It’s because there are no formal rules and no nuanced, agreed-upon vocabulary for race and identity that we get all those petty arguments about who is “really” black. We get debates about whether it makes any sense for the medical community to treat patients as members of social groups that, unlike geographic ancestry, can’t actually be detected through our genes. We get accusations that Elizabeth Warren is a fraud for saying she’s Native American, and scrutiny of the first Latino star of ABC’s The Bachelor who doesn’t look quite the way people expected. And we get a census scrambling to capture the categories that have real-life significance for Americans.
The good news: We also get the flexibility to use whatever self-description makes sense to us and to our families.
So really, when it comes to what you’ll tell your kids, the choice is all yours.
In addition to “black” and “African American” (as well as “white” or “just a person!” if you want to insist on using something that doesn’t line up with your experience or anyone else’s), you have access to the full menu of “multiracial,” “person of color,” “Euro-Afro-American,” “biracial” and “mixed.” You can even go the popular-on-dating-websites route and do the old, exhaustive “German-Irish-Scottish-Italian-Native American-black” list (always in that order, for whatever reason, but that’s another story).
But I would encourage you to do exactly what you would have done before you got these test results. Because really, not much has changed. While the story of your background is now in front of you in an official-looking report, it’s always been there (and on some level, with the awareness that you were “on the lighter side,” you knew).
Most important, the story of your geographic ancestry (which is what the test measured) and your identity are two different things. Having European ancestry—even a whole lot of European ancestry—is just about as old a part of the African-American experience as the history of black people in America itself.
Because of this background, I wouldn’t even agree that someone in your family tree was necessarily “lying.” More likely, someone (or multiple someones) had a white-identified and a black-identified parent and still very honestly considered him- or herself African American.
For perspective, 23andMe researchers told The Root that the average African American is 22 percent European (not to mention that “3 percent to 4 percent of people likely to consider themselves as all ‘white’ have some African ancestry … “).
I can see how having more than half European ancestry could feel significant. But consider that, in practice, identity doesn’t work according to mathematical rules—despite the best wishes of those who cannot get their heads around the idea that President Barack Obama identifies as black when “He’s half white, too!” (Give it up, guys.)
Moreover, the relationship between identifying as African American and claiming a direct genealogical connection to the continent of Africa can be loose.