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  • Writer's pictureAngelina Darrisaw

23andMe Shares Angelina's DNA Story

"In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity." - Erik Erikson

Growing up, I knew the name of the man half responsible for my existence, but my knowledge of him began and ended right there. He was intentionally unavailable, and his existence cloaked in secrecy and family whispers.

For most of my childhood, my young mom wouldn't entertain my many pesky questions about where he was, who he was and how I should define myself. In hindsight, I can see why, she was most likely embarrassed by the fact that she couldn’t provide me with the details I so desperately sought. And so she began to make me a mini-version of herself. A version, I loved and enjoyed, but one that failed to recognize the things that separated me from her.

The older I got, the more direct the questions around my identity became. It is as though others could not integrate me into their world without first putting me in a racial context they understood. After being asked my name the question that almost always followed was “what are you?”

Over time I came to learn that no matter who was asking, “Black or African-American,” the only answers my mother ever gave me permission to respond with, were rarely good enough. I would be met with follow-up questions, “And what else? No, seriously? What are you mixed with? Where are your parents from? What are you actually?” Or a slew of ridiculously ignorant comments, “But you’re so pretty. Not with hair like that.” I would confidently assert myself as the proud Black woman my mom raised me to be, only to be constantly told that I was missing something. And deep down, having no knowledge of my father's identity, I always felt that I really was.

By the time I came home from college and grad school, my mother’s perspective on race and identity had changed dramatically. She had been a principal of a Brooklyn high school that served a predominately Latino population and she was pursuing her doctoral degree. My mom was no longer the young broke single mom whose image I clung to since I was 5. She was a successful and worldly educator with a more nuanced understanding of race, culture and identity. Now she was one of the people I avoided, trying to prod me to talk about my identity. Finally she was ready to accept the complexities of my identity, I still was not.

But there was still one big gaping hole. My father wasn’t going to magically present himself to me and I still didn’t know how to answer the “what are you” question with authenticity. So this year, I was determined to take a genealogy test from the same popular website that my mom had previously used. I read the reviews and watched stories of adopted children meeting their birth families; of new identity discoveries, and of closure. I had seen my mother’s report and I knew the level of detail shared and I wanted all that knowledge about myself. I wanted the answers that for nearly 30 years, I never had. So one morning, I spit in a test tube ferociously, hoping for the all the complex answers I never had. I hoped one of my siblings, who I knew existed but had never met, might have been just as curious so we might meet by both having spit in a tube. I hoped I’d wake up after sleeping on my results and never be bothered by the “what are you” question again. Maybe I’d carry my report and just hand it to people. Maybe I’d memorize it and begin to recite it.

I waited anxiously in the next few weeks. The instructions said I could expect results in 6-8 weeks, but I found myself logging back weekly to see how close my spit tube was to transforming into the anecdote to all my headaches cause by years of unanswered questions. Each week, I checked to see how close I was to getting some long awaited answers. I got frustrated seeing the status update dot seem to barely move from each week.

Then one morning, long before the 6-8 week timeframe, I decided to log in again and check. It had been exactly one month since I sent in my spit and this morning I saw a very different notification! My results were back.

This website offers genetic reports that extend beyond ancestral DNA. They offer 36 reports on carrier status of genetic diseases, seven reports on wellness info, and 19 reports on genetic traits. I sifted through those reports first, feeling foolishly nervous about seeing what I had been waiting to uncover. I learned that I carry no genetic diseases, that I’m less likely to be a deep sleeper and get flushed when drinking alcohol, and that my genetic traits (like length of my ring finger) were aligned with the majority of “African ancestry DNA” customers.

With that out of the way, I excitedly opened up my ancestry reports. I was both intrigued and shocked by the results. And because my mother had taken the test, it even told me what I exactly I got from my mother and where my father played his part. I didn’t immediately know how to feel. I was surprised to have less African DNA than expected. I also was surprised that my mother had slightly more European DNA than I did. I expected my father to have a great deal of Native American ancestry, but surprisingly he a lot of his roots are also South Asian.

I shared my results with a few friends and joked with an Indian friend of mine that I was genetically inclined to like Indian food and Masala Bhangra as much as I do. Several friends reacted that they expected me to be more Mexican or Latina, which resulted in a new level of clarity for me.

As the genetic website puts it: “Ancestry Composition tells you the proportion of your DNA that comes from each of 31 populations worldwide. This analysis considers DNA you received from all of your ancestors on both sides of your family. The results reflect where your ancestors lived 500 years ago before ocean-crossing ships and airplanes came on the scene.” While today Mexicans, Dominicans, African-Americans, Italian-Americans, have strong cultural values, traditions, and pride, those groups don’t have their own distinctive DNA.

In fact, as I looked as my DNA “relatives” through 23andme, I found I was linked to 1620 people of various colors and national backgrounds. This is one of the main reasons the dreaded “what are you?” question bothered me so much. It implies that there is only one way to be something, like to be truly American, usually means being white, or to be truly Latina, means being slightly tan with wavy or straight hair, and that to be Black means having tightly coiled hair and medium to dark toned skin. It was clear that my ancestry was more complex than I thought, but like so many other multicultural African-Americans, my skin color nor my hair texture define me. It is the lived experiences, shared struggle and dynamic, rich culture that make me the Black woman that I proudly claim to be. Those results gave me answers but they didn’t change the basic facts of who I am. I no longer have to recoil when someone asked me who I am. I am Monique’s light-skinned Black daughter whose dad happens to be of Indian and Native American descent.

23andMe highlighted my story. Watch it below.

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