Nowadays, it’s become fairly easy and cheap to order a DNA testing kit that can determine your ancestral ethnicity and genealogical relationships. Some people, however, tend to ignore some parts of their ancestry and embrace others –whichever fits their perceived identity — a new study concluded.
Genetic ancestry testing is supposed to be a way for people curious about their family history to go beyond what they can learn from relatives or from historical documentation. This kind of DNA-based tests works by looking at specific locations of a person’s genome in order to spot patterns of genetic variation. These patterns are often shared among people of particular backgrounds, and the more closely related two individuals, families, or populations are, the more patterns of variation they typically share.
Taking such a test might, for instance, tell you that your ancestry is approximately 50 percent African, 25 percent European, 20 percent Asian, and 5 percent unknown.
But not everyone is prepared to accept the ancestry test’s results. Wendy Roth, associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, along with colleagues, recruited 100 individuals who had to take a genetic ancestry test. Before taking the test, the American participants identified as either white, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, or Native American.
The researchers used a series of questionnaires and interviews to establish each participant’s ethnic and racial identities. The participants were then interviewed a second time, 18 months after taking the genetic testing, in order to see how each person interpreted the results. Remarkably, “consumers’ prior racialization also influences their identity aspirations; white respondents aspired to new identities more readily and in substantively different ways,” the authors wrote American Journal of Sociology.
“People often buy these genetic ancestry tests because they’re looking for a sense of belonging or to confirm a story that’s been passed down in their family,” said Roth in a statement. “But if the test results don’t support what they want to believe, we found that people will often ignore the results or criticize them. We tend to cherry-pick the parts of our family story that we like most and want to emphasize.”
One participant, named “Eduardo,” self-identified as a white Mexican American before taking the test. However, his genetic ancestry test results reported Native American, Celtic, and Jewish ancestries. Eduardo embraced his Jewish identity but disregarded his Celtic ancestry. “I always looked up to the Jewish people… I thought of them as higher than me,” he told the researchers. “Shannon” was adopted and always thought she had Native American roots, which the test revealed she did not. Despite the results, Shannon chose to disregard them, citing that the test is wrong and continuing to identify as Native American.
The researchers theorized that how a person chose to interpret such genetic ancestry results is influenced by their identity aspirations and social appraisals. Now, it seems that prior racialization also plays an important part.
In particular, white people were more likely to embrace new racial identities, but only as long as they felt others would still accept them.
“White identity is something that lots of people around them have, so it doesn’t feel special,” said Roth. “Part of it may be guilt about being white and feeling somewhat privileged. They want something that makes them feel unique, whereas for many people of color, they’ve known all along that they have some racial mixture in their ancestry, and it’s not as surprising.”
There are more than 74 companies in the United States offering genetic ancestry tests. Roth cautions, however, that people ought to be careful how they interpret these results.
“There are many ways in which genetic tests that tell you the percentages of your ancestry are misleading and they’re often misunderstood,” said Roth. “Some tests can be useful for helping people track down long-lost relatives who are genetic matches, if they’re lucky. But people who use these tests to determine their race or inform their sense of identity should be aware that this isn’t the right way to think about it.”
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!