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Dear Professor Gates:

I came across your article from 2014 while Google searching, trying to make sense of my own home DNA test. I grew up as a white American, so at first, when I saw that the report said I have 11 percent African ancestry, I thought, “Well, everyone came from Africa originally.”

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But then I found your article “How Many White People Are ‘Passing’?” I don't know a lot about my father’s family. We are completely estranged and my parents were not married very long. For safety reasons, I could not contact them even if I knew how to. The only clue I have is that one of my grandparents was French Canadian. My guess is that’s where my black ancestor could come from. (My mom’s side is recently from Poland, so nothing there.)

However, for me the more interesting question is, what to think? What are other people doing with the discoveries that these DNA tests are providing about our personal histories? To state the obvious, for white people, we have been taught we are white—end of sentence. Though it’s cool to finally understand why I get keloid scars, how do I embrace this unknown black ancestor without turning into some culture-appropriating weirdo? How do I celebrate my heritage without offending people who have lived with a black identity their entire lives? I don’t have any black culture handed down to me, as I do with my Polish heritage: no foods to cook, no stories to tell. I'm really just searching for a direction to go with this and was hoping you might be able to help. —Laura Lake

Laura Lake
Laura Lake

As you’ve stated, there are a couple of questions to consider: 1) What do your test results mean? 2) How does a person who has lived with a white identity choose to honor and celebrate his or her newfound sub-Saharan African genetic ancestry without offending those for whom the identification as “black” has never been a choice?

Verifying Your African Ancestry

To answer the first question, I consulted genetic genealogist CeCe Moore and asked her to review the DNA report by AncestrybyDNA that you sent us. She told us that to be sure of the results, it’s prudent to get an additional DNA test done by another major testing service, such as AncestryDNA, 23andMe or FamilyTreeDNA. Moore said that 23andMe’s test allows examination of how your biogeographical admixture “maps out across your chromosomes and reveals the size of the segments of African origin.” That way, the amount of African DNA you have can be verified and you can get a better sense of when and how that newfound sub-Saharan African ancestry entered your genome.

American Racial Identity and the One-Drop Rule

The second question is trickier, since, as you have surmised, black racial identity in America is far more than a mere matter of DNA. It is cultural, political and economic—the last factor, in particular, giving rise to the “one-drop rule” (also known as hypodescent) that any amount of African ancestry, no matter how little, created a black identity and the legal justification for enslavement. As noted in a previous Tracing Your Roots column, “That [one-drop] law was really racist pseudoscience designed to maintain children born to black enslaved women and fathered by white men (often their masters) as property. Typically, the condition of the child of a slave mother followed the condition of the mother, no matter what the child looked like phenotypically. Even after slavery, this tradition of hypodescent persisted.”

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One way that those who were not phenotypically African could escape the oppression that came with black identity was by “passing” as white—essentially, taking on a white racial identity. I noted in the article you read that “23andMe published a study (pdf) based on its own dataset that concluded that approximately 3 to 4 percent of their customers who identified as being of primarily European descent had at least one ancestor in the last 10 generations who could be traced back to Africa.” In other words, 3 to 4 percent of present-day Americans who identify as white have black ancestry. As I observed in that column, “Judging by the last U.S. Census (pdf), 7,872,702” of ostensibly white Americans walking around today would be classified as “black” under the one-drop rule. Some may know about it; others may not have been told about their hidden heritage, having been given a clean slate cleared of racial stigma by the secrets their ancestors kept.

The Complicated Lessons of History

So how does someone celebrate newly discovered black heritage while acknowledging that up until this point, he or she has lived free from the stigma of blackness—perhaps by design, if this person’s predecessors decided to cross the color line to escape discrimination?

You mention a fear of appearing as if you are engaging in cultural appropriation, and that instinct reveals a desire to have an identity that is authentic to you and not unearned. It also shows that perhaps you are sensitive to how people who live with black identity take pride in and ownership of it—even when it is inconvenient—regardless of what their genome shows or where they fall on the “one-drop” spectrum. As a white person, you have enjoyed a privileged status that your possible black kin have not. It’s good to be aware of that, and where you enter the continuum of blackness, if you choose to.

You ask how to embrace that “unknown black ancestor.” If testing confirms that you do have African ancestors, the first step in your journey would ordinarily be to simply try to learn more about your own kin, though you cite “safety reasons” as an impediment. Logical next steps would be to educate yourself about black history and culture, understanding that there’s no urgent need for you to change the identity you’ve had your entire life because of the one-drop rule.

As you educate yourself, keep in mind that, as I wrote previously, “the more we learn about the black, white and browning of our past, the more we can see how absurd, how arbitrary and grotesque the ‘one-drop rule’ that defined the color line in America for decades and decades during its most painful chapters truly was. Back then, a white-enough black woman or man could pass for white; now, with … findings [published by 23andMe] we realize that all along, there was a whole other layer in the color aristocracy that no one could see. And to shop owners, hotel clerks, railroad conductors and federal judges in those times, appearances were what mattered; in our time, thankfully, it is the truth that sets us free.

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“As a result, I can’t help but wonder how many ‘hidden’ blacks sat at whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counters in the South before the ‘visible’ and brave black students of the early 1960s did so. The same could be said for our nation’s historically white colleges and universities, its movie theaters and hotels, its water-fountains and bathrooms.

“We know that in 1892, Homer Plessy could have passed for a white passenger on the Louisiana railroad that led to the constitutional doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ in the Supreme Court. But Plessy spoke up, as did many of what were once known as ‘voluntary Negroes’ (men and women like former NAACP leader Walter White who refused to pass). But how many others remained silent without ever revealing who they were?” I’m repeating this here not to make you feel guilty about your possible hidden African heritage but, rather, to help you understand the context in which it likely came about—and how, historically, those confronted with the choice you are mulling dealt with it.

Another part of your education will be getting to know more black people (while being your authentic self). The truth is, that would be great advice even if a second test does not confirm that you have African heritage. Black and white Americans have a shared history that, by itself, merits reaching out to each other with respect and openness.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.