As whites find black roots, iden­tity gets tan­gled


As more Amer­i­cans take ad­van­tage of ge­netic test­ing to pin­point the makeup of their DNA, the tech­nol­ogy is com­ing head to head with the coun­try’s deep­rooted ob­ses­sion with race and racial myths. This is per­haps no more true than for the grow­ing num­ber of self-iden­ti­fied Euro­pean Amer­i­cans who learn they are ac­tu­ally part African.

For those who are sur­prised by their ge­netic her­itage, the new in­for­ma­tion can of­ten set into mo­tion a com­pli­cated re­cal­i­bra­tion of how they view their iden­tity.

Nicole Per­s­ley, who grew up in Nokesville, Va., was stunned to learn that she is part African. Her youth could not have been whiter. In the 1970s and ’80s in her ru­ral home town, she went to school with farm­ers’ kids who lis­tened to coun­try mu­sic and some­times made racist jokes. She was, as she re­calls, “ba­si­cally raised a South­ern white girl.”

But as a stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan: “My room­mate was black. My friends were black. I was dat­ing a black man.” And they saw some­thing dif­fer­ent in her fa­cial fea­tures and hair.

“I was con­stantly be­ing asked, ‘What are you? What’s your eth­nic

back­ground?’ ”

While African Amer­i­cans gen­er­ally as­sume that they may carry non-African DNA dat­ing back to sex­ual re­la­tions be­tween masters and slaves, many white Amer­i­cans like Per­s­ley grow up be­liev­ing that their an­ces­try is fully Euro­pean, a be­lief man­i­fested in things from kitschy “100 per­cent Ir­ish” T-shirts to more-sin­is­ter racial “pu­rity” af­fil­i­a­tions.

Now, for un­der $100, it has be­come in­creas­ingly easy to spit into a vial and re­ceive a sci­en­tif­i­cally ac­cu­rate as­sess­ment of one’s ge­netic makeup. Com­pa­nies such as 23andMe and An­ces­ pro­vide a list of coun­tries or re­gions where the pre­dom­i­nant ge­netic traits match those of one’s fore­bears. (There is no DNA cat­e­gory for race, be­cause a ge­netic marker for it does not ex­ist.)

In re­cent years, mul­tira­cial Amer­i­cans have in­creas­ingly en­tered the na­tional con­scious­ness. Be­tween 1970 and 2013, the por­tion of ba­bies liv­ing with two par­ents of dif­fer­ent races rose from 1 per­cent to 10 per­cent, the Pew Re­search Cen­ter found. From 2010 to 2016, those who iden­ti­fied as be­ing of two or more races grew by 24 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data, a jump that could have had as much to do with the chang­ing way in which Amer­i­cans iden­tify them­selves as an ac­tual in­crease in the racially mixed pop­u­la­tion.

But when the mix­ing hap­pened sev­eral gen­er­a­tions back, it can take peo­ple by sur­prise. While lit­tle data ex­ists com­par­ing peo­ple’s per­cep­tions with the re­al­ity of their eth­nic makeup, a 2014 study of 23andMe cus­tomers found that around 5,200, or roughly 3.5 per­cent, of 148,789 self-iden­ti­fied Euro­pean Amer­i­cans had 1 per­cent or more African an­ces­try, mean­ing they had a prob­a­ble black an­ces­tor go­ing back about six gen­er­a­tions or less.

The dis­cov­ery elic­its a range of emo­tions. Given the fraught his­tory of slav­ery and racism, find­ing out that one is part African makes some peo­ple feel vul­ner­a­ble, even de­fen­sive, while oth­ers cel­e­brate the dis­cov­ery. At the DNA Dis­cus­sion Project, an ini­tia­tive at West Ch­ester Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia that sur­veys peo­ple about their per­cep­tions of their ge­netic makeup be­fore and af­ter DNA tests, 80 per­cent of the 3,000-odd peo­ple they have sur­veyed self­i­den­tify as white. Of those, twothirds see them­selves as of only one race, and they are more likely to be shocked and un­happy with their test re­sults than those who iden­tify as mixed or other races, ac­cord­ing to a peer-re­viewed pa- per con­ducted by the project.

But for some, white iden­tity trumps DNA. If the test re­sult is too dis­rup­tive to their sense of self, they may ra­tio­nal­ize it away. One white su­prem­a­cist who dis­cov­ered he had African DNA claimed on the white na­tion­al­ist web­site Storm­ that the test­ing com­pany was part of a Jewish con­spir­acy to “de­fame, con­fuse and deracinate young whites on a mass level.” Mem­bers of white na­tion­al­ist groups have ad­vised those who dis­cover non-Aryan her­itage to rely more on ge­neal­ogy or the “mir­ror test,” as quoted in a so­ci­o­log­i­cal study of Storm­front mem­bers dis­cussing an­ces­try-test re­sults. (“When you look in the mir­ror, do you see a jew? If not, you’re good,” one com­menter wrote.)

“For me, the num­ber one take­away is how eas­ily peo­ple re­ject sci­ence,” said Anita Foe­man, a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion stud­ies who co-di­rects the DNA Dis­cus­sion Project, whose re­spon­dents are mostly in and around Philadel­phia. (In a sam­ple of 217 self-iden­ti­fied Euro­pean Amer­i­cans from the project, 22 per­cent learned that they had African DNA.)

“Many whites would get a new story and say, ‘ I’m still go­ing to call my­self ‘white,’ or ‘I’m still go­ing to call my­self ‘Ital­ian,’ ” Foe­man said. “They started to less see race as ge­netic and more a ques­tion of cul­ture and [phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance].”

The project found cer­tain groups — younger peo­ple and fam­i­lies, for ex­am­ple — to be more open to the news. “Women just tend to be more flex­i­ble in terms of racial iden­ti­fi­ca­tion,” Foe­man said.

Re­assess­ing the past

In an era when tech­nol­ogy is partly blamed for an in­creased sense of po­lar­iza­tion, it is per­haps ironic that a tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance is help­ing to blow up some of that. And be­cause users can con­nect with rel­a­tives on the DNA reg­istries, some white test-tak­ers have been fas­ci­nated to find fourth or fifth cousins who are black.

The test re­sults can present an in­trigu­ing puz­zle. When a sig­nif­i­cant amount of African DNA shows up in a pre­sum­ably white per­son, “there’s usu­ally a story — ei­ther a par­ent moved away or a grand­par­ent died young,” said An­gela Tram­mel, an in­ves­tiga­tive ge­neal­o­gist in the Wash­ing­ton area. “Usu­ally a story of mys­tery, dis­ap­pear­ance — some­thing.”

For Per­s­ley, 46, the link turned out to be her grand­fa­ther, who had moved away from his na­tive Ge­or­gia and started a new life pass­ing as white in Michi­gan. He mar­ried a white woman, who bore Per­s­ley’s fa­ther.

But in re­search­ing her ge­neal­ogy af­ter col­lege, Per­s­ley dis­cov­ered that her grand­fa­ther’s brother, her great-un­cle, con­tin­ued to iden­tify as African Amer­i­can back in Ma­con and be­came a cel­e­brated ar­chi­tect. A re­cent ge­netic test con­firmed that Per­s­ley’s DNA is around 8 per­cent African.

“That was a bomb­shell rev­e­la­tion for me and my fam­ily,” said Per­s­ley, now an artist and real es­tate in­vestor in Boca Ra­ton, Fla. She doubts her fa­ther knew. “My fa­ther had al­ready passed away, so I could not ask him. It would have been, I think, a very dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion to have with him, and I don’t think he would have been pleased. . . . I’m ab­so­lutely proud of my ge­neal­ogy and my her­itage, but I think my fa­ther would have thought I was dis­hon­or­ing his fa­ther, be­cause it was a se­cret and I dug it up.” Her mother was flab­ber­gasted. “Her jaw dropped,” Per­s­ley said, “and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I was mar­ried to a black man and I didn’t even know it!’ ”

Per­s­ley now re­calls hints in her fa­ther — his laugh, his man­ner­isms — that re­mind her of black friends and make her sad about con­nec­tions that were lost.

“To me, that’s the real tragedy of it,” she said. “His fa­ther had to com­pletely rein­vent him­self and cut every­one in his fam­ily off, and that’s so tragic.”

For Bren­dan Lor­dan, 18, of Walling­ford, Pa., the test also helped fill in miss­ing fam­ily lore. He grew up be­liev­ing that he was Ger­man and Ir­ish, and had known about all his rel­a­tives ex­cept for a great-great-grand­moth- er.

“No­body knew her name or who she was,” Lor­dan said. She had had three sons, but they were taken away from her as in­fants. “When she was on her deathbed, one of them was al­lowed to go in and talk to her for a few min­utes, but only with the light off.”

The fam­ily as­sumed it was be­cause she was so­cially in­fe­rior to the boys’ fa­ther, per­haps a pros­ti­tute. But when Lor­dan’s DNA test came back 4 per­cent African, an­other nar­ra­tive emerged: that she was black but her sons had been light enough to pass as white.

Hope in a vial

Com­par­ing his test re­sults to the fam­ily his­tory made the fairskinne­d Lor­dan re­con­sider his as­sump­tions.

“The rule in the Old South was a drop of African blood makes you African,” he said. But now that the drops can be mea­sured, “it sort of made race seem a lot more ar­bi­trary. You’d never think I had African her­itage just by look­ing at me. . . . It’s sort of made me dis­re­gard race more.”

Still, those drops have had a po­tent ef­fect on peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties. For some whites, even a smidgen of African an­ces­try was com­monly re­ferred to as “the taint,” said Har­vard Univer­sity African and African Amer­i­can stud­ies pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr. “That said it all: that it was some­thing to be ashamed of, some­thing dark and dirty.”

Gates, whose PBS show “Find­ing Your Roots” helped ac­tor Ty Bur­rell and singer Carly Si­mon dis­cover that they had African an­ces­try, said he hopes that mount­ing aware­ness of the com­plex­ity of DNA will help lead to greater un­der­stand­ing across racial and eth­nic lines.

“One of the plea­sures I get from do­ing ‘ Find­ing Your Roots’ is to show that we’re all mixed and that for 50,000 years ev­ery­body’s been sleep­ing with ev­ery­body — and that makes me bliss­fully happy, be­cause my en­emy is racism,” he said.

Of­ten, African DNA is hard to source. Lisa Gross, 55, a sixth- or sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion Ken­tuck­ian, grew up hear­ing she had Na­tive Amer­i­can an­ces­try, a com­mon nar­ra­tive for fam­i­lies with un­ex­plained dark com­plex­ions. So, in 2014, she mailed in her saliva sam­ple to find out.

The re­sults showed her to be mostly Euro­pean, but while there was a trace of Na­tive Amer­i­can DNA, “the big­ger sur­prise was that I have a sig­nif­i­cant amount of sub-Sa­ha­ran mark­ers,” she said. “I was thrilled. I thought, ‘ Wow — where’s that? Where did that come from?’ . . . It’s some­one within the last 10 gen­er­a­tions. That would go back to about 1600.”

Gross’s rel­a­tives came to the New World in the mid-1700s, so the African DNA con­tri­bu­tion may have hap­pened in Eu­rope, she said.

“In the best-case sce­nario, it’s some­one who is not in servi­tude, who was not a slave,” she said. “It’s a free per­son who en­ters into the re­la­tion­ship of their own free will, who is not co­erced, who is not com­manded. That is what I hope. But his­tory tells us that that is prob­a­bly not the case.”

As DNA tests be­come more com­mon­place, Foe­man hopes that they will help shift the cul­tural par­a­digm. “We are liv­ing at a time when peo­ple think they have to stick in their camps, but I think peo­ple are get­ting ex­hausted by that,” she said. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity for us to re­boot the con­ver­sa­tion about race.” For Per­s­ley, it did. “I felt kind of like a spy, be­cause if I was in a group of white peo­ple and they were throw­ing around the n-word or racist jokes, I felt like I couldn’t idly stand by any­more,” Per­s­ley said. “I be­came kind of an ac­tivist. I’d say, ‘Don’t talk like that around me. It of­fends me — stop.’ ”

Gross, too, said that the dis­cov­ery made her re­al­ize how ar­ti­fi­cial some cul­tural nar­ra­tives can be.

“In this day and time,” she said, “I think that we need to be open to th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences, and when you think about the con­cept of race and ‘I’m 100 per­cent this,’ it’s al­most laugh­able.”

“Her jaw dropped, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I was mar­ried to a black man and I didn’t even know it!’ ”

Nicole Per­s­ley, who dis­cov­ered through ge­neal­ogy re­search and ge­netic test­ing that her black grand­fa­ther had started a new life in Michi­gan pass­ing as white, on her mother’s re­ac­tion to the find­ings


Bren­dan Lor­dan, 18, of Walling­ford, Pa., grew up think­ing that he was Ger­man and Ir­ish. Test­ing found that he also has African DNA.


Nicole Per­s­ley, at left and above cen­ter with her par­ents dur­ing her high school years, grew up in a white farm­ing town in Vir­ginia and was drawn to African Amer­i­can cul­ture from an early age. She later dis­cov­ered her shared her­itage.

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