23 and Who? Roth Explores DNA and Identity

On Thursday, Sept. 26, Dr. Wendy Roth of the University of Pennsylvania spoke in Pettengill Hall’s Keck Classroom to members of the Bates community. Sponsored by the Sociology, Psychology, and Biology departments, the talk focused on the mass proliferation of genetic ancestry tests and their social impact.

Roth aimed to investigate a timely and fascinating question: How do genetic ancestry tests influence racial and ethnic identity? Such a question arose out of the newfound ubiquity of genetic ancestry tests, which have experienced an exponential growth in popularity. There exists at least 74 direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry companies.

Roth posits a number of explanations for the rise in consumer genetic testing’s popularity: its presence in television and movies, its political usefulness (Elizabeth Warren, for instance, used genetic testing as a means of responding to critiques of her claiming a Native American racial identity), and its implications for higher education and citizenship requirements. Roth explained that these tests can be used to “qualify for affirmative action measures, [and] apply for Israeli citizenship.” Governments too could find utility in ancestry technology: in 2018, the U.K. government required some refugees and asylum seekers to undergo DNA testing as a means of verifying their origins.

Despite these potential uses, genetic ancestry testing possesses significant limits, particularly with regard to identifying and defining racial and cultural identity. “Genetic ancestry tests,” Roth said, “cannot be used to determine race, as any information about your racial ethnicity is always interpreted by the society around you.” This belief is a stark departure from another school of thought, genetic determinism, in which Roth notes that individuals argue that “genes alone determine race.” The tests are also limited in their ability to actually provide accurate information about ancestral backgrounds—Roth notes that “The tests give a probability [of your ancestry], not an actual percentage.” What’s more, even the science behind these probabilities is not perfectly sound. “The DNA comparison samples for populations are based on who they perceive ‘represents’ that population… It’s not based on objective criteria.”

Roth led a study that conducted interviews with 100 American genetic ancestry test takers as a means of interrogating her initial question on the relationship between genetic ancestry tests and contemporary social understandings of race. The respondents, who came from various ethnic backgrounds, were found to have cherry picked certain aspects of their test results that could be seen as complementary, and their beliefs in the legitimacy of the test results diminished when they received a result they did not like. In general, white respondents expressed a desire to be more racially distinctive, while black respondents expressed less desire to adopt new racial identities. Minorities, then, appeared to have a firmer and more robust understanding of their own ethnic identity. “A sense of belonging,” Roth asserted, “comes from a less common identity… from a minority group.”

Roth’s ultimate understanding of genetic ancestry testing, then, was a critical one, which seemed to argue that DNA test results had the ability to provide white people with the ability to take on different ethnic identities without experiencing the hardships associated with them. “Genetic ancestry tests… [reinforce] the racial privilege [that white people] already have…they can claim the identity of their minor genealogical ancestries without experiencing the societal consequences that come along with that.” The future of modern understandings of ethnic identity, then, may lie—at least in part—in the corporate sector, with nothing more than a swab of our cheek cells or a lock of our hair.