You’ve probably seen that Ancestry.com commercial — the one where Kyle, who grew up thinking he was German, takes a DNA test and discovers that his ancestry is mostly Scottish, and trades his lederhosen for a kilt. Or maybe you’ve seen the one where Kim learns from a DNA test that she is 26 percent Native American and, surrounded by Native pottery, can finally know who she is.
A strong appeal of DNA tests is their promise to tell you “who you are.” While the testing companies no longer use the words “race” or “ethnicity,” ads like those featuring Kyle and Kim show that this is exactly what they are selling.
Unfortunately for Kyle and Kim, DNA tests are inaccurate. Genetic testing is straightforward: a person swipes the inside of their cheek for a saliva sample which is sent to a lab. The lab then extracts the DNA and compares it with DNA samples from a reference database of haplotypes – a set of closely linked genes or DNA polymorphisms – that have been identified in specific populations. If a person’s DNA sequence matches certain sequences in the database, this information can be used to determine the person’s geographic ancestry.
However, the database is far too small to draw any accurate conclusions from. Furthermore, the data collected is relatively recent, so these tests can only determine where in the world people currently share DNA patterns, rather than drawing out your geographic lineage. Kyle may very well be German, but only people from Scotland with his genetic sequence have their DNA logged into a database.
So DNA testing may be a scam. However, it brings up an interesting question about our society’s relationship with identity: why are we so obsessed with it?
Anyone who is at least semi-conscious of current events is well aware that identity politics are one of the most prominent discourses at the moment. Especially in the United States, there is a call for a newly defined ‘American Identity’: who is American and who is not, who belongs and who does not.
In a social climate of identity politics and “alternative facts,” things like genealogy tests are a way for us to attempt a grab at the truth. Because we are a culture that relies on empiricism and the objectivity of science to rationalize our beliefs, DNA tests can trick us into a false reassurance, allowing us to discover who we “really” are.
Not only does this perpetuate the idea of racial and ethnic determinism, but it also reinforces cultural stereotypes. When we have such a strong desire to belong to a group, we end up using one group’s culture to exoticize our own personalities. Adopting exotic new racial identities fosters the view that race is costless, something that can be enjoyed without real consequences.
So before you waste $99 on an inaccurate genealogy test, or trade in your lederhosen for a kilt, ask yourself if it actually matters where your ancestors lived. Then ask yourself why.