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It's All in the DNA

As DNA testing becomes more available, some people are checking into their ancestry and asking, What's in it for me?

By Amy Harmon



Alan Moldawer's adopted twin boys had always thought of themselves as white. But when it came time for them to apply to college last year, Moldawer thought it might be worth investigating the origins of their slightly tan skin. He used a new DNA kit that he heard could determine a person's genetic ancestry.

The results, designating the boys 9 percent Native American and 11 percent northern African, arrived too late for the admissions process, but their dad hoped they would be useful in obtaining financial aid. "Naturally, when you're applying to college, you're looking at how your genetic status might help you," says Moldawer, a business executive in Silver Spring, Md. Genetic tests, once obscure tools for scientists, have begun to influence everyday lives. The tests, which do have a margin of error, are reshaping people's sense of themselves—where they came from, why they behave as they do, what disease might be coming their way. It may be only natural then that ethnic ancestry tests, one of the first commercial products to emerge from the genetic revolution, are prompting many to ask, What's in it for me?

It seems unlikely that colleges, governments, and other institutions will embrace the tests. But that hasn't stopped many test takers from adopting new DNA-based ethnicities—and a sense of entitlement to the privileges typically reserved for them. Some people with white skin are using the tests to apply to colleges or for jobs as minority candidates, while some with black skin are citing their European ancestry in claiming inheritance rights. And Americans of every shade are staking a DNA claim to Indian scholarships, health services, and casino money.

College Applications

"This is not just somebody's desire to go find out whether their grandfather is Polish," says New York University sociologist Troy Duster. "It's about access to money and power."

Some critics fear that the tests could undermine programs meant to compensate those legitimately disadvantaged because of their race. Others say they highlight an underlying problem with labeling people by race in an increasingly multiracial society.

"If someone appears to be white and then finds out they are not, they haven't experienced the kinds of things that affirmative action is supposed to remedy," says Lester Monts, a vice provost at the University of Michigan. Still, Michigan, like most other universities, relies on how students choose to describe themselves on admissions applications when assigning racial preferences.

Ashley Klett's younger sister marked the "Asian" box on her college applications this year, after Ashley, 20, took a DNA test that said she was 2 percent East Asian and 98 percent European. Whether it mattered they don't know, but Ashley's sister did get into the college of her choice. "And they gave her a scholarship," Ashley says.

Pearl Duncan has grander ambitions: She wants a castle. A descendant of Jamaican slaves, Duncan had already identified the Scottish slave owner who was her mother's great-great-grandfather through archival records. But the DNA test confirming her 10 percent British Isles ancestry gave her the nerve to contact the Scottish cousins who had built an oil company with the slave owner's fortune.

"It's one thing to feel satisfied to know something about your heritage, it's another to claim it," she says. The family's 11 castles, Duncan noted, were obtained with the proceeds of her African ancestors' labor. Perhaps they could spare one for her great-great-great-grandfather's black heirs? So far, no one has taken her up on the idea.

'My Dna Says . . .'

As the assets of some Native American tribes swelled in the wake of the 1988 federal law allowing them to build casinos, there was no shortage of petitioners asserting their right to citizenship and a share of the wealth. Now, many wield genetic ancestry tests to bolster their claim.

Marilyn Vann, a descendent of black slaves owned by Indians, is using her DNA results to sue the Cherokees for tribal citizenship. (Several tribes that freed their slaves and made them tribal members in the mid-1800s have tried to exclude descendants of the former slaves.)

"It used to be, 'Someone said my grandmother was an Indian,'" says Joyce Walker, the clerk who regularly turns away DNA petitioners for the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, which operates the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut. "Now it's, 'My DNA says my grandmother was an Indian.'"

Recognizing the validity of DNA ancestry tests, some Indians say, would undermine tribal sovereignty. They say membership often requires documenting blood ties to a specific tribal member, something DNA tests cannot do.

Shonda Brinson, an African-American college student, is still trying to figure out how best to apply her DNA results on employment forms. In some cases, she has chosen to write in her actual statistics㭕 percent sub-Saharan African, 6 percent European, and 5 percent East Asian. But she figures her best bet may be just checking all relevant boxes.

"That way," says Brinson, "of the three categories they won't be able to determine which percentage is bigger."