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  • October 22, 2019

Is Identity in Our Blood? What 23andMe Says – and Does Not Say – About Us

by Andrés T. Tapia

Gina’s birthday surprise this year was receiving gift card to unearth her family tree by spitting into a tube. The 23andMe kit was attractive and easy to use. She eagerly sealed her specimen sample in a pre-postage marked box and put it in the mail. A few weeks later her results came back revealing a mixture of racial and nationality lineages including Nigerian, Asian, and Norwegian.

As someone who had grown up white in a mostly White suburb outside Columbus, Ohio she was thrilled to see that in some ways, she too is a person of color.

Or is she?

Elizabeth Warren ran into this dilemma herself when she claimed Native American ancestry. Her diversity credentials were questioned and she set out to prove it was true by also taking a DNA test. The results vindicated her.

Or did they?

Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane, Washington NAACP had claimed to be Black for years. While she is light-skinned it was her curly hair, her studies at Howard, Black family members and position as a professor of Africana studies that bolstered her identity as African American.

Or did it?

In an age of unprecedented diversity that is fueling powerful societal crosscurrents, massive waves of people are either mesmerized by the joy of diversity and inclusion on the one hand, or part of a counterwave of deep, divisive polarization driven by racism and xenophobia. In this context the quest for cultural identity is hot.

Adding to the mix, technology now makes it possible for any individual to find out exactly what their ancestry is.

But what really determines one’s cultural identity? Is it something in our blood as many like to say, or is it a choice? Or a combination?

For Rachel Dolezal, her claiming to be Black was undone by the fact that her two parents are White. Dolezal based her claim on a desire to be Black without any black DNA – at least as evidenced by her two White parents. Her downfall was due to a lie.

For Elizabeth Warren, the public’s incredulity that this now East Coast Bostonian had Native American blood was squashed by the confirmation that she indeed was [1/20th Cherokee]. Yet there is nothing in her lifestyle, her circle of friends and family, or her worldview that demonstrates a Native American identity. Hers was not a lie like Dolezal’s; but was it the truth?

For Gina, for whom the stakes were low without the glare of the press or social media or political enemies, her results were a discovery that, while interesting, did not end up giving her any more insight into her identity beyond what she already knew about what had shaped her values – the suburbs, the Midwest, American, Methodist. But due to what she learned about her DNA, a new world opened up for her in which she began to travel to meet people of shared DNA heritage, experiencing the Nigerian tribe of which she had traces. At this point her journey is still one of introductory exploration. Yet it was her knowledge of her DNA that began to open her up to new experiences.

Her results were a discovery that, while interesting, did not end up giving her any more insight into her identity beyond what she already knew about what had shaped her values

How about you? What is your cultural identity? And how do you know?

This reminds me of two girls who grew up together in Highland Park, Illinois. While their upbringing was in a suburb of Chicago, they grew up in bicultural homes. Anna has two Jewish parents, but one is an Ashkenazi Jew from Argentina who is as Latina as she is also Jewish. The other, Marisela, has a European American mom from Kansas and a Latino dad from Peru. 

They both attended a dual Spanish-English language program in school. They both had one parent who spoke to them exclusively in Spanish. They both travelled several times to South America to the homeland of their Latino parent.

And yet Anna in her teenage years chose to lean into her Jewish identity and not the Latinx side. Marisela conversely leaned into her Latinx identity. What was the difference? Here Latinicity was in both of their DNAs but as the mystery of personal choices kicked in, it was not enough to be driven solely by what was in their blood, but what was in their heads and hearts around how they wanted to express themselves and realize their life goals.

Marisela is my daughter. Anna one of her best friends back then. I witnessed first-hand the amalgamation of environment, DNA, and personal choice — and it’s always fluid nature. For example, how Anna in her twenties also chose to fully embrace her Latinx side, and in fact, now lives in Buenos Aires. Or conversely, the furthering deepening of an early identity embrace as Marisela continues to pursue her career as a professional flamenco dancer who is currently living in Sevilla, Spain.

23andMe’s DNA test will reveal secrets of what is in our blood — but not reveal secrets of what is in our hearts. That instead will come from choices made in response to what we were both with, born into, and who we want to become.

For more on this topic, see the Korn Ferry Perspectives, “Multi-identity Explosion: As identity becomes more fluid, it poses great challenges for corporate diversity and inclusion initiatives” and “What Makes Someone Latinx” by Susana Rinderle and Addy Chulef.


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