12.09.2016

mostly white (checking boxes with DNA)

public art, Grosvenor Square, London (August 2016)

I always check the White box on race or ethnic forms. My whiteness is as obvious as the pale shade of foundation I don't wear or the amount of sunscreen and brimmed hats needed to keep me from turning pinkish-red in summer. 

And yet there are the family stories. My mother has always claimed her paternal grandmother had the coarse, wavy black hair and flaring nostrils of a part-negress. Growing up, I was told I was part-Blackfoot on my dad's side and part-Cherokee and Sioux on my mom's side, that my mother's father was one-eighth Indian, so she was one-sixteenth. But there was no documentary evidence. Supposedly the paper proof lay buried in the files of a cousin on a detached, incommunicado side of the family. These tall tales of brown ancestry were told with an offhanded pride, along with religious instruction that darker skin revealed a Biblical mark of shame and sin. The male tendency towards destructive drink on my mother's side of the family, for example, was attributed largely to proof of Indian blood.

Whenever I've read of an Indigenous desire that the Whites go back where they came from, I've sympathized but wondered where exactly I would go back to. Some of my family strands have lived in North America for hundreds of years. They interbred, intermingled. My hobby-genealogist mother always listed our European ancestry as a mantra: Danish, Dutch, English, Scots-Irish, French, “and German on your Dad's side.” Whenever asked by acquaintances about ancestry, I jokingly called myself a European mutt. I was spoken to in German on a Lufthansa flight home in the early 1990's, after my first trip to Europe, the German flight attendant scanning the passenger list. The European plot thickened only recently when the Internet revealed that my surname means “little stick” and is actually a Swiss German name. And it has only been in the last year that the lightbulb clicked on over my head when I realized my paternal grandmother's surname, Dailey, was clearly Irish—scourge of the English, land of my native tongue. So once again, as a European-American, where specifically would I hypothetically return?


Eero Saarinen-designed U.S. Embassy, London (August 2016)

Solution? DNA testing. A cousin had herself and her son genetically tested and found a long-lost relative this way. Feeling impulsive this fall after a complicated mammogram, I ordered a health and ancestry kit online from 23andMe, spat saliva into a tube, sealed everything up, and sent it away again in the mail. Less than a month later, while recovering from surgery, I was sitting on the sofa between my mother and step-father with my laptop, saw notification of test results in my inbox, and signed into 23andMe.

I am officially . . . 99.7% European. The question about where in Europe to return—if this North American ever returns—is now solved, for I am 40.5% British and Irish, the largest ethnic percentage. (How ironic it is that these two cultures are genetically lumped as one, considering the historical racialized wars between the Irish and their British overlords.) Perhaps my very DNA is why England felt so familiar when I visited the island this past summer for the first time; more probably it was because of all the British literature and media I've consumed my entire life. Yet Britain has chosen Brexit in a decision I witnessed while on British soil, making a post-colonial return to the increasingly nativist motherland even less likely.


grazing sheep, England (August 2016)


small-town English street scene (August 2016)

But there is the rest of Northwestern Europe, shuffled together (92.8% total), if they'd have me. I have less specific French, German, and Scandinavian ancestry than my mother led me to believe, just under 10% French and German combined (as if those two neighbors have much in common) and barely over 5% Scandinavian (the Danish great-great-grandmother). Perhaps most surprising was the 2.8% Southern European ancestry finding, wholly absent in family lore. Maybe this is why I've always been drawn to the Mediterranean region. And how about this little fact: I am more Sub-Saharan African (.2%) than Native American (.1%). That means I have a West African slave ancestor as well as an Asian ancestor who long ago crossed the Bering Straits.

I am also a teensy bit Ashkenazi Jewish (.1%), my genes escaping the Holocaust only to founder upon chosen childlessness. Could the Danish and Jewish parts of me be the ones drawn to lighting candles against the cold, dark winter? I also have more Neanderthal traits than 75% of the 23andMe gene pool—less than 4% of my DNA—making me "less likely to sneeze after eating dark chocolate" and granting my family less back hair than the average human. Maybe strangest of all is the <.1% “Unassigned” that couldn't be identified at all, continuing the genetic mystery.


English rose (August 2016)

Whiteness is a cultural mark of unearned privilege, a privilege that cannot be overstated and continues to have devastating historical, political, social, and economic implications for people of color around the world. I fully reject the beliefs and aims of white supremacists, the rebranded "alt-right." While I cannot change my predominantly Northwestern European ancestry—nor would I, for it is my known identity—I am equally proud of the other, disparate ethnic parts of me that have added diversity over time through mixture. I am a stronger human as a genetic mutt, a walking United Nations alliance—though still 99.7% white.

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