Why I Won't Take an Ancestry DNA Test
A multiracial woman asserts that knowing her true heritage can't come by simply sending her saliva away to a lab.
For just $99, you can have your DNA sequenced by one of at least two companies who claim to be able to reveal or confirm critical information about you. This information could arouse suspicions of infidelity or alert you to latent health conditions. It’s all waiting for you at the click of a mouse and twist of a vial cap—the truth, allegedly.
Your genetic history and mine have been on the market for over a decade now. TV commercials show expressive, happy faces as graphs and maps unfold to reveal their ethnic origins. For a country that harbors so much science denialism, DNA tests seem to have taken off into the mainstream and become techy add-ons to the American family tree. But for me, a multiracial Black-American woman with generation-wide gaps in my family history, no amount of marketing will make me want to exchange my spit for a chart.
My ancestry is not data.
Our Family History Is Full of Surprises
For the first 15 years of my life, I believed that the last person in my lineage to immigrate to the United States was my paternal grandfather’s father. He came on a boat from Ireland, married and died of pneumonia in the late 1920s. However, it turns out that the last to immigrate was actually on my mother’s side.
As my aunts discovered from a comprehensive search on Ancestry.com, my maternal great-grandfather disembarked a boat from Havana in New York City around the time my paternal great-grandfather died, heading to the same Catholic heaven they both believed in. He would later abandon my great-grandmother and their three sons, who all bore Spanish names. He named my grandfather after himself, a legacy that ended abruptly. I do not know what he looked like.
My mother’s family is a generally light-skinned bunch. My mom always hated when people asked her if she was biracial or “from the islands.” “I’m Black,” was her retort, stated decisively despite her petite stature. That pride was not shared by all of her siblings. I know this by the way they handled this ancestry situation. Suddenly, some were ready to throw American Blackness aside for Latinidad, failing to recognize that great-grandfather’s census documents listed “Negro” next to “Naturalized,” clear as day.
“We’re not really Black,” I overheard one holiday. By the time I was 14, I was no stranger to being told I wasn’t really Black by strangers who interrogated me about what I was. They would insist that I was mistaken, that I was actually Arab or Puerto Rican. They winced at the word “Black,” as though it was a dirty secret that I should not speak of. I realized that because my explanation did not contain a country of origin, people viewed my African-American identity as a farce and a pity. But I never expected to hear this sentiment from my own family.
Our New Family History Was Tricky to Navigate
From the inside, we still seemed Black. We still ate the same foods and carried the same linguistic tendencies passed down from our Southern ancestors. Yet I noticed odd subtleties on some family members’ social media. “Being Latino” memes were being shared, with awkward references to “Qué Pasa, USA?” made. “I know you didn’t really watch that,” I thought. I chuckled at a mechanically translated status update in Spanish, a language I studied for ten years. I wasn’t laughing at them—I was just as excited and confused by the introduction of this new puzzle piece. I wanted to fit it in too, but not in a way that denied my—our—Blackness.
During one of many private identity crises, I told my boyfriend that I didn’t feel accepted by anyone. At 18, I felt rejected by white and Black people alike. People readily accepted me as Latina, but it wasn’t that much of my heritage, and I knew nothing of Cuban culture. Self-righteous and annoyed, he texted, “I’ll buy you a DNA test and you can get this over with.”
Rage boiled within me, steeped with years of jokes from friends about how I didn’t know what I was. It made me feel like an animal, a mysterious creature that needed to be identified, typified, and contained. He wanted science to intervene and uncomplicate me because to him, my non-whiteness was burdensome and my Blackness wholly intolerable.
We Can’t Trust Science to Define Who We Are
Science is not a white invention, but it has been used in service of white supremacist societies to “prove” that those of European descent are more human than the indigenous peoples of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. Heads were measured and humans caged in exhibition halls to demonstrate the savagery of The Other. The American-born field of eugenics was founded to justify the enslavement of African people and the genocide of Native people. Nazis took notes from the United States as they plotted to codify anti-Semitism. In the DNA of modern science lies a tightly coiled streak of racism.
I am a who, not a what, and therefore a DNA test cannot tell me anything useful. Answers do not reside within my blood. I do not care to see my heritage approximated with vague labels that reinforce the same stereotype as the kids who joked that I “must love watermelon” believed: that all Black people are intrinsically the same. This science birthed the idea that anyone with “one drop of Black blood” could be enslaved as well as the accompanying vocabulary of mulatto, quadroon and octoroon. This matrix of mythology gave scientific legitimacy to slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and mass incarceration. My ancestors did not survive to become data points. They survived so that I could know I am whole.
One of my aunts purchased a DNA test several years ago. It didn’t receive much attention in the family gossip mill and I’ve never seen the results. She mentioned that the largest percentage was labeled Senegalese. This does not make me Senegalese—Senegal did not exist when my ancestors were taken. Are we Cuban, then? Sort of, yes, given that had my great-grandfather not absconded his culture could have been part of our lives. Our African lineage was scattered across the Atlantic world by force. The way we choose to make sense of it is deeply human, individual and unscientific. It is rooted in choice.
This year, I spent $40 on virtual conga lessons, $50 on used books about history and I watched Roots (on Hulu, to which I already subscribe). I cried generously. For less than $99, I feel closer to knowing my ancestors than before. I grow closer to them every time I read, sing or dance through our collective history and add my own contributions. I am not seeking proof, for there is no one to who I need to prove myself. Instead, I am opening my heart to my ancestors. I trust them to tell me the truth.