Short Take: 23 Skiddoo

There are many good, sound, maybe even overwhelming, reasons not to hand over your DNA to 23andMe or Ancestry. Foremost is that they’re “good corporate citizens” performing their moral duty of handing it over to the government for the safety of the nation, where it magically finds its way into the federal DNA database, CODIS.

But that’s not the reason Erin Aubry Kaplan refuses to get her DNA tested, or even to hear about the results when her sister had it done.

When my sister called me a few months ago to say, a little breathlessly, that she had gotten back her results from 23andMe, I snapped at her, “I don’t want to know!” She kept trying to share, but I kept shutting her down, before saying I had to go and hanging up. Afterward I felt a little shaky, as if I’d narrowly escaped disaster.

If this made her feel “shaky,” maybe she needs to see a doctor, or at least eat more fiber.

I’ve never been interested in DNA tests. I have nothing against people discovering they’re 18 percent German or 79 percent Irish, but I think the tests are a fad that distracts us from the harsh realities of race and identity in America. They encourage us to pretend that in terms of shaping who we really are, individual narratives matter more than the narrative of the country as a whole. There is no test for separation and tribalism, and yet they are baked into our cultural DNA.

It’s fair enough to not be interested in such things. This is America, and we’re allowed to be interested, or not be interested, in any darn thing we want. But what does one’s ancestry have to do with the “harsh realities of race and identity in America”? Much as “baked into our cultural DNA” is a nice turn of phrase, it means absolutely nothing.

But that didn’t explain the panic I felt during that phone call. I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t take the news, whatever that news turned out to be. And then I realized that was it: I didn’t want to “turn out to be” anything more than what I was.

Shaky turned into panic because of a phone call from her sister? Maybe family counseling is in order. Or maybe she just likes to describe herself in terms of feigned fear and loathing, the traumatized victim of sister;s excitement. Except that’s not her point at all. She wasn’t attributing her dubious mental health to her sister, to the ringing of the phone, and certainly not the fact that her familial DNA was now in the hands of the government, who might knock on her door should some fragment turn up at the murder scene.

What she feared, what caused her claimed “panic,” was the possibility that she might come face to face with facts.

I didn’t want my blackness divvied up or deconstructed any more than it has already been, not just in my lifetime but in the history of the Creole people of Louisiana I descend from.

See what she did there? She’s descended from Creoles, because she says so. And what she will not tolerate is evidence to the contrary, because she likes her belief and wants no fact to step on her truth.

So I didn’t want questions, raised by DNA tests or anything else, about that belonging. I didn’t want to discover via some remote data analysis that I’m not black but from “all nations,” as an ancestry-test commercial featuring a Latina sunnily put it.

The fear is that the results of the DNA test might prove her less black than she wants to be, and she refuses to suffer the possibility that facts might call her beliefs into question. She refuses to suffer the possibility that she’s not as much of a victim as she needs to believe.

In my family’s experience, being mixed has been not liberating but constricting. And yet I’m proud of this history and don’t want to lose it.

She’s got a point. Facts preclude fantasy, and limit one’s ability to wrap oneself up in a narrative, false as it may be, that one desperately needs to believe. Without facts, we’re free to believe anything we want. Why would anyone want to lose that freedom?

21 thoughts on “Short Take: 23 Skiddoo

  1. Lawrence Kaplan

    How did I know it was an op-Ed in the NYT even before I checked? The op-Ed contributors seem to have gotten the recipe of telling a touching personal story to make a very shaky larger “progressive” point down to a science.

    1. SHG Post author

      So it wasn’t the complete lack of any logical connection between personal anecdote of victimhood and irrelevant but desired outcome that gave it away?

  2. Dan

    So she is more interested in believing that she’s black (specifically, of LA Creole descent), than in actually being black. Kind of sounds like Rachael Dolezal, or whatever name she’s using these days.

    1. SHG Post author

      Very much so. It’s emblematic of identity politics where facts that are contrary to belief are ignored or rejected, but more importantly, where the value of identity is greater than reality and justifies the rejection of facts, logic and reality when they fail to support the outcome one prefers. Dolezal wanted to be black to represent her victimhood, even though she was neither black nor a victim, and so she was.

  3. Elpey P.

    “This is the root of my anger — this idea that a geographically and ethnically mixed background is liberating, that it breaks down borders.”

    This sounds…familiar…can’t put…my finger on it…

    1. Fubar

      can’t put…my finger on it…

      American of Korean ancestry puts fingers on Les Yeux Créoles. Op. 37 (1859) composed in Saint-Pierre, Martinique by American of Jewish patrilineal and Creole matrilineal ancestry:

  4. wilbur

    Just as it is unwarranted, if not foolish, to be ashamed of one’s ancestry so it is to take pride in it. Trust me when I say this is not a popular notion on St. Patrick’s Day.

    Her seeming obsession with this subject borders on the bizarre, as does the NYT decision to publish this.

    1. B. McLeod

      Of course, you never know what their other “writers” turned in. This may have been the “good” one.

  5. Stephen

    Wasn’t there an article a few weeks ago where an adopted child was upset that her white parents didn’t tell her about her actual heritage and raised her to believe she was of European decent and that this was a bad thing. Now, I’m being told that finding out what your actual heritage is, as opposed to what your parents told you it was, is the bad thing? Is there some sort of cheat sheet I can look at to find out what is good/bad on any given day so I can keep up?

  6. B. McLeod

    So, she is concerned that “the harsh realities of race and identity” may impair her harsh fantasies of race and identity. It’s that scene from The Matrix, and she refuses to take the pill.

  7. MonitorsMost

    I support her in not handing her DNA over to corporate entities who will allow access by the government. Who cares if her reasoning is a little soft. Bad Process + Good Results = Blind Luck. If you swing wildly at every pitch you’re bound to get a hit at some point.

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