As more Americans take advantage of genetic testing to pinpoint the makeup of their DNA, the technology is coming head to head with the country’s deep-rooted obsession with race and racial myths. This is perhaps no more true than for the growing number of self-identified European Americans who learn they are actually part African.
For those who are surprised by their genetic heritage, the new information can often set into motion a complicated recalibration of how they view their identity.
Nicole Persley, who grew up in Nokesville, Va., was stunned to learn that she is part African. Her youth could not have been whiter. In the 1970s and ’80s in her rural home town, she went to school with farmers’ kids who listened to country music and sometimes made racist jokes. She was, as she recalls, “basically raised a Southern white girl.”
But as a student at the University of Michigan: “My roommate was black. My friends were black. I was dating a black man.” And they saw something different in her facial features and hair.
“I was constantly being asked, ‘What are you? What’s your ethnic background?’ ”
While African Americans generally assume that they may carry non-African DNA dating back to the rape of African slaves by white slavetraders and owners, many white Americans like Persley grow up believing that their ancestry is fully European, a belief manifested in things from kitschy “100 percent Irish” T-shirts to more-sinister racial “purity” affiliations.
Now, for under $100, it has become increasingly easy to spit into a vial and receive a scientifically accurate assessment of one’s genetic makeup. Companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com provide a list of countries or regions where the predominant genetic traits match those of one’s forebears. (There is no DNA category for race, because a genetic marker for it does not exist.)
In recent years, multiracial Americans have increasingly entered the national consciousness. Between 1970 and 2013, the portion of babies living with two parents of different races rose from 1 percent to 10 percent, the Pew Research Center found. From 2010 to 2016, those who identified as being of two or more races grew by 24 percent, according to census data, a jump that could have had as much to do with the changing way in which Americans identify themselves as an actual increase in the racially mixed population.
But when the mixing happened several generations back, it can take people by surprise. While little data exists comparing people’s perceptions with the reality of their ethnic makeup, a 2014 study of 23andMe customers found that around 5,200, or roughly 3.5 percent, of 148,789 self-identified European Americans had 1 percent or more African ancestry, meaning they had a probable black ancestor going back about six generations or less.
The discovery elicits a range of emotions. Given the fraught history of slavery and racism, finding out that one is part African makes some people feel vulnerable, even defensive, while others celebrate the discovery. At the DNA Discussion Project, an initiative at West Chester University in Pennsylvania that surveys people about their perceptions of their genetic makeup before and after DNA tests, 80 percent of the 3,000-odd people they have surveyed self-identify as white. Of those, two-thirds see themselves as of only one race, and they are more likely to be shocked and unhappy with unexpected African ancestry than those who identify as mixed or other races, according to a peer-reviewed paper conducted by the project.
But for some, white identity trumps DNA. If the test result is too disruptive to their sense of self, they may rationalize it away. One white supremacist who discovered he had African DNA claimed on the white nationalist website Stormfront.com that the testing company was part of a Jewish conspiracy to “defame, confuse and deracinate young whites on a mass level.” Members of white nationalist groups have advised those who discover non-Aryan heritage to rely more on genealogy or the “mirror test,” as quoted in a sociological study of Stormfront members discussing ancestry-test results. (“When you look in the mirror, do you see a jew? If not, you’re good,” one commenter wrote.)
“For me, the number one takeaway is how easily people reject science,” said Anita Foeman, a professor of communication studies who co-directs the DNA Discussion Project, whose respondents are mostly in and around Philadelphia. (In a sample of 217 self-identified European Americans from the project, 22 percent learned that they had African DNA.)
“Many whites would get a new story and say, ‘I’m still going to call myself ‘white,’ or ‘I’m still going to call myself ‘Italian,’ ” Foeman said. “They started to less see race as genetic and more a question of culture and [physical appearance].”
The project found certain groups — younger people and women, for example — to be more open to the news. “Women just tend to be more flexible in terms of racial identification,” Foeman said.
Reassessing the past
In an era when technology is partly blamed for an increased sense of polarization, it is perhaps ironic that a technological advance is helping to blow up some of that. And because users can connect with relatives on the DNA registries, some white test-takers have been fascinated to find fourth or fifth cousins who are black.
The test results can present an intriguing puzzle. When a significant amount of African DNA shows up in a presumably white person, “there’s usually a story — either a parent moved away or a grandparent died young,” said Angela Trammel, an investigative genealogist in the Washington area. “Usually a story of mystery, disappearance — something.”
For Persley, 46, the link turned out to be her grandfather, who had moved away from his native Georgia and started a new life passing as white in Michigan. He married a white woman, who bore Persley’s father.
But in researching her genealogy after college, Persley discovered that her grandfather’s brother, her great-uncle, continued to identify as African American back in Macon and became a celebrated architect. A recent genetic test confirmed that Persley’s DNA is around 8 percent African.
“That was a bombshell revelation for me and my family,” said Persley, now an artist and real estate investor in Boca Raton, Fla. She doubts her father knew. “My father had already passed away, so I could not ask him. It would have been, I think, a very difficult conversation to have with him, and I don’t think he would have been pleased. . . . I’m absolutely proud of my genealogy and my heritage, but I think my father would have thought I was dishonoring his father, because it was a secret and I dug it up.”
Her mother was flabbergasted.
“Her jaw dropped,” Persley said, “and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I was married to a black man and I didn’t even know it!’ ”
Persley now recalls hints in her father — his laugh, his mannerisms — that remind her of black friends and make her sad about connections that were lost.
“To me, that’s the real tragedy of it,” she said. “His father had to completely reinvent himself and cut everyone in his family off, and that’s so tragic.”
For Brendan Lordan, 18, of Wallingford, Pa., the test also helped fill in missing family lore. He grew up believing that he was German and Irish, and had known about all his relatives except for a great-great-grandmother.
“Nobody knew her name or who she was,” Lordan said. She had had three sons, but they were taken away from her as infants. “When she was on her deathbed, one of them was allowed to go in and talk to her for a few minutes, but only with the light off.”
The family assumed it was because she was socially inferior to the boys’ father, perhaps a prostitute. But when Lordan’s DNA test came back 4 percent African, another narrative emerged: that she was black but her sons had been light enough to pass as white.
Hope in a vial
Comparing his test results to the family history made the fair-skinned Lordan reconsider his assumptions.
“The rule in the Old South was a drop of African blood makes you African,” he said. But now that the drops can be measured, “it sort of made race seem a lot more arbitrary. You’d never think I had African heritage just by looking at me. . . . It’s sort of made me disregard race more.”
Still, those drops have had a potent effect on people’s identities. For some whites, even a smidgen of African ancestry was commonly referred to as “the taint,” said Harvard University African and African American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “That said it all: that it was something to be ashamed of, something dark and dirty.”
Gates, whose PBS show “Finding Your Roots” helped actor Ty Burrell and singer Carly Simon discover that they had African ancestry, said he hopes that mounting awareness of the complexity of DNA will help lead to greater understanding across racial and ethnic lines.
“One of the pleasures I get from doing ‘Finding Your Roots’ is to show that we’re all mixed and that for 50,000 years everybody’s been sleeping with everybody — and that makes me blissfully happy, because my enemy is racism,” he said.
Often, African DNA is hard to source. Lisa Gross, 55, a sixth- or seventh-generation Kentuckian, grew up hearing she had Native American ancestry, a common narrative for families with unexplained dark complexions. So, in 2014, she mailed in her saliva sample to find out.
The results showed her to be mostly European, but while there was a trace of Native American DNA, “the bigger surprise was that I have a significant amount of sub-Saharan markers,” she said. “I was thrilled. I thought, ‘Wow — where’s that? Where did that come from?’ . . . It’s someone within the last 10 generations. That would go back to about 1600.”
Gross’s relatives came to the New World in the mid-1700s, so the African DNA contribution may have happened in Europe, she said.
“In the best-case scenario, it’s someone who is not in servitude, who was not a slave,” she said. “It’s a free person who enters into the relationship of their own free will, who is not coerced, who is not commanded. That is what I hope. But history tells us that that is probably not the case.”
As DNA tests become more commonplace, Foeman hopes that they will help shift the cultural paradigm. “We are living at a time when people think they have to stick in their camps, but I think people are getting exhausted by that,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for us to reboot the conversation about race.”
For Persley, it did.
“I felt kind of like a spy, because if I was in a group of white people and they were throwing around the n-word or racist jokes, I felt like I couldn’t idly stand by anymore,” Persley said. “I became kind of an activist. I’d say, ‘Don’t talk like that around me. It offends me — stop.’ ”
Gross, too, said that the discovery made her realize how artificial some cultural narratives can be.
“In this day and time,” she said, “I think that we need to be open to these experiences, and when you think about the concept of race and ‘I’m 100 percent this,’ it’s almost laughable.”
This story has been updated.