Dear Race Manners:
52.9. I'd never given much thought to this arrangement of numbers until a few months ago. Those digits represent a majority of my ancestral makeup. During a recent DNA examination, I discovered that 52.9 percent of my ancestors are European. My African relatives make up 43.4 percent of my DNA (including 28 percent West African). A small fraction of Native American rounds out my heritage.
This came as a bit of a shock because my family has always considered itself African American. We are on the lighter side—and so clearly someone was lying to someone along the way—but 52.9? That's a bit high and surprising.
I’m African American, and my feelings about my own culture will never change. But as I think about my own family, I wonder what I’ll tell my children when they ask, “What are we?” —DNA Dilemma
Tell them they're African American.
These days, "What am I?" and "What are we?" are tougher questions with less-predictable answers than ever. Not only do an increasing number of Americans identify as biracial or multiracial (not to mention multicultural), but our current handful of standard racial categories are proving to be less trustworthy all the time.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: “Lupita’s Spotlight: A Reality Check for Light-Skinned Women?”