Have you seen those videos, on DNA testing websites? They feature smiling, racially ambiguous people, delighting in the discovery or confirmation of their ancestry.
Have you heard emotion strain their voices as they discuss their search for a home; a community they instinctively yearn for? Have you hesitantly added a kit to the online checkout basket, only to backtrack and close the tab? I have.
In the past few years, I’ve developed a weird habit of doing exactly what I just described. I have been torn between intense curiosity (and heartache) and a kind of sickening fear. I even wrote an award-winning poem about it, 23 and Me, detailing my internalised imposter syndrome, thanks to the overt xenophobia of the UK. Two years later, I’m still obsessed with and paralysed by my heritage.
“For some, discovering biological history centres around satisfying curiosity or tracing family lineage. For others with less clear-cut ethnic or racial markers, what these DNA test sites are really selling is the promise of belonging.”
DNA testing websites have exploded in popularity recently, claiming to have long-awaited, accurate answers to questions around ancestry. For some, discovering biological history centres around satisfying curiosity or tracing family lineage. For others with less clear-cut ethnic or racial markers, what these DNA test sites are really selling is the promise of belonging. This is problematic and harmful in many ways.
The presence of violent racism in every Western society means that whiteness is considered both the ideal and the default. For the majority of white people, taking a DNA test is about tracing a lineage that doesn’t carry traumas of colonialism, racism, colourism and oppression. It’s about discovering there was some Irish in the family, or that your great, great uncle was a Lord.
“I already feel so fragmented – the idea of being broken up further makes me feel completely untethered. For people like me, the feeling of belonging cannot be fulfilled by arbitrary and potentially misleading DNA test kits.”
For people of colour, there is added weight to finding your ‘roots’. It is often the mapping out of how multiple and overlapping oppressive systems have bled into your ancestry. For third culture kids, those who are adopted, or those who live in the diaspora, it can feel like the very undoing of everything you think you are. It’s never just a label. It’s about the story you’ve told yourself, the story you’ve learnt from parents who’ve learnt it from their parents. It’s an entire community living in your blood and to lose it would be to unravel at the edges.
The ties to the countries I identify with sometimes feel tenuous and only half-known. The fear of being wrong is what stops me from investigating further. I already feel so fragmented – the idea of being broken up further makes me feel completely untethered. For people like me, the feeling of belonging cannot be fulfilled by arbitrary and potentially misleading DNA test kits.
Not only that, but it keeps us fixated on racial and ethnic categories that are socially constructed, and therefore used to maintain power imbalances.
“It’s important to question the motives behind these sites, the validity of what they are showing you and the potentially harmful impact of the results.”
Numbers shouldn’t matter, but society knows they do. Ethnically ambiguous people like me know it in the much-detested ‘what are you?’ question that we navigate on a daily basis.
If you have white-passing privilege as I do, you might also know that quiet, shameful wish that you knew exactly what amount of ‘other’ you are, so that you might weaponise your percentages next time someone denies a part of your identity.
There are also valid concerns about privacy and accuracy. When different DNA tests have shown different results for biological twins, it is important to question the motives behind these sites, the validity of what they are showing you and the potentially harmful impact of the results.
“Identity is more about the lived experience than the box you tick on a form. It is found in your hands, your tongue, your body, your skin, rather than your passport, place of birth or an official government document.”
Additionally, some testing sites now share their data with law enforcement, which yes, can help solve crimes, but should raise alarm bells about data abuse, particularly amongst minority groups (remember Henrietta Lacks?) What a company does with your DNA depends on the company and the laws of the country or region you live in, but the fact that some are selling information on to pharmaceutical companies is yet another reason why caution is essential.
The fundamental problem – and here I speak only as a person with mixed heritage – is that identity tends to be defined by feelings of ‘belonging’ and ‘not belonging’; of memories, shared experiences, generational storytelling, imperfect language and half-remembered hometowns and grandparents.
Identity is more about lived experience, and less about boxes ticked on a form. It is found in your hands, your tongue, your body, and your skin – rather than a passport, place of birth or an official government document.
How can a DNA test take all the joy, loss, pride and confusion that sits at the roots of our identities, and replace it with digits that encourage binary thinking?
Testing kits should not, and do not, define who you are – only where you’re from. The issue is that for people like me, those two things are always interlinked. Anyone who has been oppressed due to their ancestry, had to justify their existence, or felt entirely alienated from the country they were born in knows that their DNA matters, especially when it sits in opposition to whiteness. These tests are at best a false promise, and at worst, a moment of undoing.
Monika is a Brazilian-Montenegrin poet, writer and multi-disciplinary artist based in London. She is a staff writer at Aurelia. In 2019, Monika was the inaugural winner of Stormzy’s Merky Books New Writer’s Prize. Her debut poetry collection, Teeth in the Back of my Neck, will be released with Merky (a Penguin Random House imprint) in May 2021.
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