Personal Pasts, Collective Forgetting, and the Limits of DNA Ancestry Tests
I remember being told, at some point in my early childhood—I can’t remember when, or where, or by whom—that I was descended from royalty. Somewhere, far back on my paternal grandfather’s side of the family, I was told, a great-great—who knows how many greats?—grandmother had been the daughter of a chief of the Five Nations of the Iroquois, the confederation of Haudenosaunee tribes who lived in what is now the New England region. Despite the fuzziness of the memory itself, I remember taking great pride in this part of my family’s history. You might not know it from looking at me, I felt, but there’s something special about me. As a young person who was curious about my family’s ancestry but who had few means to satisfy that curiosity, this story offered me a different framework for thinking about who I was and where I came from.
My sense is that my experience in this regard is not unique. For many, these personal and familial stories about ancestry can be formative, even as they can sometimes trouble the relationship we have to the past. In some ways, my experience echoes that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has said in interviews that she grew up hearing family stories about having Cherokee ancestors in her family tree. Warren’s pride in her sense of personal history that came from these stories—memorialized in a 2012 interview in which she described an old photograph of her grandfather who “had high cheekbones like all of the Indians do”—led her to identify herself as a minority in the Association of American Law Schools directory in the 1980s and –90s. After she was hired by Harvard Law School, the school described her on more than one occasion as Native American faculty. Warren’s identification as a minority caused a stir during her 2012 campaign for the Senate when her opponent accused her of claiming minority status to receive preferential treatment. This is the controversy that Donald Trump subsequently picked up on when he mocked Warren with the nickname “Pocahontas.” In 2018, he suggested that he would pay $1 million to charity if Warren agreed to take a DNA test proving her ancestry and, a few months later, she obliged him by releasing the results of a DNA test which showed some Native American ancestry some “6–10 generations ago,” even as it revealed that the rest of her ancestry that was overwhelmingly European.
The month before Warren made public the results of her DNA test, a small business owner in Washington state made national news with his efforts to use the results of a DNA test to be recognized as a minority business owner by the Washington Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises. According to reporting by the Seattle Times, Ralph Taylor’s request for certification from the OMWBE was rejected in 2014, despite the fact that he provided a DNA test that described his ancestry as 6% indigenous American and 4% sub-Saharan African (and 90% Caucasian). Taylor filed a federal lawsuit against OMWBE that was rejected by the US District Court in 2017, and that decision was upheld under appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court in December 2018. Despite not meeting OMWBE’s standards for being “visually identifiable” as a member of a minority group, Taylor argued that the results of his DNA test proved that he was “multiracial” and was therefore eligible to receive special contract advantages under a program designed to correct a history of institutional discrimination.
What the story I was told about my ancestry—a story which may or may not be true, but which nevertheless influenced how I’ve thought about aspects of my own identity—what that story has in common with Elizabeth Warren’s and Ralph Taylor’s is a shared uncertainty about our personal ancestries and, therefore, about the relation of the past to the present. As people with an incomplete sense of the history that produced them, many modern Americans feel untethered to a past that stretches more the three or four generations back. This is especially true for white Americans, who often seem to embrace a kind of selective memory loss in their failure to recognize how the racial hierarchy in this country developed in their favor. In this, the sense of personal ancestry gets lost because of how the social and legal construction of “whiteness” as a racial category essentially blurred lines of national distinctiveness. What was once British, or German, or Irish, or Swedish, or Italian gradually became absorbed into “White,” a designation that didn’t really tie racial identity to a particular place or even, arguably, to skin color alone. What White designated primarily was what it was not—namely, non-White. That is, the defining characteristic of whiteness, especially as it was defined and practiced in the late-eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries in the United States, was its ability to consolidate power and opportunity for one group of people and to mark those who were not invited to share that power.
For many people of color, on the other hand, the question of ancestral pasts and historic roots is framed very differently. Where the creation of whiteness consolidated power and opportunity through homogenization, that power operated most effectively through the erasure of non-white racial identities. Through a long history of capture and enslavement; forced migration; re-education efforts for some and the denial of education opportunities for others; and various assimilation campaigns, people of color in the United States have been subjected to forces that have made retracing ancestry difficult. This is especially true for African Americans and Native Americans—the two groups that Warren and Taylor have used their DNA tests to identify with.
One symptom of this history is white folks, like me, who don’t really know much about where they come from and who, consequently, grasp at whatever clue is offered to fill in a piece of a forgotten past. In this sense, DNA ancestry tests—which have increased dramatically in popularity over the past two decades—have become, for many, a convenient means for discovering where they came from, at least genetically.
In some ways, to be sure, Warren’s and Taylor’s uses of their respective DNA tests are different. Warren took the test at the goading of political rival and in order to substantiate what she already understood to be true, based on family history; by contrast, Taylor’s test helped him create a new sense of personal ancestry that didn’t already exist and that therefore had no prior meaning for him before the test. When Warren released her test results, she did so with a statement that clarified her understanding that a DNA test was not the same thing as tribal affiliation; Taylor, on the other hand, shored up his own sense of his “multiracial” identity by joining the NAACP and subscribing to Ebony magazine.
And yet, for both Warren and Taylor—a Harvard Law professor turned Senator and the owner of a small insurance group—the DNA test became a means for verifying minority identity scientifically, a way to show that they had genetic links to minority groups despite being obviously Caucasian in appearance. In response to skeptics, Taylor appealed to the “one-drop rule,” which was used in parts of the United States in the twentieth century to enforce standards of segregation. The initial controversy, in 2012, over Warren’s decision to list herself as a minority early in her career focused on claims made by her political opponents, who accused Warren of leveraging minority status to create career opportunities that may not have otherwise been available to her. (While Harvard and Warren have both argued that her race wasn’t a factor in her hiring, that stance is complicated by the school’s decision—on at least two separate occasions—to include Warren on a list of its minority faculty.) Taylor has been much more direct about his own interests in identifying as a minority: to take advantage of a system that offers opportunities to minorities that it doesn’t offer to white people and to expose the arbitrary and subjective nature with which that system determines who qualifies for those opportunities. Setting aside Warren’s denials of intention, the effect of both Warren’s and Taylor’s claims is to frame identity as primarily an individual characteristic and to let that characteristic stand as the superficial marker. DNA ancestry tests, when used in this manner, can become a tool for redefining racial identity “scientifically” while ignoring the historical and social forces that produced the idea of racial identity in the first place.
The great irony in both of these cases is that they suggest that belonging to a racial minority has become grounds for preferential treatment while failing to recognize that their whiteness has also been—and continues to be—a much more persistent and substantial grounds for preferential treatment. This mindset is shared by many critics of the programs and institutional corrections that have been created to address this historical legacy of unequal treatment on racial grounds, such as affirmative action, diversity hiring programs, and organizations like the Washington Office of Minority & Women’s Business Enterprises. Critics go as far as to refer to these programs as “handouts,” suggesting that they are “gifts” to one group of people at the expense of another. And yet to call these programs handouts, to say that they created opportunity for one group at the expense of another, is to overlook how that imbalance was created in the first place and how it has never been repaired.
The second irony is that, by claiming minority status while also being white, Taylor, Warren, and people like them attempt to put themselves in a position where they will benefit on all fronts. Not content with the advantages that have been passed down not only through existing structures but also through the legacy of benefits inherent how those structures have operated historically, they also attempt to place themselves in a position to collect some of the small advantages now being offered to those whom the structures worked against. Where their whiteness creates opportunity, they can fully and unproblematically be white. Where it benefits them to claim minority identity, either directly or indirectly, they can do that, too.
These examples, as different as they are, are worth thinking about more deeply as the cultural conversation about reparations starts to find traction in our political climate. A handful of Democratic presidential candidates—including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Julian Castro, and Cory Booker—have all spoken out in favor of exploring reparations for slavery and the persistent legacy of injustice and harm that emerged in its wake. Any national discussion of reparations will quickly run into questions of practicalities, not least of which are the questions of who would receive reparations and who would be responsible for paying them. These are essentially the same questions, on a much larger scale, that arise when minority status is seen as grounds for receiving benefits—or, frankly, when the concept of “benefits” itself is raised in the type of vacuum that overlooks the history that makes the conversation of reparations necessary in the first place.
This is where the conversation about individual identity and personal history needs to become disentangled from the country’s legacy of systemic abuses and collective injury, just as conversations about whether one is or is not racist, or whether one is or is not responsible for racist actions and policies, need to be disentangled from an understanding about how broadly institutionalized racism works. Put another way, any conversation about small-scale programs or large-scale reparations needs to acknowledge that these programs do not exist simply as benefits to minorities because of race or DNA ancestry; rather, they exist to remedy injuries that have been inflicted because of race—which itself has been constructed, not through genetic means, but to leverage social and cultural power. For as useful and as meaningful as DNA ancestry tests may be for some, one’s genetic heritage is not the deciding factor of whether one has or has not inherited the consequences of unequal treatment. The unresolved need to recognize and address those injuries, as well as their ongoing consequences, calls for a much deeper understanding of our collective history.
About the author: Traynor Hansen earned his PhD in early-nineteenth century British literature from the University of Washington and teaches at Seattle Pacific University. As a lifelong baseball fan, he has learned much about hope from the Seattle Mariners, and even more about despair.