Trapped by racial genetics…get out now!

I learned two things from this peculiar article, DNA Testing Forced Me To Rethink My Entire Racial Identity: that there is a terrible undercurrent of self-loathing among some black people, and that there is a pervasive over-emphasis on genes vs. culture. The latter I already knew, the former I guess I should have known.

The story is that the author, whose last name is Garcia, always assumed she was Hispanic, even though her family had no hint of Hispanic culture and didn’t even speak Spanish. Then, they took genetics tests. Shock, horror, they were just…black Americans.

The Garcias are led by a pair of oddball patriarchs who could give Clark Griswold a run for his money: my father, Joe, 71, and his brother, Tony, 68. My dad and uncle identify culturally as African-American — they were raised by a black woman from rural Maryland. But according to the family history, their father was of Mexican-Indian descent, hence the last name.

Note that important point: they identify culturally as African-American. Why would you think a genetic test would trump your lived experience?

Well, last summer, Uncle Tony sent in his DNA sample for my niece’s school project, and what ensued was a chain of existential group texts and conversations involving all the Garcias, former Garcias, and anyone married to a Garcia.

My uncle’s ethnic breakdown identified him as more than 70 percent African and 20 percent European.

“No Spanish! Not one drop!” texted my cousin Tony, an attorney in Baltimore and Uncle Tony’s son, referring to the fact that we apparently had no Mexican roots. As if we’d all missed that part.

What do they think it means to be Mexican? There is no such thing as genetically Mexican: the people of Mexico are incredibly diverse, with no one unique genetic signature. If that 20 percent European didn’t include any Spanish loci, and there were no Native American indications, then yes, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that they have Mexican ancestry. But so what? They are who they are, with their own distinct family history.

They did their own research, non-genetic research. They talked to their family, and found out about the author’s paternal grandfather.

“I once overheard my mom and dad say Uncle Joe was a wanted man,” said another new cousin, Marie Shakoor, 71. “He was wanted under the name Will Worthey, and that’s why we think he changed his name to Joe Garcia.”

My cousin Tony said our grandfather exhibited classic escapist behavior, which supported Shakoor’s theory.

“If you’re trying to change your name and your identity, you’re typically trying to evade law enforcement,” Tony said. “Choosing to be Mexican-Indian may not have been our grandfather’s first choice, but it may have been the better option.”

Now that’s interesting and genuine, maybe a little unsavory, but it’s real. The genetic test was irrelevant. Again, who you are isn’t just an assortment of alleles, it’s the cultural influences that shape you far more. Tracing your genetic lineage is just one component of your identity, and probably not the most important part.

Then the story gets a little disturbing, when we find out why the author thought it was so important.

At first, I was in disbelief. What about all those people who came up to me on the streets of New York City and started speaking Spanish? They never doubted for a moment that I was Hispanic. And I had always killed it in Spanish class, seemingly because I had Latino blood coursing through my veins. Accepting that I wasn’t a Garcia felt dangerously close to abandoning my identity.

Oh god, so many misconceptions…language isn’t transmitted via “Latino blood”. New York is a polyglot city, and culturally Hispanic people might speak their language to you because that’s how they’re comfortable talking. When I visited Iceland, strangers tended to address me in Icelandic — it wasn’t because they had a psychic understanding that I, too, was a native. Genetically, I’m also about 4% Neandertal, but I am culturally 0% Neandertal — I can’t knap a flint worth a darn and don’t have any of the words of their language flowing in my veins.

But to cringe even more…

The more I learned, the less I wanted to know. I had always liked being a Garcia. Growing up in a black community, where surnames like Smith, Brown and Jackson are ubiquitous, being a Garcia set me apart.

Perhaps more significantly, being a Garcia meant I could trace my roots to an ancestral homeland — albeit Mexico, not Africa. This was noteworthy when you consider that many African-Americans lost all ancestral ties as a result of slavery and the slave trade.

Slavers committed a great crime, breaking the chain of cultural transmission for millions of people, and denying human beings knowledge of families and tradition and customs. But why would you want to set yourself apart from your neighbors and friends who had similar family histories?

Maybe one great result of these genetic tests is that the author will stop trying to set herself apart from her community. An additional benefit would be if she’d also see the limitations of genetics, and take pride in who she actually is.


  1. says

    My uncle’s ethnic breakdown identified him as more than 70 percent African and 20 percent European.

    “No Spanish! Not one drop!”

    I can’t get past how wrong this is. Where do they think Spain is?

    That said, I also wouldn’t be surprised if the testers mean Northern European when they say “European”.

  2. DrVanNostrand says

    I’ve seen one of those test results before. I vaguely recall there being a category called “Iberian”.

  3. canadiansteve says

    People’s responses to these genetic tests make my crazy… it’s basic racism that your race determines your characteristics, yet so many people lap it up like there is nothing wrong with this.
    “oh, I’m 1% North American Indigenous…. no wonder I’m so good at lacrosse…” seriously WTF

  4. dean56 says

    The shock of having a long-standing family ‘history” debunked in one swoop, followed by uncertainty of what it means, is on display here.
    The problem of basing your identity and worth on what you think your family was rather than what you are and can be is also on display.

  5. blf says

    Tangentially related… Many yonks ago I moved to Ireland for several wonderful years. (I was born in Europe, grew up and was educated in the States, and have lived in several European countries since finishing University, including teh “U”K and now here in S.France.) Anyways, one of my relatives who had an interest in family histories and all that (I don’t), suddenly started saying — after I moved to Ireland — there was some Irish ancestry in the family. Funny, they’d never mentioned it before, and were very non-specific when they started going on about it. Whilst not impossible, the lack of previous mentions, lack of any details, their notoriously poor concept of “evidence” with dubious “research”, and the highly-suspicious timing always meant I’ve dismissed the assertion as a fantasy (to the extent I care about the subject, which I don’t give a flying feck about).

  6. whheydt says

    Re: blf @ #5…
    I may have a bit of “Irish” ancestry, but I’d bet that it’s Anglo-Irish, what with “Hall” not being a particularly Irish surname in the early 18th century.

    On the other hand, Danish ancestry is well established. Two of my grandparents immigrated from Denmark in the early 20th century.

  7. kestrel says

    I knew a guy with the unusual last name of Quinters. I asked him about it and he explained that during the Depression, in Texas, there were food commodities being handed out. As his ancestor stood in line to get food, he could not help but notice that every person with the last name of Romero, or Garcia, or Quintana, was turned away. His last name was Quintero, but when he got to the head of the line, he said his last name was Quinters, and that stuck from then on. So. Yes, you can’t always go by last names to identify who your ancestors were. And really, it should not change who you are. I think these stories from the past are interesting and in my friend’s case show the racism that was involved with handing out food. That man did not turn into a different person by changing his last name, but the people handing out the food thought otherwise. However it does not change the man that my friend was. He was still a super cool guy.

  8. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    It’s actually well-known that it’s not true that Africans lost ancestral ties. They may not be able to track back specific villages or family lines, but then again, neither could Garcia. Since Levine’s work, we’ve known that there was actually a lot of African culture that survived the filter of slavery, creating a rich oral tradition and syncretic cultures.

    In other words, Garcia doesn’t know much about the culture his family was authentically a part of.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Go back a bit further [than MRCA, which was between 1400 BCE and 55 CE], and you reach a date when our family trees share not just one ancestor in common but every ancestor in common. At this date, called the genetic isopoint, the family trees of any two people on the earth now, no matter how distantly related they seem, trace back to the same set of individuals. “If you were alive at the genetic isopoint, then you are the ancestor of either everyone alive today or no one alive today,” Rutherford says. Humans left Africa and began dispersing throughout the world at least 120,000 years ago, but the genetic isopoint occurred much more recently—somewhere between 5300 and 2200 B.C., according to Rohde’s calculations.
    And because the genetic isopoint occurred so recently, Rutherford says, “in relation to race, it absolutely, categorically demolishes the idea of lineage purity.” No person has forebears from just one ethnic background or region of the world.

  10. chris61 says

    I thought I had some Irish ancestry given that one of my grandfathers was the son of Irish immigrants but it turns out that their ancestry was primarily Scottish. (Still going to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, though.)

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Rob Grigjanis @9
    Sadly, those most in need to read that article will tend to belong to a demographic that feels disdain for learning (coughCharlottesvillecough), or has little access to science articles.

  12. drewl, Mental Toss Flycoon says

    re: Garcia…
    I miss Jerry. 26 years ago today.

    Me… I was adopted. I have no clue, don’t care. People ask, I tell them I’m a mutt.

  13. unclefrogy says

    of all people accused of crime that are the easiest to consider innocent until proven guilty a black man from over 100 years ago would be the easiest not even a slight question until there is overwhelming indisputable proof. The author might learn something more interesting investigating that real history

    the genetic isopoint is a term I never heard before I knew the truth of it but did not know that it had been calculated before very nice. That makes me feel more connected to all people and not just a poetic image expressing a truth.

  14. says

    I had a similar thing happen when I took my DNA test. My mother’s side of the family claimed that we were Irish. My dad’s side hinted at some Mediterranean blood due to hair texture, skin complexion and an ancestor with a vaguely Hebrew name. Wrong on all accounts. We are all extremely white. Like 80% English and 20% German. (I traced down the German ancestor while doing my family tree even.) I didn’t let it cause an existential crisis because of all the reasons you cited. I’m still human and it didn’t change my life experience. My uncle was pretty disappointed though.

  15. anat says

    So what does the genetic isopoint apply to populations that were isolated from others for much longer – eg the Tasmanians? If we include samples of these populations does that push the genetic isopoint a long time back?

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    anat @15:

    If we include samples of these populations does that push the genetic isopoint a long time back?

    These populations aren’t the same as they were a couple of centuries ago. Back then, the genetic isopoint would have certainly been further back, because there were groups (like the Tasmanians) who had been isolated for thousands of years. But the last people of solely Tasmanian ancestry died over a hundred years ago. Modern people with Tasmanian ancestry also have European ancestry.

    Interesting side note; an influx of DNA into the Australian aboriginal population around 4,000 (and possibly as recently as 2,000) years ago, from India.

    The researchers at the Max Plank [sic] Institute say they uncovered a common origin for populations in Australia, New Guinea and the Mamanwa in the Philippines, supporting the long-held view that these peoples represent the descendants of an ancient southwards migration out of Africa some 60,000 years ago.

    However, what surprised them was substantial gene flow from another wave of people who arrived in Australia, some 4,000 years ago – long after the first Australians settled the continent, and all the evidence places the origins of that influx of people somewhere in the south of today’s India.

    Co-author of the research, Irina Pugach estimates that ancient Indians came to Australia around 2,300 BC – approximately 141 generations ago.

    She compared the genomes of 344 individuals in Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea, South East Asia – and India. She estimates that the Indians contributed nearly 10% to the Australian Aboriginal genomes.

  17. pilgham says

    I heard a geneticist being interviewed a few years ago who said that the gene profile reports told you where in the world you could find people with your genes in the current day.. It’s doesn’t show where your ancestors came from, it shows where your cousins are living now. It’s kind of a different thing.

    As for isopoints, I’ve heard that it’s good to be king.

  18. Walter Solomon says

    She doesn’t seem to consider the millions of Afro-Latinos who would have a similar genetic origin as she does but have a Latin culture and speak Spanish.

    In fact, Latin American culture, particularly in the Caribbean and South America, would be much different and less interesting today if not for the African influence it received.

  19. chrislawson says

    Rob Grigjanis:

    That evidence of Australians having Indian intermixing is extremely weak — see this paper that pretty much destroys the Indian intermixing hypothesis but for some reason never gets mentioned.

    So why is this Indian intermixing hypothesis so pervasive despite being drawn from poor evidence in the first place and savagely undermined by more recent and better studies? Well, some of it I think is just that it is interesting and unexpected. But sadly, a huge part of it is also racist.

    Much as the “aliens built the pyramids” crowd are essentially saying ancient Egyptians were too stupid to complete major engineering projects, the Indian intermixing hypothesis was tied in with “evidence” that there was a sudden influx of backed blades around the time of the supposed intermixing 3,500 years ago. We now know that there were backed blades in Australia as far back as 15,000 years ago (at least, there’s still a hell of a lot of Australia to be studied for artefacts). To be fair to the original proposers, these backed blades were not known to them. But there was a very well known paper on backed blades showing they had been there for at least 5,000 years — published in 1980, nearly 20 years before the Indian intermixing paper. So these geneticists didn’t bother to check the archeological literature before asserting that the earliest backed blades corresponded to their genetic hypothesis, thereby implying Australian aborigines were too stupid to figure out backed blades by themselves.

    And that original genetic study was clearly in error anyway. Based on 2 minor nucleotide variations, they seriously came to the conclusion, and I quote, that “These mtDNA results do not support a close relationship between Aboriginal Australian and PNG populations but instead suggest multiple migrations…” That’s right. They’re actually proposing that Australia had several major genetic influxes from an area on the other side of the Indian Ocean, with no intermixing with any of the other, closer, populations along the coastline of the Indian Ocean, and NO CLOSE RELATIONSHIP with the people of Papua New Guinea even though they acknowledge that Australians must have originally came through PNG. Anyone with a lick of sense would have looked at this data and decided there was a problem with the genetic analysis.

  20. Rob Grigjanis says

    chrislawson @19: Thanks for the correction. Bergström et al are mentioned in wikipedia. I should’ve checked there before posting!

  21. paulparnell says

    Maybe someone should introduce her to her friends in the race realist community.

  22. Michael says

    Mexico has a very large African component to its population, here they call it the “third root” of the nation. (Indigenous, European and African). In the first two hundred years of colonization almost as many Africans came to Mexico as Europeans. So they could easily have have Mexican roots.