DNA and identity

November 6th, 2018

DNA in the news

Recently, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) revealed the results of a DNA test taken in response to a public squabble with President Donald Trump. Trump had mocked Warren on a number of occasions about her prior claims of Cherokee heritage. In one instance, the president offered $1 million to a charity of Warren’s choice if she could prove her Native American heritage.

In releasing the result, Warren revealed that she’s somewhere between 1/32nd and 1/1024th Native American, with the report saying it’s likely Warren had a Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago. The publicity surrounding the results of Warren’s DNA test has led to backlash, both from the Republican Party, which claims the tests disprove her claims of Cherokee heritage, and from Native American leaders, who warn that DNA doesn’t determine identity. The fundamental issue at the center of this debate is the relationship between biology and identity.

The kind of DNA testing in question involves a process by which an individual’s genetic material is compared to a collection of samples from other individuals. Genetic “markers” for certain regions are then flagged, calculated and compared to the general population to create an estimate of what regional genetics make up an individual’s DNA.

In the last few years, DNA testing has come to greater prominence through the rise of mail-in testing companies like 23andMe, Ancestry and Helix. A number of viral videos highlighting the reactions of those reading the results of their own DNA tests have aided in the growing notoriety of these companies.

DNA and identity

Dr. Kim Tallbear, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at Austin, warns of the dangers of DNA testing as a means to determine ethnic belonging. “People think that there’s a DNA test that can prove if somebody is Native American or not,” she says in a 2014 interview with New Scientist. “There isn’t.” She argues that something like Native American heritage is made up of more than genetics; it’s a cultural identity that’s born from lived experience.

“I worry about the way Native American identity gets represented as this purely racial category by some of the companies marketing these tests,” says Tallbear. “We have a particular cultural identity, based in a land that we hold to be sacred. That’s what gives our lives meaning. That’s what makes us who we are.”

In her comments, Tallbear is highlighting the intersection between genetics and cultural identity. Culture isn’t passed down through DNA. Having Native American DNA doesn’t mean that the individual in question understands the experience of being Native American. “Who we are — the languages we speak, the traditions we practice, our broader cultures — inform our identities far more than DNA,” writes Krystal Tsosie, a Ph.D. candidate in genomics and health disparities at Vanderbilt University, in The Atlantic. “To ascribe any power to a DNA-test result disempowers those Native Americans who do live according to their traditions,” she says. For Tsosie, a member of the Navajo Nation, Native American identity is about culture, not biology.

For her part, Warren has issued a statement clarifying that she does not claim to be Native American. “I’m not enrolled in a tribe and only tribes determine tribal citizenship,” she said.

Who am I?

For many of those who take DNA tests, the results are surprising. Family narratives may be reinforced or undermined when the test results are returned. Many self-identified “white” or European Americans are shocked to learn that they have African ancestry. In surveying by the DNA Discussion Project, described in The Washington Post, two-thirds of the participants who self-identified as white see themselves as members of only one race. Additionally, those who self-identified as white were more likely to be shocked or unhappy with unexpected African ancestry.

Anita Foeman, a professor of communication studies and co-director of the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, comments on the number of participants who reject the DNA results. “Many whites would get a new story” and say that they would still call themselves white or Italian, Foeman tells the Post. “They started to less see race as genetic and more a question of culture.”

The discovery of African ancestry came as positive news for Nicole Persley, who grew up as a self-identified “Southern white girl,” the Post article says. Persley’s grandfather, an African-American man who passed as white, left his family to start a new life in Michigan. Her genetic testing results confirmed that Persley is around eight percent African.

“That was a bombshell revelation for me and my family,” she says. “I am absolutely proud of my genealogy and my heritage.” Persley recognizes that the need for her grandfather to end a relationship with his biological family was heartbreaking. “[He] had to completely reinvent himself and cut everyone in his family off, and that’s so tragic.”

Foeman hopes that more experiences like Persley’s will shift the way Americans understand race. “We are living at a time when people think they have to stick in their camps,” she says. However, she adds, “It’s an opportunity for us to reboot the conversation about race.” Identity is complex. It’s more than DNA, and yet our genetics clearly fascinate us. The popularity of DNA testing speaks to the interest many Americans have in their heritage. Even so, our biology doesn’t ultimately determine who we are. The final answer to that question finds its resolution in the age-old dilemma between nature and nurture. Are we more influenced by our DNA or our cultural experiences? At least in the case of Elizabeth Warren’s DNA results, culture appears to be the more powerful force.

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