“I’m generally just a White European mutt”: Communication strategies for interpreting and sharing DNA-based ancestry test results
New Series Vol. 1, No. 2
Since the early 2000s, direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA tests have become more affordable (tests range between $100 and $350) for people to know more about their ancestral past. With a small saliva sample or mouth cells, companies, such as 23 and Me® and AncestryDNA™, present a wealth of information that the customer may have thought to have known but was wrong or not have known at all. While this information does give consumers a report on their genetic makeup, it does not give the whole story of who they are. Genetics are only a part. Many social and cultural factors also make up a person’s identity. In volume 16, issue 1 of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, Angela L. Putman and Dani S. Kvam addressed the issue of how DTC DNA testing impacts consumer’s identity perception in their article "I'm generally just a White European mutt”; Communication strategies for interpreting and sharing DNA-based ancestry test results.”
Ethnicity vs. Race: People in the United States often use ethnicity and race interchangeably because they relate to ancestry. However, these two terms have different meanings. Race is socially imposed and hierarchical, whereas ethnicity offers a choice to affiliate with an ethnic group based on a shared culture, language, and other discourses, customs, and practices. Thomás R. Jiménez goes into further detail by stating that ethnicity has three interrelated components: “(1) ancestry, or knowledge of shared descent, (2) culture, or group members’ learning about and use of shared symbols and practices, and (3) history, or shared narratives relayed by group members about the past.” However, Stephen E. Cornell and Douglas Hartmann argue that everyone is not granted the choice of ethnic affiliation due to existing power inequalities and hierarchies that often privileges whiteness. Ruth Frankenberg adds to the conversation by arguing that whiteness has three dimensions: (1) “a location of structural advantage, of race privilege,” (2) “a standpoint or place from which White people examine themselves and society,” (3) “a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.” Being able to choose an ethnic identity while simultaneously ignoring race is only afforded to White U.S. Americans.
While previous scholarship on DTC DNA testing focuses on the connection between genetic ancestry testing and race and the implications for family narratives, the two authors research how people interpret and share the results. This study does not fully engage with other DTC DNA scholarship that addresses how and why people of color, mainly African Americans, take DNA tests to fill the blanks of their ancestral knowledge due to the legacy of slavery. Instead, they focus their research on those who take DTC DNA tests as a casual and fun activity—“something to talk about at a party with friends.”
Methods and Research Questions: The two researchers recruited 32 participants and discussed how they constructed and negotiated their ethnic identity after taking a DTC test in interviews. The majority of participants identified their race as White/Caucasians, four were mixed race, two were African American, one was Hispanic/Latino, and one participant did not identify their race. Finally, more participants identified as woman/female, but seven participants did not identify gender and the age ranged from 22 to 84.
- What communication strategies do test-takers utilize when interpreting and sharing test results?
- How do these communicative strategies contribute to established discourse around ethnicity, race, and/or racism?
From the interview data, the authors found four themes of commonality across interviews: (1) (dis)trusting science, quantifying ethnic ancestry, using jokes and humor, and evoking Americanism.
(Dis)trusting Science: Science functions rhetorically in communicating DTC DNA results because participants use it to persuade themselves and others that long-standing family narratives are either true or false. Participants who believed in science used the terms “proof,” “facts,” and “evidence” to validate the results. Participants who did not believe in science had varying reasons from the lack of accuracy when it came to different companies results to contradiction of family narratives. However, in both groups, a participant mentioned how they were surprised not to have Native American blood. This is a common theme of DTC DNA testing. The genetic claims of indigenous ancestral heritage allow participants to claim acceptance into a marginalized group without erasing the hierarchical power of whiteness.
Quantifying Ethnic Ancestry: When discussing the results, participants often spoke in percentages to interpret results and contested perceived authenticity. Before taking the DTC DNA test, participants often relied on family narratives to support their heritage. They were either “full blood,” one-half, one-quarter, or an eighth of a certain ethnicity based on their parent’s heritage. When percentages, such as 67% Italian instead of 100% Italian, did not align with the participant’s family narrative, they contested their perceived authenticity as Italian American. Thus, the link between having ancestors from a European nation does not make that ancestor 100% of that particular European ethnicity. Participants who stated that they were mixed race contested their perceived authenticity when the results differed from the ethnic affiliation they identified with. In both scenarios, the results of the DTC DNA test did not fully align with the participant’s sense of identity.
Using Jokes and Humor: To navigate this newfound information, participants used ethnic humor to acknowledge but deflect whiteness. Lawrence La Fave and Roger Mannell define ethnic humor as “any communication intended to amuse which makes reference to a particular subculture.” Unfortunately, the use of ethnic humor fails to problematize the issue further. When the DTC DNA test results revealed that participants were no longer part of an ethnic group that they originally believed they had affiliative membership, they felt that they no longer could make jokes about that community because outsiders would see it as offensive. Additionally, in joking about being a “WASP” or having a “clean genetic background,” participants failed to acknowledge or grapple with how their jokes impacted the social and political consequences of their whiteness and the system of whiteness.
Evoking Americanism: Participants also used the common narrative of the hardworking immigrant ideal for discounting white racial privilege by using ethnic narratives that list “race-based grievances without appearing racist.” While none of the participants used this narrative to evoke racist tropes of why people of color did not achieve success as their European ancestors did, the implication is dangerous for other DTC-DNA customers because it privileges ethnicity and ignores structural racism. Additionally, participants often asserted that people in the U.S. are “the same,” “just American,” as well as being part of a “melting pot.” Thus, those who identify as white and of European descent are allowed to blend in with others, whereas people of color usually cannot.
Conclusion: Throughout the interviews, participants often conflated ethnicity and race. From this, the authors conclude “that ethnic identity and U.S. American racism are inextricably intertwined, but the consequences of this relationship are far more salient for anyone who cannot identify or be identified as White.” The results of the DTC-DNA testing are more than a fun thing to talk about around the dinner party. They may change how people perceive themselves. However, these tests are not neutral or objective indicators of identity. While some test takers may see this as an opportunity to change their ethnic identity, they must remember that they are real-life implications that are historical, social, and political. The uniqueness that ethnicity affords is not without the socio-political consequences of differentiation.
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Communication Currents Discussion Questions:
- How is ethnicity different from race, and in what ways does society conflate the two to privilege whiteness?
- How does your ethnic identity shape your sense of belonging in and outside of your community?
- In what ways could DTC DNA tests give a more comprehensive understanding of ethnicity and race so that their customers can communicate their results without reiterating the antiquated notion of race and ethnicity as biological?
This essay, by Dane S. Claussen, translates the scholarly journal article, Angela L. Putman & Dani S. Kvam (2023) “I’m generally just a White European mutt”: Communication strategies for interpreting and sharing DNA-based ancestry test results, Journal of International and Intercultural Communication, 16:1, 36-55, DOI: 10.1080/17513057.2021.1942144
2023 National Communication Association