Letters: ‘My Culture Was in My DNA’

Readers share their experiences with genetic testing—and debate whether ancestry can be a meaningful proxy for culture.

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Your DNA Is Not Your Culture

In September, Sarah Zhang explored how DNA-testing companies conflate genetics and culture while promoting their products.

The discussion should be “Your Culture Is Your DNA.” As an African American whose elementary- and high-school books in New York said my ancestors were oppressed, passive people, I was concerned because I heard a different message at home and in my community. I heard stories of heroic people who defended themselves, resisted, rebelled, and waged antislavery Maroon rebellions. In college, when I proposed my American-history term project of researching Maroon slave rebellions in the Americas, the chair of the history department said, “No. There weren’t any.” I did my history term paper on John Brown, a white slavery resister.

When I finished college, I researched my ancestors, their names, nicknames, folk culture, genealogy, culture, music, foods, farming, and people’s history. I uncovered hundreds of records. I then used DNA to confirm the ancestors I uncovered in colonial Jamaica, in colonial New York, and in precolonial Ghana. My ancestral-DNA results matched the extensive people and cultures I uncovered. I found them on three continents—among Caribbean antislavery Maroon rebels, among precolonial African farmers in Ghana who resisted slave traders, and among Scottish and English nobles who were abolitionists who assisted their black relatives and left records in colonial America.

So in my case of using DNA to confirm my ancestors, their genealogy, and folk cultures, my culture was in my DNA. I uncovered heroic ancestors and ancestral cultures that multinational racists and slave traders tried to bury.

Pearl Duncan
New York, N.Y.

As a professor who teaches courses on race and ethnicity, I read Sarah Zhang’s article about DNA testing with interest. It is not a revelation when I say that in our country, ethnicity and race are fraught with social, cultural, political, and even familial land mines. Sometimes I find myself yelling at these companies’ commercials: If you weren’t raised with Scottish traditions, you are not culturally Scottishno matter what your DNA says—so don’t swap out your lederhosen for a kilt! Culture is learned, and we don’t emerge from the womb with it. Yet here is the value I do see in this fascination with personal DNA. In a nation where race and ethnicity impact so many aspects of our life, these DNA tests can teach us an important lesson: Generations easily slip from one ethnic and racial identity to another. You may think you are white or black or Irish or whatever, but when you see your DNA diversity, it brings home the foolishness of our social constructions of race and ethnicity. So, I say, enjoy whatever heritage and identity you were raised with, but accept that the multitude of your ancestors may have been different, as, most likely, will be your descendants. And that is how it should be.

Faren Siminoff
Brooklyn, N.Y.

I understand the purpose of this article, and my complaint might be a unique one but I feel compelled to share it anyway. In the 1950s, my mother was taken from her Indian reservation in New Mexico (kidnapped is a better word) as was common practice at the time. She was hauled off to California, sold on the black market of Indian adoptions, and given to a poor white family. She grew up miserable, with no culture of her own, belonging to no one. She was called “dirty Indian”; her Pentecostal family had her exorcised for being a savage. Her sister, who was also taken, was older at the time and ran away. She made it back to her reservation. My mother, being only 2 or 3, had no such luck.

She was denied her culture, as were tens of thousands of Native Americans in the U.S. and Canada (in Canada it is referred to as the “Sixties Scoop”). Canada has since apologized, but the U.S. refuses to admit it happened.

My mother grew up in a white family but had brown skin. Not surprisingly, the most common question my mother gets is, “What are you?” When she says Native American, people laugh or snicker, “Yeah, everyone has a Cherokee great-great-grandma.” Then they say, “What tribe?” Her reply: “I don’t know.” And from that moment on, no one believes her. She has spent her entire life defending her ancestry—and not surprisingly, she doesn’t want to tell her life story every time someone asks. It’s exhausting, it’s hurtful, and it’s a reminder that she is not white but she is not fully Native either.

A few years ago, I bought her a DNA test because I wanted to prove to her that she was Native American, that she belonged somewhere, and she should be proud. That what happened to her was a result of centuries of oppression.

The results revealed she was indigenous, most likely from a tribe in New Mexico.

You may say DNA is not culture and tell people they can’t use a test to find some sort of identity. But my mother used to shirk when someone asked, “What are you?” She would mumble “Native American,” waiting for the blowback (after all, when she was growing up, people weren’t proud to be brown). Now she stands tall, confident, and when someone asks, she says it with pride. That test helped solidify years of unknowing. She attended the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) conference in Oregon and met other “lost birds” who were taken from their tribes as well, who lost their culture.

Taryn Hillin
San Marino, Calif.

“Your DNA Is Not Your Culture” is something that many Americans have known since we first realized race existed and were racialized regardless of our personal identification. For people adopted internationally or people of mixed race who don’t physically resemble the race we identify with, this is a known fact. Other people have preconceived notions about us that feel unfair and not reflective of our experience. This blurring of DNA and culture only serves to highlight the way white people can pick and choose their cultural expression, a luxury that many minorities do not have.

Dale Hiles
Dallas, Texas