Could a DNA Test *Really* Help Me Figure Out My Biracial Identity?

Writer Olivia Bowden is half Indian and half European, and never felt like she wholly fit in either community

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A polaroid snapshot of Olivia Bowden's biracial family. Her mom is Indian and holding her as a baby and her dad, who is European, is sitting in front

(Photo courtesy of Olivia Bowden)

Anytime I visit an Indian grocery store I find myself looking at the patrons and employees. As I walk through the aisles, I imagine what they’re thinking: Why is this white girl buying dosa mix, does she even know how to use it?

For the record, I definitely cannot make my own dosa—at least not without help from my mom. But the bigger question is: do I belong in this Indian space? And, who gets to decide that?

My mom is South Asian and her family moved from India to Canada when she was three years old. My dad was born in Orangeville, Ont. and is a mix of European heritages. And then there’s me, born and raised in Mississauga, Ont., and a mix of both cultures and racial groups.

Like many biracial people, I have been trying to understand who I am and how I fit into multiple communities, as they intersect. With this in mind, tests like 23andme and AncestryDNA caught my attention. It seemed like one could provide a concrete answer as to where I belong.

Mailing in my kit

Living with multiple racial and cultural identities is not a unique struggle; in fact, there are more people like me in Canada than ever before. According Statistics Canada, the multi-racial population has grown by almost 4 million people in the last two decades. In total, 41% of Canada’s population reported being part of multiple ethnic or cultural origins on the most recent census—and I fall  into that category.

I have light olive-toned skin and strangers often ask if I’m Italian or Spanish. My appearance means that I move through the world with all the privileges of a white person. No one has ever been surprised that I speak English. Customs officers have never given my passport a second glance and I’ve never had a racial slur used against me. After Donald Trump was elected president, my mom and brother, who both have darker brown skin, were concerned about traveling to the American south—something I never worried about.

But, I don’t feel entirely comfortable in all-white spaces either. I attended Queen’s University for my undergrad and the student population was predominately white. I often felt like I was undercover, being allowed in a white space even though I actually didn’t belong. I experienced white students make prejudicial comments about visible minorities—like imitating an Indian accent—while I was around, obviously assuming that I wouldn’t have a problem with it because of how I look.

In theory, 23andMe and AncestryDNA offer a scientific solution to the identity problem I was facing. Both services are direct-to-customer genetic tests, which involves mailing in a sample of your saliva—which is then partially genotyped (meaning it’s cut up to see whether the DNA matches genetic categories). These categories, determined by 23andMe, indicate what regions your ancestors are from.   

More than 12 million people have taken these kinds of tests, with the numbers doubling in 2017, according to data from 23andMe, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and FamilyTreeDNA.

The idea of doing a test was exciting. Could it really tell me what I was made of, and was that truly my identity? According to Anita Foeman, a communications professor at Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, I’m not the first person to put my identity issues to a DNA test.

“These tests are a way of having more complex conversations,” says Foeman, who has been working on a long-term research project examining whether DNA tests impact people’s understanding of their identity. For the last 12 years, more than 2,000 people have taken a mail-in test for her study. Participants write down their predictions on what their ancestry composition would be prior to receiving their results. Many found the results shook their perception of who they are.

Olivia Bowden poses with her mother, who is of Indian descent, and her father, who is of European descent, at her graduation

(Photo courtesy of Olivia Bowden)

I assumed that my light skin and European features—such as my strong Slavic-like jaw—wouldshow through in my results. Maybe the test would say I wasn’t really as Indian as I thought was (and therefore was right to feel like an outsider in the spice aisle at the Indian grocer). I mention this to my mom and she’s surprised by my apprehension. “How could that be possible though? I am your mother,” she says.

I worried about getting results that go against my family’s history, or that would seemingly deny me a certain heritage. For instance, a test subject of Foeman’s—who had  a white mother and Black father and personally identified as a Black man—rejected his DNA test as a marker of identity after it determined he was 91% European.

“What are you trying to do to me…There is no way that I or my kids will identify as anything other than Black,” he wrote in response to the test. His reaction reminded that my family will always be my family, no matter what 23andMe says. At least, this was the line of thinking I used to quell my anxiety as I mailed in my test.

Waiting for news 

I did the test because I was hoping to find out more about my personal history, but many experts worry about what mail-in genetic testing may mean for our understanding of race. Racial categories have been created for the purposes of oppressing others, and these tests present classifications as scientific, rather than socially-created, notes Darryl Leroux, associate professor in the social justice department at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

“This test is not really going to tell you who you are,” says Leroux, who is studying why people take these tests, and how they interpret their results.

DNA tests have been useful for white people, who are able to trace their origins effectively because there is more documentation about their ancestors, he says. However, for certain groups, like Black Americans, understanding heritage may be more complicated than what comes back from the lab. If some of your relatives were slaves who were given new names and had no proper documentation, it might be impossible to truly trace back your lineage.

A study published this month from researchers at the University of British Columbia found that some white people who do DNA tests pick and choose new racial identities for themselves, if they feel like others will believe them. Lead researcher Wendy Roth told The Guardian that race doesn’t have the same consequences for these white people, and these tests allow them to “try on” different races. Leroux is studying a similar issue in Quebec, where French descendants are claiming Métis heritage due to these tests, when they never previously identified as Indigenous before.

“It really raises questions about the changing nature of race, racism and colonialism,” says Leroux. “An effort goes into ‘discovering’ Indigenous ancestry and re-framing the very nature of indigeneity.”

My results

In terms of my own search, Leroux says my motivation for taking the test is based on challenging how other people see me. He cautions me that the results will simply place me in arbitrary categories, defined by the company.

I tell Leroux my results: 50.1% European, 49.2% South Asian and 0.3% East Asian and Native American.

“It confirms what you already knew, but what if it didn’t?” Leroux asks me.

Good question. When I saw my results, my initial reaction was an overwhelming sense of relief. But if my results were more European or more South Asian, would that really change how I move through spaces, like the Indian grocery store? And that’s the thing: through this process it becomes clear that I don’t belong in one single place, or one single category. I’m made up of multiple places and spaces and I can belong in all of them. If anything, the test made me realize that I knew that answer all along.

Related:

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