Monday, February 14, 2011

From the vault: My black history--70% African, 30% European: Who am I now?

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 autosomal DNA testing and who cares how not-black you are?

I first became aware of tests that could determine a person's admixture or "racial" makeup when PBS aired the first of Dr. Gates' genealogy programs, "African American Lives." That show, which ignited my interest in family history research, also caused a buzz by revealing that the host, a self-identified black man and head of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, was genetically of more than 50 percent European in ancestry--in other words, more "white" than "black," despite being the progeny of two self-identified African American people. Of course, Gates' heritage was really no surprise for most other black Americans. We know that the black descendants of enslaved Africans are a mixed bunch. You can see it in our family portraits. You can hear it in our family stories. It is there on the vital records that black family historians mine for details about their heritage. There is no need for an expensive test to tell us what we already know. But genealogists are like good detectives. If we want to accurately tell our families' stories, we need to back up family lore with documents and DNA--just like the folks on CSI. Autosomal tests help confirm and illuminate our lineages.

Actually, these tests help confirm our BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA), according to Ancestry by DNA, the company that completed my testing. They are quick to point out that race, as we often hear, is a social construct not a biological one. (That is why I am using scare quotes around racial designations in this post.) Ancestry by DNA describes their process as follows:

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.

But the question for some isn't how does autosomal testing work, but why any self-respecting black person would be interested in exploring their non-African heritage. As a poster named Original Man on the African Ancestry forum offered, regarding black people who claim Native American heritage:

Be African and stop trying to be something that you are not!

There is a suspicion that too much attention to non-African ancestry denotes a desire to escape blackness, to be more than (i.e. better than) "just" black. This racial testing could simply be a corollary to "we got Indian in the family" type thinking.

In various genealogy and DNA testing forums, I have witnessed discussions that went like so: If we live in a majority white society that has decided one drop of African blood equals blackness; if we outwardly "look black;" if we are proud of our African roots, as we should be; if we know that we are descendants of enslaved Africans and we are culturally African American, what can be gained by learning about some small fraction of European or Asian or Native American DNA? What does it matter?


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