written by Love Isn’t Enough editor Tami Winfrey Harris; originally posted at What Tami Said
[Editor's note: This post is not about parenting, but it is about racial identity--something that has been on my mind of late. Though I would share.]
I have spent a lot of time over the past few days ruminating on racial identity. My thoughts were sparked by a confluence of events: Last week, PBS aired the final episode of Dr. Henry Louis Gates’ “Faces of America”–the one where participants including comedian Stephen Colbert, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and poet Elizabeth Alexander learned the results of autosomal DNA tests designed to uncover their “racial” lineage. I received a link to a study being conducted by the University of British Columbia, seeking to determine if and how similar DNA tests have influenced participants’ identities. And I also received the results of my own autosomal test–the most recent of several DNA tests I have taken to help further my family history research, pinpoint my African origins and shed more light on my lineage. So, I have been wondering:
- Can getting a piece of paper in the mail that says 20 percent this and 30 percent that and 50 percent the other change the way we see ourselves? Should it?
- What does it mean for someone who identifies as culturally mono-racial to discover they are, in fact, genetically multi-racial?
- What does it mean for a person of color in America to discover that they are genetically more white than anything else?
- What are African Americans to feel about those white ancestors who are on our family trees because of the sexual violence regularly committed against our enslaved foremothers?
- Should finding out that one is, for instance, of 50 percent English ancestry, lead a person of color to embrace that culture despite how that DNA came to be a part of her? What about Native American or Asian ancestry?
What is BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA)?
BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA) is the term given to the biological or genetic component of race. BGA is a simple and objective description of the Ancestral origins of a person, in terms of the major population groups. (e.g. Indigenous American, East Asian, European, sub-Saharan African, etc.). BGA estimates are able to represent the mixed nature of many people and populations today. In the US, as in many other countries across the globe, there has been extensive mixing among populations that had initially been separate. In the fields of human genetics and anthropology, this mixing is referred to as admixture. BGA estimates can also be understood as individual admixture proportions, which take the form of a series of percentages that add to 100%. For example, a person in question may be found to have: 75% European; 15% African; 10% Indigenous American ancestry, or they may be found to have 100% European ancestry.
How is BioGeographical Ancestry estimated?
The AncestrybyDNA™ test uses an especially selected panel of Ancestry Informative Markers (AIMs) that have been characterized in a large number of well-defined population samples. These markers are selected on the bases of showing substantial differences in frequency between population groups and, as such, can tell us about the origins of a particular person whose ancestry is unknown. For example, the Duffy Null allele (FY*0) is very common (approaching fixation or an allele frequency of 100%) in all sub-Saharan African populations. Thus, a person with this allele is very likely to have some level of African ancestry. After the analysis of these AIMs, in a sample of a person’s DNA, the likelihood (or probability) that a person is derived from any of the parental populations and any of the possible mixes of parental populations is calculated. The population (or combination of populations) where the likelihood is the highest is then taken to be the best estimate of the ancestral proportions of the person. Confidence intervals on these point estimates of ancestral proportions are also being calculated.
Be African and stop trying to be something that you are not!
As with my great-grandmother’s poems and the results of my first DNA test, I’ve carried the African Ancestry results around like a charm for days. This ancestry has been lost to my family for centuries. Now that I have found it, I want to keep it close.
You may wonder why all this dusty information, interesting though it is, matters to a 21st century Midwestern American woman. What difference does it make?
There’s that old saw: “You can’t know where you are going, if you don’t know where you’ve been.” Where black Americans have been is all muddled, isn’t it? Everything about our past and present is filtered through the lens of a society where we (and the continent we came from) are marginalized. You have to dig to find our real histories, weed through the distortions and biases. It is easy to believe, if you let the mainstream tell it, that the African-American story begins in slavery and ends in failure and dysfunction. That’s not true. The blood doesn’t lie. There are real stories of triumph and survival and happiness and success cloaked in the leaves of our family trees. There are customs and rituals and beliefs that our ancestors were forced to forget, but we can remember them.
I am not Pollyanna about this. I don’t romanticize the lives of my forebears or my “cousins” in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Senegal. There are hard and ugly stories to be found on the family tree–rotted fruit. But we hear plenty about those things already, don’t we? That it is why it is smart to keep good things in your pocket–a cheerful poem written by the mother of 10 kids on a farm in rural Alabama, or the knowledge that Balanta people resisted colonial rule by the Portuguese. These good things are part of who I am.
When I said the Fulbe woman above was me, I meant that the history of my direct ancestors as well as “my people” have made me the person I am today. Because they were who they were, I am who I am. It would be a shame not to “know” the people who walked before me. They gave me life. They make me proud. They give me strength. They are testament to the resilience of my “blood.” Read more…
Before you took any genetic genealogy tests, did you consider yourself Hispanic/Latino/Latina?
I think it’s one of so many illustrations of the radical mixedness of Americanness and of African Americanness as well…It makes me think of America as just this basin into which so much has been poured and we don’t even know the half of it…When we see all of the ways that conversations are so stratified, like we understand what “us” and “them” is all about, really we don’t understand it half as well as we might. Again, that doesn’t mean that the social realities that we live it are not the daily press that we live with, but to pause for just a moment and to think about all that has been poured into that basin, it’s amazing. Watch it…
It just gets curiouser and curiouser…Of course, if all of us were just know by our DNA instead of the bodies we walk around in, then we’d have a whole different American history. Watch it…
Those who see all creatures within themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?