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?