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DNA Testing and Race

African American Lives: Review of a PBS Series

From About.com

What if…

…DNA tests revealed your genetic code revealed origins in China, Russia, or Africa—which has been once again been confirmed as the origin of all humans?

…your understanding of your racial and ethnic identity did not include these races and ethnicities?

…your racial and ethnic identity was simply a social label that had no genetic basis?

A New Trend

Americans are getting to know themselves on a new level. A growing number are rushing to order DNA kits. With a swab of an inner cheek, they hope to lift the veil from previously hidden genetic histories.

African-Americans are clarifying assumptions about their identities and are learning about the exact levels of European and/or Native blood they carry.

White Americans are learning about other ethnic origins in their near or distant ancestral past or that their European origins can be found in countries other than those they had always assumed comprised their cultural backgrounds.

And adopted individuals are reconnecting with the genetic histories and ethnic identities their status as adoptees had made them blind to.

The Series

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. recently launched a new PBS series entitled “African American Lives.” Although he initially engaged in a search to locate the exact origins in Africa from which his ancestors came, DNA results revealed a shock when they pinpointed genetic origins near Scotland and France. As he learned of his half-European genetic makeup, he began to revisit his social identity as an African-American.

Mr. Gates also follows other prominent African-Americans including Oprah, Chris Tucker, Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, and Dr. Mae Jemison—the first African-American astronaut, down the path of genetic exploration and ancestral discovery.
  • Oprah learned that her assumptions about her African origins residing in the Zulu nation were wrong, and that they lay within another tribe.

  • Whoopi Goldberg learned that her genetic code was almost exclusively African.

  • Dr. Jemison learned that although her features suggested the possibility of Native American heritage, they in fact stemmed from Asian heritage.

  • Chris Tucker learned that his genetic code contained more European associations than he had been aware existed. In addition, the strength of his results enabled a team of experts to pinpoint the exact region and tribe in Angola from which his ancestors had most probably been taken and sold into slavery. A journey to Angola and a visit to the slave clearing center, which still stands, made for a particularly poignant moment in the series.
Although the title of the series is “African American Lives,” it could just as easily have been “Origins of Humankind.” The implications of these and other recent findings are the same for individuals from all ethnic groups: there is still so much we need to learn about who we really are and how we are all connected.

Two Thumbs Up….

Overall, the series is enlightening and enjoyable. It, along with other recent findings from related DNA studies have confirmed what I, for one, always assumed was the case: that race is really not a concrete concept, that its power stems primarily from the social definitions we attribute to it.

If you haven’t seen it yet, the series is running through February, so there’s still a chance to catch it. Visit PBS.org for local listing dates and times. You can also obtain a DVD from SHOPPBS.org which contains all segments from the series.

How would you feel if you found out through DNA testing that your racial and ethnic heritage was not what you thought it was?? Tell us on the forum...

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