To bring people together, start with spit
College students learn about their genetic makeup – and one another.
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