To bring peo­ple to­gether, start with spit

Col­lege stu­dents learn about their ge­netic makeup – and one an­other.

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Su­san Svr­luga

west ch­ester, pa.» Anita Foe­man’s stu­dents had just got­ten the re­sults from their ge­netic tests, and they couldn’t wait to talk.

One said her dad cheered when she told him she has Zulu roots. A girl with curly red hair said her fam­ily al­ways gath­ers around a Na­tiv­ity scene on Christ­mas Eve and sings car­ols over the baby Je­sus. This year, af­ter learn­ing that she’s 1 per­cent Jewish, she said, “We’re go­ing to sing the drei­del song!”

When a white stu­dent said that 1 per­cent of his an­ces­try was African, two black stu­dents sit­ting next to him gave him fist bumps and said: “Yes! Brother.”

“Some peo­ple have never had a happy con­ver­sa­tion about race,” Foe­man said. But in her class at West Ch­ester Univer­sity, there was laugh­ter. Ea­ger­ness. And easy con­nec­tions where there might have been chasms. “Our dif­fer­ences are fas­ci­nat­ing,” she said.

At a time when ten­sions over race and pol­i­tics are so raw, the stakes, Foe­man said, seem par­tic­u­larly high. Her stu­dents have been talk­ing all fall about ri­ots, build­ing walls, ter­ror­ist at­tacks, im­mi­gra­tion, the elec­tion. “You can feel it buzzing around the halls like elec­tric­ity,” Foe­man said.

Ask­ing peo­ple to take DNA tests — an idea that has spread to a cam­puswide ef­fort at this pub­lic univer­sity — grew out of con­sult­ing work Foe­man does in race me­di­a­tion. In­stead of a con­fronta­tional ap­proach, try­ing to pro­voke peo­ple into rec­og­niz­ing their own bi­ases, she wanted some­thing that would pull peo­ple to­gether, or at least give them a neu­tral place from which to start to talk. And with racial di­vides so stark, she wanted to add some nu­ance and depth.

She won­dered: What if peo­ple started find­ing out things they didn’t know about them­selves?

So she be­gins with a short sur­vey ask­ing peo­ple their race and what they know about their an­ces­try. They spit into a vial. Sev­eral weeks later, they get an email with an es­ti­mate of their eth­nic makeup, a color-coded map of their past.

That leads to ques­tions, and sto­ries, and cu­rios­ity. It is a wel­come re­set from awk­ward­ness, de­fen­sive­ness, sus­pi­cion. Now that the DNA tests are cheaper, Foe­man is able to ask all the stu­dents in her hon­ors class — al­most all of them fresh­men just get­ting to know or rede­fine them­selves — to take the test.

There’s a broad range of peo­ple at this state school in Penn­syl­va­nia. There are stu­dents whose par­ents are col­lege pro­fes­sors and chil­dren of coal min­ers. There are stu­dents from abroad, from in­ner cities and from parts of the state so ru­ral that hunt­ing helps put din­ner on the ta­ble. There are trans­gen­der stu­dents, stu­dents who re­ject gen­der en­tirely, Bernie San­ders vot­ers, Don­ald Trump vot­ers, black peo­ple who have heard racial slurs, a bira­cial stu­dent who was told by a stranger last month to “go back to Mex­ico” and a stu­dent who, grow­ing up in a neigh­bor­hood where most peo­ple are black, was bul­lied be­cause he is white.

Foe­man, who is AfricanAmer­i­can — and ge­net­i­cally more than one-quar­ter Euro­pean — would like to test as many peo­ple as she can. It’s a way to study ev­ery­thing from medicine to his­tory. Most of all, she’d like to get ev­ery­one talk­ing.

“I think peo­ple want this,” she said. “That sur­prises me — in a good way.”

“When I opened my re­sults, the first thing that greeted me was 6 per­cent African,” said a stu­dent with very pale skin in the back of the class­room, smack­ing her­self in the fore­head, mouth open wide, to re-cre­ate her re­ac­tion the night be­fore: “Whaaaaat?”

An­other stu­dent said that when she called her par­ents to tell them she was 75 per­cent Ir­ish and 10 per­cent Scan­di­na­vian, “My mom started cheer­ing through the phone,” she said. “I was like, ‘Why are you cheer­ing?’ ”

“It’s in­ter­est­ing the ones you cheer for and the ones you go, ‘Eh­h­h­h­hhh,’ “Foe­man said. “There are ones you lean into.”

That’s how fam­ily his­to­ries get told and iden­ti­ties de­fined, she says. Some things are ex­ag­ger­ated, some cov­ered up or for­got­ten. “There are all kinds of se­crets in fam­i­lies.”

A stu­dent with bright-red hair sent her mother an im­age of her re­sults, telling her, “‘We’re not Ir­ish at all.’ Her first re­sponse was: ‘You must have the wrong data.’ “And then: “‘Don’t tell your grand­fa­ther. It might kill him.’ ”

Foe­man has seen peo­ple drop out of the project af­ter get­ting their re­sults, in­clud­ing three peo­ple who iden­ti­fied as African-Amer­i­can who were up­set to learn how much Euro­pean an­ces­try they had. Some peo­ple refuse to take the test. And some peo­ple re­sist some of the find­ings, such as the stu­dent who in­sisted he just tans eas­ily.

Sta­tis­ti­cally, Foe­man and her col­league Bessie Law­ton have found that peo­ple over­es­ti­mate their Euro­pean her­itage and un­der­es­ti­mate an­ces­try from other re­gions. Half the peo­ple say their fam­i­lies will re­spond pos­i­tively to re­sults be­fore they take the test. Af­ter­ward, fewer than 1 in 10 say so.

“Peo­ple don’t re­al­ize they think this stuff,” Foe­man said. “They would say they have no prej­u­dices. They just get quiet.”

Strum­mer Steele, whose re­sults in­di­cated an ArabJewish iden­tity, said that in these times, nei­ther of those feels safe to high­light: “There were swastikas painted in Philly yesterday.”

Af­ter the elec­tion, Foe­man said, “peo­ple on all sides are smart­ing. How do we start to ap­proach each other again?”

Sev­eral stu­dents said ge­netic test­ing could help. Amari Gil­more, who is AfricanAmer­i­can, men­tioned the his­tor­i­cal la­bel­ing of peo­ple as black if they had even one black an­ces­tor. Cas­san­dra Cara­bello, who iden­ti­fies as His­panic, said her re­sults in­di­cated she was al­most one­fifth African. “That would change ev­ery­thing,” she said.

West Ch­ester Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Anita Foe­man ex­plains to a stu­dent how much saliva is re­quired for the DNA test. Melissa Ru­dolph, West Ch­ester Univer­sity

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