DNA Test Showed Mostly European Ancestry? It’s OK, You’re Still African American

Race Manners: Sure, it’s a shock to see the results in black and white, but nothing about your identity needs to change. 

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That’s the only way to explain how some people who are actually from Africa see themselves—incoherently, to many—as separate from “the blacks” or African Americans. And it’s probably why others scoff at efforts to force a link through the Swahili-themed days of Kwanzaa. Being African American seems to rely much less on where one’s ancestors come from and more on the lived and psychological experiences of people who grow up calling themselves black here in the U.S. When it comes to that definition, it sounds as if you’re all squared away.

And really, if we all used DNA tests and ancestry to guide the way we told our children who they were, we’d be stuffed into groups with close to zero social significance, wouldn’t we?

That doesn’t mean you should ignore this new information, though. Not only could it be fun to dig into where your ancestors come from and how your family came to be what it is today, but it’s also a great chance to think with more specificity about what it means to be African American, aside from being a certain shade of brown or being able to trace your lineage to a particular place in the Motherland and communicate that to the next generation.

You said, “My feelings about my culture will never change,” and I think that’s the part you teach your kids—as in, “This is our family’s culture … Like a lot of African-American people, we have ancestors who came here from Europe. Here’s the story of how that happened … “)

That should provide a good start. But the funny thing is that when it comes to the question “What are we?” what will happen is that your kids will take all the information they have—DNA-test results, parental guidance, plus what everyday life is like for them in whatever version of America they grow up in—and decide, like so many people before them, for themselves.

The Root’s senior staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

Need race-related advice? Send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com.

Previously in Race Manners: “Lupita’s Spotlight: A Reality Check for Light-Skinned Women?