You’ve probably seen that Ancestry commercial — the one where Kyle, who grew up German, takes a DNA test and discovers that his ancestry is mostly Scottish, and trades his lederhosen for a kilt. Or maybe you’ve seen the one where Kim learns from a DNA test that she is 26 per cent Native American and, surrounded by Native pottery, can finally know who she is.
Genetic ancestry testing is a billion-dollar industry, with test sales growing exponentially. An estimated 16 million tests have been sold — most within the last few years.
A strong appeal of these tests is their promise to tell you “who you are.” While the testing companies no longer use the words “race” or “ethnicity,” advertisements like those featuring Kyle and Kim show that this is exactly what they are selling.
But before you rush out to discover your “true” race or ethnicity, you should know that these tests will not tell you this, or even who you “really” are.
This information is not hidden within your genes or revealed by these tests. And the only people who trade one set of ethnic garb for another as a result of these tests are those who are looking for a reason to do so.
Ancestry tests often misunderstood
For several years, I have been leading a large research project on genetic ancestry testing. During this time, I have learned that those pie charts showing percentages of ancestry are grossly oversimplified, revealing a probability rather than a definitive answer. They are based on science that is meant to address questions at the population level, not about specific individuals.
But consumers often take their results seriously.
As a social scientist who studies the way that racial identities and categories change over time and place, I believe our ideas about race and ethnicity are shaped by societies and not just what is found in our genes.
I wanted to find out whether test-takers view their results as definitive, and whether that might encourage them to view racial differences as purely biological.
"Cherry picking" identities
My recently published paper in the American Journal of Sociology shows that test consumers usually do not change their ethnic or racial identities after taking these tests. More than 60 per cent of those my research team and I interviewed said the test results did not affect their identity.
Those whose identities do change do not simply accept the test results as scientific fact. They cherry-pick from the results, adopting or rejecting particular identities based on which ones they view positively or negatively and their beliefs about what others will accept.
We see this with “Eduardo,” a Mexican-American man who initially identified as white Hispanic with Native American ancestry. His ancestry tests reported Native American, Celtic and Jewish ancestry. Eduardo embraced a new Jewish identity, explaining: “I always looked up to the Jewish people and Jewish friends and neighbours. I just feel better now because I’m one of them…I thought of them as higher than me: I have just now reached the top with them.”
But Eduardo rejected a Celtic identity, saying: “I can pass for a Jew, there’s no question about it. There’s no way I could pass for a Celtic, because I’m dark, and sort of fat, short. And because this ideal we have of the Celts, they’re tall, strong, big people….So…it’s just, ‘Stupid Mexican, dreaming he’s got Celtic blood in him.’”
Consumers like Eduardo often rely on stereotypes about what groups look and act like in deciding which ones to embrace.
When their tests reported ancestries they did not like, test-takers ignored them. Or if they did not like their previous identity, they found others to replace it with.
“Amy” was adopted but told that her birth mother was German. She explained: “I was actually embarrassed to be German because of what happened with the Holocaust. . . . And I thought ‘I wish I could be from somewhere else and not be German.’” When her results reported German and Basque ancestry, she began identifying as Basque.
Some were looking to confirm a family story or an identity they view positively. “Shannon” was adopted and always believed she had Native American lineage through her birth parents. When her test results revealed no Native American ancestry, she decided the test must be wrong and continued to identify as Native American.
Rather than viewing their test results as providing objective “proof” of who they are, test-takers picked the truths they wanted from their tests.
Whites change their identity most
Most often in the study, it was white test consumers who adopted new racial or ethnic identities. They saw their initial identities as too bland or as not providing enough sense of belonging. They longed for what sociologists have called “colour capital,” a connection to something more interesting or exotic than “just white.”
Non-white consumers felt a strong sense of political and cultural connection to their existing ethnic and racial groups. While they found the results interesting, they generally felt no need to change their identity in light of them.
In addition, Black and Latino test-takers already knew they had mixed racial ancestry, because of the history of racial mixing within their groups. As “Marvin” explained: “My identity as a Black American…was not affected unduly because to be of mixed racial ancestry…does not place you outside of the Black group.”
Consequences of testing
Genetic ancestry testing might all seem like harmless fun, but there is a downside. When whites adopt “exotic” new racial identities, it fosters the view that race is costless, something that can be enjoyed without real consequences. That can promote a false view that race is inconsequential today for everyone.
Some suggest that these tests may increase essentialist beliefs — the view that racial groups have distinct abilities and skills that are determined by their genes, and which has previously contributed to racial exclusion, discrimination and eugenics.
Research shows that reading media articles that depict genetic ancestry tests as able to reveal your race increases belief in essential racial differences. My research with test consumers finds that they typically believe these tests support the views they already held: Those who believed that race was determined by genes before claimed that these tests offer proof of that view.
If you’re going to buy a genetic ancestry test, you need to educate yourself on the science behind them and what they can and cannot tell you. And don’t buy these tests to find out your race or ethnicity. The science is unable to tell you this.
The experience of test consumers shows that these tests reinforce what you want to believe rather than offering objective, scientific proof of who you are.
And the next time you see someone buying a new kilt or Native pottery after taking a genetic ancestry test, remember that the test didn’t change who they are; they simply wanted to believe it did.