A DNA Test Told Me I’m White — Here’s Why It’s Wrong
I have never identified as white. In my family, being called white is the ultimate insult. I’ve heard the phrases “you’re acting white” and “that’s some white people shit” many times, and the reason it’s difficult to hear is because it denies my Latinidad, it denies my Blackness, my Indigenousness, and it denies who I feel that I truly am. The idea behind it is that if you speak like a white person or do things that white people do, then you are shirking all of your other identities and turning your back on your culture. This piece isn’t about why this particular issue is a problem in communities of color, but it does play a significant role in how I feel about my DNA test results.
When DNA Testing Gives You a Past and Threatens Your Future
The troubling risks of genetic testing while Black
The DNA test
Flashback to June 2018, when at-home DNA tests were all the rage: You would see commercials all the time, celebrities were coming out talking about their 2% African heritage, etc. So my family decided it would be super interesting to see our heritage and learn more about our background. We each took the time to gather the saliva sample and ship it off to the DNA testing company. Then we waited a few weeks for our sample to be processed and downloaded all the apps to easily see our results when they came out. When we got our results, my heart sank. They said my ancestry was 35.7% European, 29.7% sub-Saharan African, 27.7% East Asian and Native American, 2.4% Western Asian and North African, and 4.5% unassigned. Based on my sister’s results (she did hers earlier in the year), I had an idea that my ancestry breakdown would be almost evenly split into thirds, but what I didn’t expect was how high my European ancestry would be, let alone that it would be the highest percentage of my DNA.
The testing company we used gives you tons of statistics and science about where your ancestry falls on your chromosomes, what percentage of people identify as Black based on their DNA, and so on. It was data overload, but as a huge history and social studies nerd, I ate up all this new information about myself. On one hand, it was really cool to learn all this new stuff about me and my family, but on the other hand, I didn’t realize how much this new information would change my understanding of my identity and confuse me even more than I already was.
Some (historical) background
Growing up, I always identified as Latina, because my dad is from El Salvador and my mom is of Dominican descent. I spent pretty much my entire childhood thinking that Latina was my race. (More on why that’s arguable later.) So much so that when a random kid in middle school asked me whether I was Black, I was taken aback. I remember my 10-year-old self thinking, “Why would he think I was Black?” I was clearly Latina, wasn’t I? I speak Spanish, have curly hair, tan skin, and eat tons of Latin food. What could be more Latina? Up until that point, I had been well acquainted with the Black community because of the realities of growing up in New York City, and while I often found myself a part of these groups, especially during my summer camp experiences in Washington Heights, I never thought I was Black. For me, the lines between the Latinx and Black communities were always a bit blurred, but there were always two clear communities. So I said to the kid, “No, I’m Latina,” and he proceeded to nod and walk away. I don’t know if his friends dared him to ask me or if he was looking for someone like him to relate to, but knowing what I know now, I wish I had said yes. Or at least given him a “sorta.”
Of course, I didn’t know much about transatlantic enslavement and colonialism back then or what they meant for my people. I was still in the mindset that all Latinx people were a separate race of tan people. (I didn’t yet know what that “tan-ness” was a product of.) And before I get into it, in case you don’t know too much about how transatlantic enslavement and colonialism affected Latin America and the Caribbean, here are some brief videos you can reference.
It wasn’t until college when I started to understand how transatlantic enslavement and colonization in Latin America and the Caribbean led to racial mixing (often by force) between different racial and ethnic groups of people. I learned about “mestizos” like my dad (someone of Indigenous and European descent) and “mulattoes” like my mom (someone of African and European descent), along with so many other types of mixed identities that people identified or identify with in Latin America. It made me take a hard look at how my race and my ethnicity could actually be two separate things. So, I took an entire course around race and ethnicity in the Americas, and I honestly left both more confused and more enlightened about my racial and ethnic identity than before.
For the purposes of our course, we looked at different definitions for race and ethnicity, settling on the general idea that race is a context-informed, socially given identity based on physical features, including skin color, hair, etc., and ethnicity is an individual grouping based on cultural and historical tradition. Granted, there are tons of exceptions to these definitions, as “race” and “ethnicity” are pretty fluid terms that tend to change based on a person’s context. For example, if a white person grew up in a town where they had only learned about and come in contact with African American people and other white people, then they may assume that a dark-skinned Latina is African American, because that is their context. However, if this same person grew up in an urban area where they were exposed to people of many different races, they may not be as quick to assume that a dark-skinned Latina is African American, because their context has exposed them to different identities.
When it comes to self-identifying race, however, many Latinx people in the United States identify both their race and ethnicity as Latinx not only because they don’t identify with “standard” racial categorizers like “African American,” “Native American,” “Asian,” or “white,” but also because in some contexts, Latinx people in the United States have been racialized (categorized and treated as a distinct race) throughout history as “Hispanics,” “Spanish,” “Mexican,” etc. This racialization of Latinx people thus complicates the difference between race and ethnicity. For people who tend to float outside of the Black-white context of the United States, it can be difficult to try to fit ourselves into that mold.
In many cases, acknowledging race through this lens means facing the colorism (discrimination based on skin color) present in Latin American and Latinx culture. For some, it means confronting Blackness; for others, it means confronting whiteness. In each case, it means confronting the privileges and disadvantages that different Latinx people face based on the color of their skin.
I took an entire course around race and ethnicity in the Americas, and I honestly left both more confused and more enlightened about my racial and ethnic identity than before.
My experiences with race and ethnicity
I used to identify my race as Latina, but just because I identified this way, it didn’t mean that those around me identified me this way, too. In middle school, where I attended a predominately white institution (PWI), I was largely identified as Black, except by my friends. In high school, where the student population was 80% Latinx, I was usually identified as Latina, often by people who racially categorized themselves as Latinx as well. In college, I attended a relatively diverse PWI, so I was categorized in a lot of different ways. I was either assumed to be or asked if I was Indian, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, and so on. That’s when I thought to myself, “Wow, I really don’t have control over my race. Race is entirely how someone sees you. So what does that make me?”
It wasn’t until this past summer that I realized, as complicated as race and ethnicity are, especially for people who identify with their ethnicity over their race, I do have control over how I identify myself to others and to myself. Based on my experiences with my culture and my own personal history, I identify as Afro-Mestiza, Latina, and mixed race, and I also identify with my Black heritage. I identify with all these different identities because while I recognize that my individual experience at the intersection of all these identities is unique, I can still acknowledge the privileges and disadvantages that I have faced based on how my racial identity is perceived by others (based on context). I may never “pass” for white, but I can acknowledge how my white ancestry has lightened my skin to a degree in which some Latinx communities would identify me and accept me as Latina. However, I can also acknowledge how I have been excluded from other Latinx communities as a result of my Blackness. This is the double-sidedness of being mixed race, and it is the reason why my DNA test is wrong.
Why my DNA test is wrong
Just because I can acknowledge the colonial legacy of whiteness in my DNA does not mean that I have ever learned about my European ancestors, been mistaken for white-European, or lived the white-European experience. Therefore, I can’t call myself white, because I’m not.
So, when it comes to DNA tests and race, I think it’s important to take them with a grain of salt. Yes, the test can teach you some interesting things about your ancestry and your history, but it doesn’t automatically mean you can claim the experiences of the ancestry that you have discovered, nor does it erase the experiences you have faced based on what you look like. Race does not lie within a person’s DNA. In fact, it often varies in the eye of the beholder. People are going to perceive you however they’re going to perceive you based on their individual understanding of the world (their context). In the end, your race may not always be entirely your own, but you have ownership over how you identify yourself based on your lived experiences, culture, and history. And neither an at-home DNA test nor anyone’s perception of you can take that away.