DNA Tests and Ethnic Origins
DNA testing is offered as a way to trace black family heritage in America. A Washington firm, African Ancestry Inc., claims exclusive rights to the most comprehensive database of DNA sequences from Africans.
African Ancestry executives say this large database allows customers to locate a person's origin to a specific region and sometimes tribe. But ever since the tests began in 2003, questions have been raised about their accuracy, specifically whether tracing mitochondrial DNA can pinpoint a person's tribal origins.
Christine Hauskeller explained those doubts: “when you test for markers on the mitochondria looking back through just two generations, the mitochondria will be carrying the DNA from only one out of four of the grandparent ancestors; the maternal grandmother. This effect is magnified over many generations; after 8 generations there will be 256 ancestors, but the mitochrondrial DNA will have been inherited from only 8 grandmothers and the other 248 ancestors will be ignored. Only a minimal fraction of the ethnic groups that contributed to a person’s genome can be found out in this way.”
Another problem with the product ‘DNA tests for ethnic origin’ is matching the DNA to the correct ethnic group. A recent study found that fewer than 10 percent of black Americans whose mitochondrial DNA was analyzed matched perfectly with a single African ethnic group, and 40 percent had no match with any African group represented in data banks.
Nevertheless, the tests continue to be popular. TV talk-show host Oprah Winfrey took a test that linked her to the Kpelle people of what is now Liberia. Composer Quincy Jones was informed that he is a likely descendant of the Mbundu or Kimundu tribe in present-day Angola, and Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was told that his ancestry is Nubian.
“It’s not surprising these tests attract customers” acknowledges Hauskeller. “Genetics has sold itself as giving deep knowledge about who we really are. The human genome project claimed it would shed light on human identity. Black Americans have a violent, distorted historical identity where they were forcibly removed from their countries. Many slave women suffered rape and sexual exploitation, also by their white owners. In a racist social culture in which ancestry and origin are so problematic for every individual, the desire to find some undistorted history of one’s origin that predates the abusive history of slavery is most understandable. These gene tests promise roots in Africa to assemble a positive prehistory to the violent more recent past.”
“The main problem with those tests is that they deliver a segmented picture because you know nothing about all the other ancestors, some of whom may have been white. Mitochondrial tests wash black the identity of those analyzed because the traces of female sexual exploitation by white males aren’t present in it – as it is a maternal line only. From this perspective, the genetic tests fulfill a potential desire to purify the ethnic line of ancestry, but simultaneously they reaffirm the ‘otherness’ of the black people in America. The tests may just serve to enact a further chapter of American, British and generally imperialist racist societies: now with the confirmation of a difference between the races being ‘scientifically’ established and a widely marketed product. This does not seem very forward looking if less racism is the desired state of future society.
Moreover, the genetic testing instrument by its very nature individualizes and thus segregates into African tribes what might otherwise be seen a shared identity of black people. Now we are enabled to differentiate between Nubian, Liberian, or Angolan and this has its two sides as well. Such a test provides a thin but hopefully helpful grounding of a person’s identity. But would not integration and selfhood require acknowledgement and peace with the full history rather than a tiny segment of it and to develop a strong political voice on this basis, as previous Black Movement activists have demanded? I think genetic tests bring new elements into an old debate about how to best fight (or fixate) racist structures. We should discuss these tests and their marketing bearing the background of this history and their social implications in mind.”
Dr Hauskeller is realistic about the chances of the test being abandoned “Its advertised market, whether you should sell identities in a certain way is not the main concern of these companies, they are interested in making a profit. And for black Americans as for many other immigrants, in the UK, for example, this is a very popular test. “