The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can DNA tests tell us who we are? Only if we’re racists.

Scientist Extracting a Rack Tube With Samples in Lab. Science, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine and People Concept. (iStock)
Scientist Extracting a Rack Tube With Samples in Lab. Science, Chemistry, Biology, Medicine and People Concept. (iStock)

Growing up in a homogeneously white Jewish family and going to a homogeneously white Jewish school, I always wondered if there was anything else to my family’s heritage. Some in my father’s swarthy family liked to claim descent from Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition to Poland — perhaps there was a reason for my affinity for Mediterranean food! And my grandmother liked to talk about her pale mother heralding from Sweden — maybe I had long-lost relatives in charming Stockholm!

As DNA tests grew more popular and affordable, my curiosity got the better of me. For about $100, a vial of saliva and a couple weeks of waiting, a company promised a pie chart revealing my ethnic ancestry.

The results came back. I was, according to the monochrome chart, “100% European Jewish.”

Looking back, I regret taking the test. Not because it confirmed the ancestry I could have guessed, nor even for the serious privacy concerns raised by giving my genetic code to a company. What I regret is the ease with which I accepted the racist implications underlying the test: a desire to understand who I am through DNA. In using DNA ancestry tests, we reduce the culture and lived experience that have long defined ethnicity to a biological, racial signifier that is neither especially relevant nor particularly accurate. By joining in, I inadvertently bought into the dangerous notion that who we are lies fundamentally in our blood.

There’s no putting the genie of DNA testing back in the bottle. But instead of allowing it to cement racialized ways of thinking, we can use these tests to highlight how meaningless genetic ancestry is compared with the many other factors that shape our experience of ourselves and our communities.

That’s exactly what happened in 2018, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a DNA test that indicated distant Native American ancestry. In many ways, Warren was just using the same flawed, racist logic that I — and all other DNA testers — followed. Native American leaders rightly pushed back at the time, but the rest of us should, too, when people put undue weight on the findings of these kits.

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For most of human history, the concept of peoplehood — of belonging to a group larger than one’s extended family — has been largely determined by shared cultural practices (such as religion, customs and language) or political institutions. Even when groups have claimed common descent from mythological figures, as Han Chinese do, “blood relations” have remained a smaller and unverifiable component of peoplehood.

This more capacious notion of belonging is how heritage is lived day to day for most people. I didn’t need a DNA test to identify as a Jew of European ancestry. I already knew that from my family and my culture: from my religion (Judaism), the language of my grandparents (Yiddish), the food I grew up with (noodle kugel, an almost sickly sweet casserole) and the stories of my great-grandparents, fleeing pogroms and learning of the murder of their siblings in the Holocaust. And yet, no matter how strong it was, this sense of cultural heritage didn’t feel like enough for me. In a society that determines so much based on blood — money, connections, assumptions about character — culture by itself felt like an unreliable narrator of my identity. And I wasn’t alone: More than 26 million people are estimated to have taken genealogical DNA tests. Why?

The answer goes back to the 18th and 19th centuries, when European colonialism and the slave trade birthed the modern concept of race.

As societies were built and genocides committed on the basis of racial hierarchy, it became imperative for racists to prove the biological existence of race. And so race “science” emerged, seeking to dislodge cultural heritage as the prime difference between groups of people. “Aryan” became synonymous with “German,” excluding the many Jewish and Slavic speakers of the language. Graduates of southern Africa’s missionary academies faced a colonial society that saw them as black first, Christian second.

While the days of measuring foreheads and skulls are (largely) behind us, race science got a new lease on life when, in the 1950s, scientists discovered the molecular structure of DNA. By the 1980s DNA testing could reliably prove paternity, and by the late 1990s, the first direct-to-consumer genealogical DNA tests were brought to market.

Ironically, as academics were reaching the consensus that race is a social construct with no basis in biology — about 94 percent of human genetic variation occurs within so-called racial groups, with racial difference accounting for only 6 percent — the popularity of DNA testing was helping undermine that very idea. According to a study from DNA tester 23andMe and Northwestern University’s Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy, almost 53 percent of Americans think biology at least somewhat determines their racial identity. Unsurprisingly, this faith in biological race is stronger among those who benefit from its supposed existence: Two-thirds of white Americans believe that their racial identity is determined by their DNA, compared with about half of black, Latino and Asian Americans. Only 35 percent of those surveyed believe that shared history or culture determines their racial identity.

The dark side of our genealogy craze

That assumption is all the more corrosive when looking at the very inexact “science” of genealogical DNA testing. While population geneticists have found that slight biological differences emerged as humans spread across the globe — with some groups barely having contact with one another for millennia — there is no mythical “Jewish gene” or “black gene” that can be identified from your spit. Rather, DNA tests merely compare patterns in your genome with those of groups of people who have been identified as belonging to different ethnicities based on traditional genealogical research (vital records, family trees, etc.). As science journalist Rafi Letzter explains, “If your 23andMe test says you’re 29 percent British, it’s because 29 percent of the pieces of your DNA were most likely to have come from a group that 23andMe’s reference library has labeled ‘British.’ ”

This means ethnicity estimates from companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA tell a much narrower story than consumers — led along by marketing campaigns — read into them. For one, such estimates are only as good as the companies’ pattern-matching algorithms and DNA reference libraries, which can be incomplete and haphazardly assembled. In fact, these companies’ ethnicity estimates for the same person can vary substantially.

Genetic heritage without cultural and social context is meaningless. And yet, despite years of warnings from scientists about the shortcomings of this “genetic astrology,” sales of genealogical DNA tests continue to reach new highs.

Perhaps that is not surprising: In a society that continues to structure lives along the hierarchy of race, it is difficult to leave behind the reassuring neatness of blood ancestry — of, in an age of turbulence and uncertainty, knowing exactly and objectively who we are — for the reality of mixing, moving and contradiction that makes up our history on this planet.

As Chuck Hoskin Jr., then the Cherokee Nation’s secretary of state, wrote in response to Warren’s DNA testing controversy, “We are [tribal] citizens through historical documentation, adopted laws and a shared language and culture that make us unique.” DNA tests, he said, are “useless to determine tribal citizenship.”

Most Americans will probably not heed the Cherokee Nation’s conception of identity and ethnic belonging. Warren herself did not for a while, apologizing publicly only months later. But apology and regret are the first steps to understanding the harm that DNA ancestry tests do to all of us. That’s something I know now, and I hope anyone who has taken or is considering such a test learns it, too.

Twitter: @freedaaron

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