I’m White, but Tests Show I Have East African DNA. How?

Tracing Your Roots: Finding African ancestry wasn’t as shocking to him as the region of Africa shown in the results.

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However, before assuming that your ancestry comes from one of these rare cases, I asked 23andMe’s Katarzyna “Kasia” Bryc to look at the test results and graphs that you submitted. She is the genetic researcher who found that about 4 percent of self-identified white Americans have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry. After reviewing your documents, she told me, “There is fairly convincing evidence of West African ancestry.” That would be more consistent with the origins of most Americans with forebears from the African continent.

Bryc continued, “First, the Ancestry DNA results suggest ancestry from either Senegal or in Ivory Coast/Ghana for both ‘Matt’ and ‘Mom,’ according to the screenshots. Second, in all of the chromosome paintings, the majority ancestry looks to be assigned to sub-Saharan Africa and West Africa, and I see no strong evidence of East African ancestry in any ancestry painting.”

As for the Masai match you mentioned, Bryc noted, “The Masai population is at the crossroads of North Africa/Middle East and West Africa and is fairly admixed. I suspect that the genetic distance between this region of the genome [in your results] and Masai might appear low, since the regions in the ancestry paintings appear to be made of segments of African and European ancestry.”

She added, “Especially considering that the family history points to the Southern U.S., this seems fairly likely to reflect West African ancestry from several generations ago, consistent with a slave ancestor, though it is hard for me to rule this out without further details on the analysis that linked to East Africa.”

So chances are, like a number of other white Americans, you have an enslaved West African ancestor in your past. Good luck with your ongoing research into your roots!

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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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