Almost two years ago, in order to fascillitate a dialogue about identity and belonging and find out more about who I am, I started this blog and went travelling.
For so long I didn’t have a clear perspective on my own identity. I had love and stability in my childhood, but no understanding of who I really was, and why I was black, in a white family. Well-meaning whiteness scrubbed out a large part of me, but it wasn’t something I could ever really speak about until my Dad died.
Taking a DNA test had always been on my mind, but it’s something I could never bring myself to do as a child.
After my Dad’s death, the questions and anxiety I’d spent so long ignoring suddenly became more pertinent than ever. Was I related to him? If not, who was I related to? How were we so close if he wasn’t really my dad? Should I be taking a DNA test to find out more about my blackness? My Dad’s death left a grief-shaped crevasse in my life, but it also ripped open a wound that had always been there: a wound relating to where I belonged.
Taking a DNA test
At the start of 2018, I was in Mexico and Cuba and was approached by the genetic testing company, MyHeritage, who provided me with a DNA test to give me answers about my genetic makeup. We made a video of my story which you can watch below:
After years of being somewhat raceless, of flirting with multiple identities and becoming comfortable in a space of racial ambiguity, a few weeks after this video, I finally found out the origins of my blackness.
In a tiny apartment in Nicaragua where I was travelling at the time, I logged into the MyHeritage site on a disconcertingly sunny morning and discovered that genetic makeup is, apparently, quite simple.
The DNA test results
I am black because I am Nigerian.
MyHeritage says 43% of my DNA is from there. And then there’s 1% from Kenya, and the rest from Great Britain and Ireland (55%), as well as eastern Europe (1%).
I remember shaking as I scanned the digital map on the website. My shock was so palpable I felt I could hold it in my hand. After so long of being told I looked east African, or mixed with multiple countries, I couldn’t get my head around finally having a clear racial identity on paper. It was nearly a 50:50 split.
Although I had been identifying as mixed-race since around 16 years-old, it was mainly to appease the questions of others. I never knew what I was mixed with. I’d spent so much of my life living in the projected shadows of others, I’d simply taken to splitting myself in two: when I was with those who knew me, I was raceless; without a clear identity, or white because that’s how I was racialised by my family and some of my friends. But when I was meeting new people, or wanting to avoid a line of questioning that I couldn’t answer, I called myself mixed, and would ascribe whatever country I thought would get me through the conversation the most easily.
If people saw me as East African, I could nod and smile and say one of my parents was from Eritrea. If they thought I looked half-black, Jamaica became the go-to explanation, because the Caribbean is much more palatable than Africa, right?
My own internalised anti-blackness, coupled with the ways in which others dictated my identity resulted in a variety of stories that led to me living in racial ambiguity for most of my life. And I became accustomed to it.
The test results are the end of that chapter, but the beginning of a totally new one.
I returned to London in the middle of 2017 to write a column in the Guardian and to continue searching for answers on who I am. That meant quizzing my Mum about my biological dad, going to therapy and examining what sites like MyHeritage can really tell us about who we are.
What does taking a DNA test mean for your identity?
Since getting the results of the test, I’ve been grappling with what that means for how I identify moving forward. Firstly, because of the science behind the tests themselves, which is complicated but interesting.
As I wrote in the Guardian in August 2018, these DNA testing companies deliberately conflate the the terms race and ethnicity. These sites won’t tell you that your “race” is Nigerian, or Swedish, or French, but they will tell you that your “ancestry” is “estimated” to derive from Nigeria/Sweden/France, or wherever.
Why? Well to give you a percentage breakdown of your “ancestry”, DNA companies analyse some markers, or snippets, in your DNA and compare them to others who are said to be good representatives for specific regions or ethnicities around the world.
But all the databases from these companies are based on living populations. So for someone looking to find out with certainty where their family was from hundreds of years ago, these tests are only comparing your genetic info to that of others who are are alive and in the system.
A white person, with two white parents who wants to know more about their history from hundreds of years ago won’t know where they are “from” after taking a test because the data is all on those who are currently alive.
An “ethnicity estimate” will vary depending on what website you use too, as each database is based on different samples. I put my details into another site and got a different result containing more East African and less West African for example. Obviously these totally wrecked my head again.
There’s also the issue of how the databases are compiled; an individual’s “ethnicity” is based on their own perception of cultural and social traits, not which geopolitical borders they were born between. Borders of course, change all the time; someone who reported themselves as French today, might have been considered German 100 years ago.
And as Mark Thomas, a professor of evolutionary genetics at University College London pointed out to me when I did my Guardian piece, there are no universal genetic traits within certain groups anyway.
This means there is no gene or cluster of genes common to all French people, or Nigerians, or Swedes. And the genetic markers we pass on to each other aren’t even consistent – there might be a lot of genetic markers Nigerians share, for example, but they could also be found in Kenyans, or Finnish, or Spanish people.
Mark Thomas basically told me that taking a DNA test to find out more about your genetic makeup, race, or ethnicity are pretty much a waste of time.
How to identify after taking a DNA test
Knowing all this now, and also growing up with no cultural knowledge of what it means to “be” part-Nigerian means that I’ve definitely found it hard to assert myself as a mixed-race, part-black, part-Irish, English-born woman.
I can be Nigerian on paper of course, but does the answer to the ubiquitous “where are you from?” question lie in the dubious science of a DNA testing kit? Or is it about how I move through the world now, and what culture I claim today?
That’s something I’m working on getting to grips with myself. And I’ve realised that I’m not alone in my struggles; my writing has brought me into contact with a whole bunch of people who have endured similar experiences, people of colour who have found that things have become more complicated after taking a DNA test.
I’m talking to others and working on a project that encompasses this modern-day phenomena of feeling raceless, experiencing a shift in how you identify as a person of colour. For some people, a racial identity can change frequently as you move through the world, depending on your circumstances, upbringing and perception.
I know that race is fluid and contextual for many people of colour, but I also know that the economic, social and political implications of race are not.
Even though it’s long been accepted that racial classifications have no grounding in science or genetics, we know that the parameters by which they force us to live our lives are quite clearly defined.
Changing one’s race overnight, or cherry-picking a race will always be highly problematic, especially when it’s a white person doing the picking. (Step forward RD). At first, the idea of claiming Nigeria as my own didn’t sit well with me, because I didn’t want others to think that is what I was doing; choosing to be Nigerian when I had no knowledge of what that really meant.
I thought that I knew nothing of the broad, British-Nigerian experience. I don’t know if I have the right to insert myself in a cultural identity that means to so much to so many people without feeling disingenuous, or maybe even offending others.
But then I thought that my very mixed-up British-Nigerian experience can still sit alongside that of anyone else; those with two Nigerian parents, those with Nigerian in their blood from way back.
Since taking the test, I’ve also come into contact with my first black relative on MyHeritage – it’s a distant match (a fourth cousin) but she’s British-Nigerian, with parents from there, which seems to corroborate the findings from MyHeritage about my own genetic makeup.
Her very existence has made me feel more comfortable with the idea of accepting myself as part Nigerian, even if the science behind the tests is still questionable.
It kind of reminds me of the idea that I read a while back, which is that a person’s identity is made up of three parts: how you view yourself, how others view yourself, and the biological reality.
Of course decoding my DNA is only one chapter of my story. I don’t regret taking a DNA test to help me uncover more about my genetics, but I won’t let it define everything about my narrative and I’m determined to get to a place where I’m totally at ease with each and every part of me.
Have you considered taking a DNA test for answers around your heritage? Or do you have questions about my experiences? Get in contact below or drop me an email 🙂