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Identity

I Tested My DNA and Learned About Self-Delusion

Does a test that tells me I’m 50 percent East Asian and Native American change anything about my identity?

Moses Monterroza

Come Get that DNA. Photo via Press Association/The Canadian Press. 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always stood out in my family. Unlike my brother, who had a pale, sun-sensitive complexion, I was swarthy. As a kid, I would spend all day outside absorbing the sun’s rays, tanning and turning my skin into a healthy, dark mocha colour. My friends, on the other hand, would burn in the heat.

I loved being darker because it made me different. Though, it prompted a lot of questions in me, a second-gen Canadian with parents from El Salvador.

When I first asked my dad why I was darker, he immediately began regaling me with these long, hilarious tales of my grandfather who was a pure Amerindian man from Guatemala, and undoubtedly the darkest from my dad’s side of my family. He was a man of the land, a gambler, a machete-wielding badass, and a bit of a musician. But more importantly, he was the reason for the way that I looked.

“Son, you have Indian blood,” my dad would tell me. Indian, as in Indigenous to the Americas. He also told me that I am a descendant of the Mayans, and that my blood is mixed with European, Spanish blood. He told me about the conquistadors, Hernán Cortés, Moctezuma, Atlacatl—all borderline mythical figures that represented a harrowing, dark and twisted past woven together by genocide, slavery, and rape. I was hooked and I wanted to know more.

Years later, I watched this strange yet entertaining YouTube trend where vloggers and high-profile content creators were taking DNA tests. I quickly fell into a wormhole, watching every DNA test video I could find. For me, the best part was the reactions to their results. They were genuinely happy to find out they were 2.5 percent African or five percent Native American. The more I read about DNA testing, the more I discovered the extent of its popularity. It’s a booming industry.

According to estimates in 2017, DNA test subjects now exceed 12 million. The explosion in popularity is in part because companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have spent upwards to $100 million per year on advertising campaigns. Despite its rise in popularity, DNA testing has been highly criticized, with accounts of botched DNA results and the sketchy handling of people’s data inundating news cycles. Recently, people have been using the service to find out if they have predispositions for things like Alzheimers and Parkinsons disease. It’s led government regulated bodies like the FDA to file lawsuits. What’s more, children of sperm donors are using the service to reconnect with lost parents, prompting professionals to reconsider the legal issues surrounding DNA testing.

It’s all really mystifying how companies have managed to commodify our saliva, and how our government is reacting to this booming technology. Admittedly, however, my insatiable interest in my past far outweighed the ethical implications of DNA testing. So I decided to do one myself.

It took two weeks until my kit finally arrived in the mail. Inside the colourfully decorated package was a set of instructions and a vial. The process was simple: spit in the plastic tube, seal it, and send it off. I remember after sending it back to the 23andme headquarters, I thought to myself, what do I even want from these results? I vaguely remember believing maybe it would unlock something in me. Maybe it would change me, change who I thought I was. Maybe.

After a solid two months, I finally got the results.

Here’s what I learned, I am:

    1. 49.3 percent East Asian & Native American
    2. 32.4 percent European
    3. 6.1 percent Sub-Saharan African
    4. 3.7 percent Middle Eastern & North African
    5. 8.4 percent Unassigned

You can actually look at the full report through this public link.

My saliva says I'm nearly half Native American.

Honestly, when I first got my results, I was surprised and almost happy to find out I am mostly “Native American.” It felt like my suspicions were finally quelled. I could feel my Indigenous and Spanish blood coursing through my veins. I got what I paid for, a renewed sense of self, a new identity.

Though, it was only a very brief moment of enlightenment.

Obviously, nothing actually changed. After all, these results are really just percentages vaguely indicating that I am associated with several specific regions on Earth. And really, that’s it. There’s no renewed sense of self, no reconnection with my past, just a bunch of percentage points.

What’s interesting is how this contrasts with what is being peddled in DNA testing advertising campaigns.

Take this commercial by Ancestry.com. It’s part of a series of ads that showcase people who’ve embarked on genetic “journeys” in which they discover who they truly are. In them, you see a diverse cast of people crying and getting emotional over the fact that they share genomes with a country they supposedly used to hate. We see how powerful these tests can be, and how they potentially have the power to bring people together and consolidate one’s perception of the self. But I don’t buy it.

To subscribe so deeply to your own DNA is just another form of genetic determinism, or a way of excusing your behaviour because it’s just in your “genes.” That’s not to negate actual predispositions, but to critique this idea of sudden self-realization by spitting into a vial. It’s a pipe dream.

I supposed the stories my dad told me as a kid were all I needed. My fixation over getting to the roots of my identity was probably a projection of my own boredom with who I am. I was sold on the idea that these tests would help me understand the real me. But It’s a ridiculous notion that you could just buy your way into discovering yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun looking over my results and imagining my ancestors from all different parts of the world. But I know that who I am extends much farther than my genetic makeup. While I can’t pinpoint exactly the core of my identity, at least I know it’s not tied to a bunch of percentage points.

Follow Moses on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE CA.