Ancestry in its numerous television commercials presents people who after taking the company’s DNA test take on new identities. Take for example the man who traded his lederhosen for a kilt, or the man who starts eating spaghetti instead of haggis – they find out something from the DNA test and fully embrace new identities. The main thrust of these advertisements besides the selling their testing service, is that we get our identity from our DNA, that our identity is contingent on our “deep ancestry.”
As a historian who works on issues of identity, I have had cause to reflect on how people identify as a particular identity in an immigration context, and how their expressions and relationships with these identities are manifested. I have also given a great deal of thought to my own identities [https://gilliandr.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/today-is-st-patricks-day-i-must-be-irish-reflections-of-a-multi-ethnic-canadian-2015/]
Several months ago I decided to take an Ancestry DNA test, mostly out of curiosity. And I must admit that it came with surprising results. With passing of time I can evaluate how I feel about who I am and how I identify myself in light of these revelations.
My DNA results gave me the following results: 43% Irish (Celtic); 27% British; 11% Scandinavian; 8% Eastern European; 7% Iberian; 2% Western European; 2% European Jewish and 1% Asian South. A very interesting mix, but I will be honest; I won’t be purchasing any cultural costumes, or changing my dietary habits to suit these new groups on my Ancestry pie chart. My sense of identity remains rooted in the way I was raised, where I was raised, and who raised me. With an English-born mother and an Anglo-Montreal father I am enmeshed in their cultures, as I am enmeshed in the Canadian culture I was born into, and in the region in which I live. I also identify strongly with my father’s Irish and Scottish roots, mainly because Dad identified with them so strongly. While I am curious as to how and when these different peoples entered my family mix, and would like to know more about them, it does not alter my sense of self.
A have noticed that a lot of the criticisms of these Ancestry commercials are directed at the commercial which features a woman who discovers that she was 26% Native American. Does this make her native? Most argue that it doesn’t, and as that person admits to not having known about it previous to the testing results, I would have to agree. But it is an important question that I think that many find hard to answer.
At the heart of the prickly question of identity is what makes a person Aboriginal or any other group for that matter? Is it in the blood? Or is it in the context they were raised? And it is a tricky thing to answer. Identity can tie into our blood relations – we get our first sense of self from a sense of belonging into a family, parents, grandparents, etc. We are a part of the family and we have inherited a number of characteristics from the family notably our appearance. We also have the influence of the family in terms of heritage and culture, traditions which bind the family group together. These also bind us to a community. But to be a part of a community we don’t necessarily have to be related to it, but rather to be a part of it, participate in it, and celebrate it.
But there is also the aspect that perhaps we are missing from the categorical denying of identity based on DNA testing, and that is the feeling of those who do take the tests and find out new information on their families’ history. Perhaps they feel cheated because they were raised so differently than their genetic inheritance would indicate. Decisions made by their forbearers to identify in a different way have denied them access to a rich heritage and culture. Their results from the testing provide them with a reason to embrace and celebrate their history with identities which were likely hidden for reasons of racism or economics.
Ultimately identity is both fluid and multiple. We feel who we are from a number of relationships and contexts to our community, family, social and economic networks, and experience. And while I find that the Ancestry commercials rather annoying and simplistic, there is something to finding out more of our personal and family histories. Perhaps it should be framed differently, rather than throwing out one identity for another we should be seeing the DNA testing as a way to embrace more. If my DNA ethnic mix is an indication, we are all a multicultural people. What an opportunity it is to understand that we are more than our DNA and are more than our cultural upbringing alone.