Recently I submitted DNA samples to both ancestry.com and the National Geographic Genographic Project. I did this for both personal and professional reasons. I want to make a personal contribution to those who are using genealogy as a tool to study the history of my Clarke County, Alabama “families.”
I also want to increase my professional understanding of the concept of “racial admixture.” The concept is now being used in the study of racial disparities in health. I am especially interested in racial disparities in birth outcomes. I fear that these studies of racial admixture and birth outcomes are the front door to eugenics.
Before I submitted the samples, I stated some hypotheses about my ancestry based on my knowledge of US history and my family history. I hypothesized that my admixture estimates would show no significant Native American ancestry. This is an important hypothesis when your homeplace is on Indian Ridge. I have explained the history behind this hypothesis in earlier blogs.
My ethnic identity is firmly fixed as African American. I hypothesized that my ancestry estimates would show a generic African American admixture of African (with an emphasis on West Africa) and European (with an emphasis on the British Islands, specifically Ireland).
The admixture results that received from ancestry.com and Natgeo differ on some minor points. I am still working on understanding their methodologies. I consider that to be excellent brain exercise. However, both estimates tend to support my hypotheses about the geographical origins of my ancestors. Both sets of results estimate my Native American ancestry to be zero. I am, according to these estimates 63-65% African and 35-37% European.
Ancestry.com estimates and National Geographic estimates differ only in the areas of Africa and the areas of Europe that they include in the estimate.
When I keep my promise to ignore anything below 5%, the estimates definitely tend to support my hypotheses. BOTH TESTING SITES WARN THAT ESTIMATES SHOULD BE CONSIDERED IN CONJUNCTION WITH FAMILY HISTORY. The recorded history of my family supports the Genographic estimate for Great Britain and Ireland over the Ancestry.com estimate for West Europe.
According to the Genographic estimate my first reference population is the African American population.
My First Reference Population and my lifelong ethnic identity coincide and fit with my understanding of both my family history and history on a larger scale. I am tempted to say that these tests did not add significantly to my self knowledge. Some of the ancestors from Ireland left a huge paper trail that has been followed up and posted online by their white descendants. Therefore the dedicated family historians on my side of the color line have been able to gain a significant amount of knowledge about the Irish ancestors. I am more than willing to leave that work to the family historians.
There are other firms that offer to give me more detail about my African ancestry. I am not at a place where I am willing to spend additional money on such tests. I spent much of my professional life jointly appointed in sociology and African American Studies. I was responsible for designing a program of study leading to a BA in African American Studies. These means that I have had plenty of time to establish a philosophical stance on Africa and my Africaness.
My position is pan-Africanist and diasporic. I have no burning desire to trace a link to a specific African ethnic group. I identify with people of African ancestry wherever they live on the planet. I have an ethnic group – African Americans. I have a “tribe” – the African Americans of Clarke County, Alabama. I look forward to establishing our genealogical connections.
But what I really want to understand is how and why racial admixture is being used as a variable in biomedical research. Understanding the different ways that these estimates are made is the first step.
PS: The only results that I received from Ancestry.com were the racial admixture results. The National Geographic Genographic 2.0 Project provided additional data. These data estimate that I am .3% Neanderthal, which is interesting even if it doesn’t meet my cutoff point. This project also provides the mitochondrial DNA results.