I had my parents take Ancestry.com DNA tests a few months ago and have enjoyed seeing the results and learning more about myself and my family's past. Probably the biggest revelation was from my mom's test results which says she has about 3% African and 4% Iberian in her genetic makeup. This means I have up to 50% of those percentage points in my own genetic makeup. This is actually fitting in with what I know about the family line this comes from, but after getting some additional information from some DNA experts*, I am now questioning if I actually have only one Afro-Hispanic ancestor, or several. Based on what the expert said, the amount my mom has in her results is actually too high based on when the first person in that line would have been able to "pass" for white. What this means: I probably have more than one Afro-Hispanic ancestor, possibly several.
The term that has developed recently as more people take these DNA tests and white people discover they have African ancestry in their genetic makeup, is "Hidden African Ancestry." Some people try to write this off by saying, "Well, everybody has African in them because of how humanity evolved and traveled out of Africa." This is not what that means. While it's true that if you go back far enough, that is the case, but we're talking a hundred thousand years+ for that. These DNA tests go back about 250-300 years which is far more recent. Think 6-7 generations back. It's not that far at all. One percent DNA generally means that you had one full-blooded ancestor of whatever ethnicity, about 6 generations back. If this ancestor was half-blooded or less, then you're looking at more than one person to make up the difference. My mom, at 3%, could have any number of less than full-blooded ancestors of African descent. The interesting thing about all of this is, they are finding that about 4% of white people who take these DNA tests, discover that they too, have hidden African ancestry. This is opening up a lot of questions about just how race relations were 200-300 years ago and if we have been making a lot of assumptions about the past based on how we live in the present.
So, what do you do when you find out you're one of these people with hidden African ancestry? Some people ignore it. Some people are ashamed of it, for various reasons. Or, if you're like me, you were always suspecting it, and so you become excited to have it confirmed. Then for a bit, you're sad to realize that you are now a part of a terrible history that you always thought had never involved you. Those people must have lived such hard and horrible lives, and all you want to do is go back in time and protect them from it. But maybe that's just me.
After that initial shock and taking it in, you start to realize that, things are different now. My skin is still white, my white privilege is still intact, but you realized there is more inside you than you ever realized before. And it's always been there. There's an antiquated rule that was used back in slave days called the "one drop rule," meaning, if you even had one drop of African American blood in you, than you were considered black. I guess this means I've been passing my whole life, but didn't know it. "Passing" is generally looked down upon, by everybody. Depending on what color you were, it was seen as crafty and insinuating, or as betraying and abandoning. I sort of see it as surviving by any means necessary, but I can see how people would see it those other ways.
This is where the feeling of isolation starts to creep in. When I tell other white people about this part of myself, most of the responses I get are none at all. See, as white people, we have the privilege to ignore things like this. Pretend it's not there, pretend it didn't happen. It's not like it shows or affects our lives in any way, right? It's been my experience that most white people don't want to hear about this. Even non-racist white people seem like this just creates more drama than they want to deal with, so it's best to just leave it be. And I would never presume to speak to an African American about this, as though comparing this to what they have lived their entire lives experiencing makes us somehow equal or on equal footing. My white privilege is still very much intact. So, I'm on my own to process this and navigate my way through whatever emotional responses come up with all of this.
What do I do with this information? I understand the idea of not wanting to go overboard with this and try to appropriate cultures that aren't mine. I don't get a voice in the Black Lives Matter movement because of this. But to ignore this piece of me feels disrespectful to the lives of the ancestors who existed and were real flesh and blood humans. They are a part of me. They make up who I am. To continue to ignore them doesn't seem right to me.
So, what can I do? I can educate myself about the countries that showed up on the DNA tests. I can better educate myself about this country's history, and continue to learn all I can about my own heritage. And I realized that I am in a unique position in this country, to have conversations about race and white privilege, with white people. I can get into white spaces and speak to other white people in a way that a person of color cannot. This isn't taking over the Black Lives Matter movement, it's supporting it. Being able to teach others about racism is one thing I can do to help change the world, and to honor my ancestors who were victims of a racist system. Maybe helping to make the world freer and more equal for everybody who will be born into it in the future, is the best way I can honor them, and that small part of my past.
* The letter I wrote to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, and the response.