptees), DNA is a helpful tool to reclaim lost history. However, when used to strongarm one’s way into an ethnic community, DNA becomes a way to engage in colonialism. Not only is it condescending and presumptuous to insist on adopting a culture regardless of one’s personal experiences in it, but “Cherokee great-grandmother” racism adopts what is beneficial, romantic, or attractive while maintaining the privilege of ignoring any negative stereotypes, traumatic history, or contemporary hardships that are faced by lifelong members of that community.

The increasing availability of personal DNA tests and their use in genealogy databases is opening exciting new avenues for family historians. However, while DNA results seem to be indisputable and objective, the implications of these results, especially as suggested in recent commercials, must be considered with care and criticism. DNA is not identity. Genetics are not lived experiences. To conflate these puts us in danger of reinforcing the very boundaries that DNA tests are being advertised to overcome.

Stacey Devlin is a Research Associate with Know History Inc. in Ottawa, Ontario, where she provides historical research and genealogy services, GIS support, and social network analysis. Stacey holds an M.A. in Public History from Western University.

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