Jul 01 2013

DNA Test Reveals I am not 100% White

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I am a huge fan of the website 23andme.com, which analyses your DNA.  I’ve learned a lot of interesting things from the site in terms of what my genes say about how i look (I likely have blue eyes and reddish-blonde hair!), what diseases I am likely to face (BRCA negative, but it looks bad for Restless Leg Syndrome), but the most interesting thing I’ve learned about myself has been about my heritage.

I was unsurprised to see that I was more Neanderthal than average, as that’s fairly common when you’re European.  But I was a little surprised to discover that I am not 100% European.  In fact, if I had been living in a lot of the Americas in the last 200 years, I wouldn’t have been considered white.

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In the colonial Americas — from Haiti to New Orleans to Spanish-America — race mixing was very common and, because they thought race mattered, they actually had specialized terms for those who were a certain percentage of different heritages.  I spent a lot of time researching some of the more obscure names for people of mixed-blood, to see if i could find one that got as distant as I appear to be from my nearest Sub-Saharan African ancestor (assuming it’s just one) — probably seven generations away, as I am at about 1/128th percentage.

It took a long time.  While it was easy to see that one of my great-grandparents would have had names for their percentage of African heritage, it was less clear whether I’d simply be considered fully white or just have had the one drop rule applied and been considered “Colored.”

My answer came from Haiti. In Haiti, they felt that people were made out of 128 parts, or 7 generations of heritage, and so they had the longest list of names for partial African descent.

      1. Myself 1/128 Sang-mêlé
      2. Parent 1/64 Also Sang-mêlé
      3. Grandparent 1/32 Mustefino, Quateronné, Demi-Meamolouc
      4. Great-Grandparent 1/16 Mustee, Meamolouc, Hexadecaroon, Quintroon
      5. 2x Great-Grandparent 1/8 Octoroon or Métis
      6. 3x Great Grandparent 1/4 Quadroon
      7. 4x Great Grandparent 1/2 Mulatto

harry-potter-et-le-prince-de-sang-melePer Haitian tradition, I am sang-mêlé, which literally translates as mixed blood.  The term is French and is used in the title of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”.  I assume this means I am, in some metaphysical way, Snape.

Clearly I fail the one-drop rule, but it’s interesting to note how recently my family would not have been legally considered white even in relatively lax race laws.  A 1970 law in New Orleans stated that 1/32 African was enough to make you legally considered black.  Considering that my father’s mother is from New Orleans, if the heritage is from her (which seems as likely as from anyone) she would have been considered black.  One of my parents is as black, in terms of heritage, as Walter White, the civil rights activist who ran the NAACP for 25 years.

"I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blonde. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." - Walter White

“I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blonde. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” – Walter White

All of which is to say that my father’s disownment of me for dating outside of my race is not only absurd on the face of it, but hypocritical and inaccurate as well.

I should point out, of course, that I was raised as white as one can be, and this DNA discovery doesn’t really offer any new particular insight into other people’s experiences nor would I claim it to.  It is interesting, but I am so very privileged in terms of race that I want to make sure I am clear that this in no way erases that privilege.  I may be “sang-mêlé” and I am happy to add this information to my personal narrative of myself, but in this culture I am the beneficiary of white culture.  That same culture makes me feel like I should do something meaningful with the information rather than just use it as part of some navel-gazing exercise, but I am unsure what that something could be.

On the one hand, it seems like the racial history of one-drop rule and Walter White’s example might make it a politically meaningful statement for a ginger of small-but-measurable African heritage to claim African-Americanness or even mixed race, on the other hand I feel like that’s claiming a position of oppression that I obviously have never and will never face.  I don’t know, I’m not sure there’s a correct answer, but it is the thought puzzle I’ve been given by my DNA.


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  1. 1

    I’ve heard that, if you have any ancestors at all who lived in the south before 1800, the odds are enormous that you have African ancestors. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it seems likely.

    Chopin’s “Desiree’s Baby” seems appropriate here.

  2. 2

    Sounds a little like Obama’s mother who is descended from one of the first slaves brought to America.

  3. 3

    Doesn’t mitochondrial eve mean that every person on the planet has a drop? Of course the types to embrace the one drop rule are also prone to anti-intellectualism and pseudoscience, but reality continues to exhibit a liberal bias…

  4. 4

    @3: It’s not merely mitochondrial Eve that makes us “one drop black”. She was just representative of our particular species — who were indeed all black.

    When the final wave of homo sapiens migration occurred out of Africa, every single one of those people were black. The change in skin tone came later.

    When I first saw the headline, my immediate thought was “aren’t we all”? But then, I remembered Ashley’s difficulty with her father over this issue, and I understood why she might want to address it.

    I think MtE would probably be considered “too far back” by her father. (If he even acknowledges human evolution and migration at all.) But I wonder what he’ll feel when he learns that he’s “more black” than Ashley is? And that his mother probably had a relative she knew that “passed white”.

  5. 5

    +1 on 23andMe

    I take inordinate pride in being 3% Neanderthal.

  6. 6
    Corvus illustris

    Bryan Sykes (Human Genetics prof., Univ. Oxford) has a small book–called Saxons, Vikings and Celts in the US–discussing his findings in surveying the DNA makeup of the British isles. He found unquestionably North African ancestry in individuals whose ancestry semed to go back to the first populations to swim onto the beach. So your (recent–not counting 100K years ago) sub-Saharan ancestors could have come by way of Europe or even the isles. If your New Orleans ancestor is Italian–well, there was a lot of traffic across the Mediterranean in classical antiquity. US racism is a conparatively recent invention.

    … it looks bad for Restless Leg Syndrome.

    The BRCA news is a relief, though. Mrs Corva has RLS and expresses sympathy, but she didn’t know there was a DNA marker for it. (Mrs C is a poster child for autoimmune conditions in general.)

  7. 7
    Ashley F. Miller

    Unfortunately, they cannot test for all BRCA markers (hopefully the recent SCOTUS ruling will change this) but it is good at least that I don’t have the markers they can test for.

    I don’t appear to have Restless Leg Syndrome, but my odds of developing it are pretty high.

  8. 8
    Ashley F. Miller

    Damn, I’m only 2.8%

  9. 9

    But I wonder what he’ll feel when he learns that he’s “more black” than Ashley is? And that his mother probably had a relative she knew that “passed white”.

    Good point, MtE is much easier to discount than DNA and half of hers came from him. I could see debate over which parent actually brought the offending drop, but somehow doubt that her father would be willing to actually submit the DNA to find out…

  10. 10

    I want to get one of these tests done so badly. I’m fascinated with what it might reveal, since my recorded family history only goes back about five generations.

  11. 11

    They were giving them away about 6 months ago. I’m still kicking myself for not stocking up, I could have gotten 10! I am black and tested my brother. Imagine my surprise to find he carries the gene for Tay Sachs. If he’d married a nice Ashkenazi Jewish girl, a doctor wouldn’t have bothered to address Tay Sachs because he is black.

  12. 12

    All of which is to say that my father’s disownment of me for dating outside of my race

    Wow. I’m really sorry to hear that. I guess I got off easy… mine just told me never to marry her.

  13. 13

    Ever notice that the word “miscegenation”, the way it is spelled it seems to break up into MIS – CEGENATION, as if someone who miscegenated was “cegenating” wrong, or at least incorrectly? But actually, if you look at the etymology it really is just “miscere” (to mix) + “genus” (kind), with no implication that one is engaging in a mistake.

  14. 14
    K C

    I just discovered the same thing, except my brother and I are 1/64! I’m excited but my brother probably won’t be. I simply told him we’re Vikings, which is 95% of our DNA.

    Several months ago while working on our family genealogy I looked at my father’s grandfather’s marriage license on the Mormon website and read that they were “colored”. For one whole day I danced around in glee thinking I was black but finally decided I was just following the wrong trail. Laws against intermarriage were strict back then and I’m still not sure how anyone in the South could make the leap from one identity to the other. Now I’m inclined to revisit that mistake.

    Thanks for the informative post.

  15. 15

    You may have discovered this already, but if you choose the “Chromosome View” in 23andMe’s Ancestry Composition, you can find out some more interesting things. For instance, if most of the African parts of your DNA show up in longer, contiguous chunks, that’s indicative of more recent ancestry in that area from a single person. If they’re tiny and dotted all over the place, that may mean more distant ancestry from multiple people.

    For instance, I’m Indian and 23andMe lists me as 99.7% South Asian, but I also have 0.1% East Asian ancestry, which shows up as one contiguous chunk on a single chromosome, which according to the math suggests a single East Asian ancestor maybe about 10 generations ago. I’m also 0.1% European, but those bits are tiny and split up across a bunch of different chromosomes, suggesting I have multiple European ancestors, but they’re much further back in time.

    This is probably old news to you now, but thanks for making this post. It finally pushed me over the edge into finally getting one of these tests done, and it’s really interesting.

  16. 16

    I too was surprised by my 23andme results. I have 0.5 subsaharan African, 0.3 North African, 0.1 Ashkenazi, and 1.0 Native American (I knew this already). Of course, in addition to my various European roots. I’ve been searching for my ethnic ancestors but no luck. I want to know what their story is. I’ve read that in very early America there was a lot of mixing with black people as it wasn’t against the law. Then laws were passed against it. This makes sense because laws against things are not lobbied until it is an established societal “problem”. If one has ties to Spain, there was a lot of mixing there with all of the ethnic diversity there as well. And I’ve also read that as much as 15000 black people (obviously mixed with white) were going on to “pass” for white every year during and after slavery. So it may have been a secret to escape the Jim Crow laws. Another thing I’ve heard is that some Europeans had African DNA even before the founding of America..
    Another interesting thing to note is that all of my non European ancestry shows up in one contiguous chunk. Indicating that is is likely that it hey are singular ancestors, and more recent. All of my family lines that I ve researched thus far, which is very extensive, go back to early colonial America, some were in the first colonies and on the mayflower.

  17. 17
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  18. 18

    As an early Christmas present I had my DNA tested. A quick way to go from 50% Spanish to about 2% Spanish. I was told my father denied he was Native American (he’s from South America). Well he’s pretty close to 1/2 NA because I’m almost 1/4. I’m LDS and the Church denied Blacks the priesthood and ordinances in the temple until 1978. Well, I found out that affected me more than I realized. I’m between 5% and 7% Black, or about 1/16th. 7% comes from the Black part of Africa where the average person is 82% Black. I also have 2% from Northern Africa, which would be Arabs and Phoenicians and Semitic stuff. I’m 62% European, most is Scandinavian. I’ve got French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and just about everything. Besides NA I also have other Asian.

  19. 19
    AD Powell

    Ashley would still be white. The “one drop” myth was honored more in the breach than the observance. Here’s more reading on the subject:






  20. 20

    Is it bad to have a drop of African American Ancestry? What is wrong with having one drop? Now if I’m Black, say I look like a Black person would one drop of White blood make me white? Happy New Year. 2014 in 12 minutes!

  21. 21

    Your math for Walter White is a bit off — he was actually 5/32 black, which would have made him a bit more black than an octoroon (1/8).

  22. 22
    Nate Higgers

    That would have to be the absolute worst thing to happen to a person, to find out you’re even the slightest part black.
    As for me, I’ve had my DNA checked, no black DNA in my blood. 100% human.

  23. 23

    And why is that? It’s exciting to have DNA from all races–gives you variety. And all of us have Black ancestry–some is just more recent. You would live longer not hating.

  24. 24

    How far back do most people know their ancestors? I’m approximately 1/16th Sub Saharan African so that would be a great great grand parent. I don’t even know who that person is. The physical traits are gone. I am in White culture although I look a little different with a fair amount of Native American which does show. How many of us know who are great great grandparents are? I don’t know who my paternal grandparents are. I know that’s unusual but how many know beyond their great grandparents? When you get that far back traits are going to disappear, even very dominant ones.

  25. 25
    Lola Hernandez

    Hmmmm. Well, I’m 50% European (White) (my Mother) and 50% Afro-Latin (so, Black – my Father is Dominican). To everybody, I’m black – or depending on whether my hair is straightened or not – hispanic. I have green eyes and light dirty blond curly hair. Still, my skin is brown, like caramel – so I’m black. Like Obama. 50% White and 50% Black, still identifites and is classed as black, right? Well, my sister with the same Mother and Father as me. Looks exactly the same as me; green eyes, dark blond curly hair and caramel complex skin and two years ago she had a baby with a white man. Fully white. Maybe he was 0.000265% black, but we’ll let that slide. Anyway, they had a baby two years ago; my nephew. Gorgeous. Big bright blue eyes, straight European blonde hair. So blonde it was pretty much platinum. Lily-white skin, too. And he’s 25% black. Pft, I’ve seen 100% white people “blacker” than him! Haha. I’m sure none of his friends in the future would even guess his Mother is half black, or that his maternal Grandfather is fully black. Just goes to show. Look at Paula Patton and Robyn Thicke’s kid, or Soledad O’Brien…. Or Rashida Jones – or Wentworth Miller. They all look white at first glance, but actually have significant amounts of black blood. Percentage doesn’t really matter to anyone, it’s the way people look. So, really your percentage is not that important at all, it literally changes nothing to you or your racist (sorry!) Father. Still white. :/

  1. 26
    More hate from racists – Coalburner edition » Ashley Miller

    […] comments for having, of all terrible things, dated someone who was not white and discovered that my DNA was not 100% white, the answer is yes, I still get hateful […]

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