Ancestry testing brought me closer to my Blackness

“As an adoptee of color, the idea of a genealogy kit was alluring.”

Illustration: Octavia Ink
ByDesire Thompson
Originally Published: 

Since the big DNA kit boom of 2018, nearly 30 million people have made the choice to spit in a tube as platforms like AncestryDNA and 23AndMe break down a portion of their genetic makeup. The portal comes with many caveats like privacy concerns and the ever-changing reference population, which make the results a “living document” instead of a hard copy. In an effort to own the past and future, many Black Americans are tapping into genetic ancestry testing as a method to look beyond what the history books have shared about our lineage. It makes sense; after all, a genetic breakdown could be a way to discover our roots by building new bridges to the other side of our Blackness. But how far can it take us?

As an adoptee of color, the idea of a genealogy kit was alluring. Paper documents can only get foster kids — especially those with closed adoptions — so far. I had somewhat of a unicorn situation: I was one of six foster children adopted by a Caribbean elder we affectionately called our grandmother who tragically took any information about my mixed-race identity with her when she passed in the early aughts.

Unfortunately, my racial ambiguity gave agency to others to determine what they thought I was. To compensate for what they didn’t know, my family would ignore the mystery. This eventually amounted to an identity crisis with a dollop of self-esteem issues.

“It can be hard to delve into the complexities of racial identity so sometimes families will opt to share love and care — and many feel that this is enough,” says Alfiee Breland-Noble, Virginia-based psychologist, researcher, and founder of the nonprofit the AAKOMA Project, which pioneers research into BIPOC mental health. “For many young people, racial identity feels core to who they are. So in those instances where specific racial identity is not discussed, I've had patients and friends share with me that that lack of focus on identity has felt dismissive.”

That resonates. After many dead-ends in my teens, I’d just about given up on my journey to self discovery. It wasn’t until 2017, when I was in my late 20s and the FDA cleared the marketing of 23andMe’s direct-to-consumer genetic tests, that I would get a sliver of hope again.

My results arrived on the evening of New Year’s Eve: a vague combo of Sub-Sharan African and Broadly Western European roots. I had even more questions than answers now. I turned to AncestryDNA shortly after and got more than I anticipated: My birth mother was of Chilean and West African (Nigeria and Cameroon) descent while my birth father was presumably Puerto Rican with roots in modern-day Portugal. The specificity came with more surprises — my brother and I ( we were adopted together like many siblings during the late ‘80s in New York) apparently had several older siblings we hadn’t even met yet.

Images of faces that looked like mine was a calming revelation but a connection to my Black identity somehow felt farther away. A recent Pew Research study revealed that Black adults in the United States are more likely than other groups to see their race or ethnicity central to their identity. This sense of self isn’t just an American trait.

“I would actually say it would be the same from anywhere in the West,” says Julie Baah, London-based psychologist and researcher at the University of Essex’s clinical psychology doctoral program tells me. “Whenever you are living in a country where you are the minority and your experience is shaped by the history of colonialism or racism, I think that Blackness or your cultural identity is central.” Baah tells me that people when your experience is not just shaped by race but racism, there’s [reason] to hold on that identity in many ways.

“We create our own Black identity, even though we’re all from different places,” she says. Whether it’s coming together in terms of music, food, those attitudes are really important when you’re subjected to racism.”

While the cons of genealogy testing are a risk, it’s worth it for many Americans of color. As more of us engage with the technology, the reference population grows, bringing accurate results. It can also bring a new sense of family history to unpack, ideally healing generational trauma along the way. “For me, one big pro is that we can be more connected to our history and roots which can have a grounding effect,” Breland-Noble says. “Understanding our full family history can help us understand ourselves and our behaviors better and can support us in finding a sense of place and sometimes even purpose.”

“A lot of African history is very hard to trace back and that’s [sometimes] because the historians are old and when you lose your elders, a lot of history is gone,” Baah adds. “My family is really good at making sure history is being passed down and I’m collecting it as well. History is very complicated and a lot of the borders in African countries have been divided by Europe.” Baah tells me that when it comes to countries such as Nigeria or Ghana, that have so many different ethnic groups, history can get lost.

It’s a lot to process. My journey hasn’t entirely been a daunting one, the beauty in Blackness is that there isn’t one way to tap into it. Some days it’s skin deep, vexed with emotional trauma. In other moments, I swell with pride. That reminds me just how varied the Black experience can be. Breland-Noble reminds me that no one person holds the ‘key’ to defining or expressing Blackness.

“My Blackness means that I embrace my ancestry as a descendant of people who were brought to the Americas in chains, stolen from their glory as brilliant people living in liberated ways leading lives of purpose and meaning,” Breland-Noble says. “My Blackness gives me meaning and purpose to do the work I am called to do as a liberator of Black (and brown) minds and I am always mindful of that. As Burna Boy's mother said on the BET Awards, ‘I was African before I became anything else.’”

Through my journey toward an established identity, I’m also realizing that there are many Black stories often hidden in plain sight. “We’re often identified in the white gaze, and while we use that to mobilize it almost erases the nuanced experiences,” Baah explains. “Black people are not a monolith … I get irritated at the ‘people of color’ [label] because the nuances of the experiences we have, all ways we’re connected to different things, are being taken away from that. I get why the term is used but I think it also a very white gaze to kind of collectively put the ‘other’ together.”

To other adoptees of color who are curious about their ethnicity and race, I say go for it. If you want to focus on your African ancestry, the emerging African Ancestry tests will be your best bet. ​​Its database of over 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples the company determines specific countries and specific ethnic groups of origin, an entryway blocked for decades by the masses.

My journey will be a long one. The weaving of my racial identity and adoption journey has unveiled some lingering mysteries but also new revelations that I’ve successfully been able to tap into thanks to therapy and the safe spaces of friends and family. As I continue to heal and reveal, my Blackness is just that — mine and only mine to define.