How DNA Testing Validated Me And Facilitated Growth

October 12, 2021

I was raised to believe I was 25% Indigenous American. According to my mother, she herself was 50%, on account of her estranged father. (My dad is just fair-skinned and white). Even though my siblings and I presented as white, Mom enrolled us as Native Americans in elementary school. And we were sometimes given free school supplies as a result. Similarly, we were able to attend whatever public schools we wanted, in lieu of our zip code making such determinations. The latter was very helpful, as we moved a lot when I was a child. And otherwise I would have switched schools almost yearly.

My mother has olive skin and dark hair, and my siblings and I also have darker hair and facial features. Being a Native woman was always an integral part of my mother’s identity, and she spoke about it frequently. But once I was grown, I started experiencing some dissonance around my mother when she talked about it. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it, but something about the manner with which she spoke about “her” Native American heritage left a bitter taste in the air. Like she was fetishizing their culture?

But I tossed that concern into the bucket of things I don’t discuss with Mom, and tried to ignore it. When asked, I always identified as white. Several years passed, and my brother and his wife had a child. Their child is blonde with striking blue eyes. Mom made a comment about their child being partially Native, “despite not looking like it,” and the absurdity of it hit me like a brick wall. But I remained silent, because I didn’t have proof of the contrary.

But then, as racial justice has rightfully made its way to the forefront of cultural reckoning, I realized I needed to know what I am. If not partially Native, what was I? My mother has spent so much time distancing our family from whiteness, I kind of couldn’t stand thinking that she was wrong. Because that would render me and my siblings complicit in culturally appropriating another ethnicity’s struggle, right?

As a little girl I dressed up like Pocahontas for Halloween. And I feel gross about it.

So I took a DNA test. Because maybe knowing would provide peace of mind? Maybe knowing would allow my mother to grapple with why she clings to Native American culture?

A tangential yet important consideration when taking a DNA test is privacy. The extent of my social media career is contributing to Peaceful Dumpling. I don’t like surveillance at the best of times, and generally don’t want to spend time curating a (let’s face it, manipulated and controlled) glimpse into my life. All that to say, I take my privacy seriously.

I researched the companies offering DNA testing kits and decided 23 and Me aligned most with my needs. While setting up my account, I was prompted to give legal consent for/against: sharing my DNA results, participating in research, and allowing 23 and Me to store my DNA. It’s a lot of fine print to muddle through, but worth it if you have similar concerns but still want to get your DNA tested.

The test is a simple saliva-collection valve, which is sealed and sent back. I downloaded the app and was able to watch the progress, which is pretty interesting. My results arrived earlier than predicted, and my breakdown follows.

According to 23 and Me, I am:

99% Northwestern European. (Very white indeed). A mix of British, Irish, French, German, Scandinavian and Finnish.

The remaining 1%? Ghanaian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean, Coptic Egyptian, and a whopping .1% of Indigenous American.

I smiled widely as I reviewed my results. At one point I was scared to think my mother was wrong. But in reality, seeing my DNA results align with how I identified (white) was incredibly validating. But I still felt guilty about the past, of course. And I had little tolerance left for my mother’s “Native American Heritage” rhetoric. However, I’m not a fan of “cancel culture,” or the idea that we have to forcefully shove people’s faces into the racially-inappropriate puddles they’ve left on the floor. No, I tend to favor kindness. (Think Broad City, Season 3 Episode 4, where Jaime tells Ilana the Latina earrings she wears look beautiful on her, but she isn’t Latina. And when she wears them, it is like she is stealing the identity of those who worked hard for it against colonial structures).

I sent my Mom a screenshot of my results, with no text. She responded, “I wish we had Dave’s (estranged/deceased biological Father) ancestry report.”

I chewed on that for a minute, then replied, “But that wouldn’t change my results, Mom.”

“I don’t look like any of that!” she said back.

But that’s the thing, right? Just because our skin has a bit more melanin than some other white people doesn’t make us different. We are overwhelmingly white, and it is time we all owned that. For me and my siblings, that wasn’t really an adjustment, but for Mom it is a process. She no longer talks about being Native American in that grandiose manner, but she has years worth of identity wrapped around being a Native woman to begin unraveling. I already had to gently squash the idea that our 1% could contribute to our somewhat ethnically ambiguous presentations. “No, those traces aren’t enough to change our skin tone. We are white.”

As for the future, I plan to donate school supplies to Native American children. Ideally my Mom will help with that as well. This experience was both validating and challenging, and reminded me that we can always be better. We just need to keep our minds open and our hearts empathetic. And the truth really does set us free.

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Photo: Gemma Chua-Tran via Unsplash

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