The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To bring a divided country together, start with a little spit

Students in Anita Foeman’s class at West Chester University prepare samples for DNA testing. (Melissa Rudolph)
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Anita Foeman’s students had just gotten the results from their genetic tests, and they couldn’t wait to talk.

One said her dad cheered when she told him she has Zulu roots. A girl with curly red hair said her family always gathers around a Nativity scene on Christmas Eve and sings carols over the baby Jesus, and this year, after learning that she’s 1 percent Jewish, she said: “We’re going to sing the dreidel song!”

When a white student said that 1 percent of his ancestry was African, two black students sitting next to him gave him a fist bump and said: “Yes! Brother.”

‘I honestly thought of myself as simply American’: DNA testing shocks college students

“Some people have never had a happy conversation about race,” Foeman said. But in her class at West Chester University, there’s laughter. Eagerness. And easy connections where there might have been chasms. “Our differences are fascinating,” she said.

At a time when tensions over race and politics are so raw, the stakes, Foeman said, seem particularly high. Her students have been talking all fall about riots, building walls, terrorist attacks, immigration, the election. “You can feel it buzzing around the halls like electricity,” Foeman said.

Asking people to take DNA tests — an idea that has spread to a campuswide effort at this public university — grew out of consulting work Foeman does in race mediation. Instead of a confrontational approach, trying to provoke people into recognizing their own biases, she wanted something that would pull people together, or at least give them a neutral place from which to start to talk. And with racial divides so stark, she wanted to add some nuance and depth.

She wondered: What if people started finding out things they didn’t know about themselves?

So she begins with a short survey asking people their race and what they know about their ancestry. They spit into a vial. Several weeks later, they get an email with an estimate of their ethnic makeup, a color-coded map of their past.

That leads to questions, stories and curiosity. It is a welcome reset from awkwardness, defensiveness, suspicion. Now that the DNA tests are cheaper, Foeman is able to ask all the students in her honors class — almost all of them freshmen just getting to know or redefine themselves — to take the test.

University of British Columbia professor Wendy Roth explains genetic ancestry tests and how these tests influence how people understand race. (Video: YouTube/Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies)

There’s a broad range of people at this state school in Pennsylvania: There are students whose parents are college professors and those who are coal miners. There are students from abroad, from inner cities, and from parts of the state so rural that hunting helps put dinner on the table. There are transgender students, students who reject gender entirely, Bernie Sanders voters, Donald Trump voters, black people who have heard racial slurs, a biracial student who was told by a stranger last month to “go back to Mexico” and one who, growing up in a neighborhood where most people are black, was bullied because he is white. (“Who advocates for him?” Foeman asked. “The election and the protests have pushed that conversation forward.”)

Foeman, who is African American — and genetically more than one-quarter European, as she now knows — would like to test as many people as she can. It’s a way to study everything from medicine to history. Most of all, she’d like to get everyone talking.

She has found people willing, even eager, to take part, with more than 1,500 on campus volunteering.

“I think people want this,” she said. “That surprises me — in a good way.”

“When I opened my results, the first thing that greeted me was 6 percent African,” said a student with light skin in the back of the classroom, smacking herself in the forehead, mouth open wide, to recreate her reaction the night before: “Whaaaaat?”

“I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised,” she added. “I know a lot of African American people have some white DNA, so I shouldn’t be surprised there’s some African in me.”

Another student said when she called her parents to tell them she was 75 percent Irish and 10 percent Scandinavian, “My mom started cheering through the phone,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why are you cheering?'”

“It’s interesting the ones you cheer for and the ones you go, ‘Ehhhhhhh,'” Foeman said. “There are ones you lean into.”

That’s how family histories get told, and identities defined, she says. Some things are exaggerated, some covered up, or forgotten. “There are all kinds of secrets in families.”

A student with bright red hair sent her mother a screen shot of her results, telling her: “‘We’re not Irish at all.’ Her first response was: ‘You must have the wrong data.'”

And then: “‘Don’t tell your grandfather. It might kill him.'”

Foeman has seen people drop out of the project after getting their results, including three people who identified as African American who were upset to find out how much European ancestry they had. Some people refuse to take the test. One woman of Chinese descent told Foeman, “It’s okay for you — you already know you’re mixed up. I don’t want to find out I’m not pure.”

And some people resist some of the findings, like the student who insisted he just tans easily.

Statistically, Foeman and her colleague Bessie Lawton have found people overestimate their European heritage and whiteness, and underestimate ancestry from other regions. Half the people think their families will respond positively to results before they take the test. Afterward, fewer than 1 in 10 think so.

“People don’t realize they think this stuff,” Foeman said. “They would say they have no prejudices. They just get quiet.”

In class, there were a few quiet moments. But mostly people were rushing to talk — to tell about the great-grandfather who was a Portuguese pirate, the grandfather who was a Black Panther, the grandmother who doesn’t like black people, the great-grandmother whose skin is so very much lighter than her siblings and everyone will be very angry if anyone asks why that is. The grandmother who, on her deathbed at 99, insisted that the family’s roots went back to William the Conqueror, though no one thought the family was of British descent at all. (That student’s test results indicated they were, in fact, British. “Even up to the end, you gave Grandma no respect!” Foeman teased.)

Emma Krentler, who has pale skin and brown hair, told the class she knew of Italian and German ancestors and expected some kind of a split between the two. Instead, she found a much more intricate tapestry: 2 percent North African, 13 percent west Asian, 2 percent Jewish. And when she saw “Middle Eastern — I was like, ‘What? What?’ It was complete and utter surprise.”

“Who are these people?!” Foeman laughed with her.

Strummer Steele said the results indicated an Arab Jewish identity and said in these times, neither of those is a safe thing to point out: “There were swastikas painted in Philly yesterday.”

After the election, Foeman said, “People on all sides are smarting. How do we start to approach each other again?”

Several students said they thought genetic testing could help. Amari Gilmore, who is African American, mentioned the historical labeling of people as black if they had even one black ancestor. Cassandra Carabello, who identifies as Hispanic, said her results indicated she was almost one-fifth African. “That would change everything,” she said. “Black lives matter?”

“If everyone had the opportunity to take this test, it would just bring us closer together,” Carabello said. “I’m 7 percent Irish. Now I feel connected to that in some way.” She’s 41 percent Native American. For every race, she now feels, viscerally, “We have something in common.”

Lawton said the results show what researchers already know, that people are 99.9 percent the same in terms of DNA. “The only part that makes us look different is 0.1 percent,” she said.

James Devor, who voted for Trump, said people talk about politics in class in ways they don’t elsewhere on campus. One student told the class about how she started to tell a group of friends she’s Republican and they walked away, furious with her. The class listened. People talked about being scared about deportations, and the class listened. A black student told how she was saddened by results that evoked some of the horrors of slavery, and the class listened.

The DNA test “helps us understand we’re not all from one special place, which is really peculiar to America,” Devor said. “Because we’re all from different areas, with different ideas that come with that ethnic culture. What makes America great is we have all those cultures combined.”