Racializing DNA: How People Interpret their Ancestry Tests

[Note: The authors of this post are Amina Zarrugh, Luis A. Romero, and Paige Buell]

DNA testing related to ancestry has become very popular in the United States, with roughly 1 in 7 Americans utilizing a mail-in DNA service according to survey data collected by the Pew Research Center in 2019 . Leading companies in this industry, such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe, report upwards of 18 million and 12 million DNA customers, respectively, around the world with combined revenue of billions of dollars. The social impact of ancestry DNA testing varies widely but, in the Pew Research Center survey, approximately 40 percent of users express “surprise” about their results and, for some, the results change how they choose to identify themselves racially and ethnically.

Scholars of race have recognized the growing significance and pitfalls of ancestry DNA testing. Namely, scholars emphasize how the categories of ancestry used by scientists are themselves socially constructed, as the work of Kim TallBear emphasizes in the case of Native and Indigenous peoples: “Native American DNA could not have emerged as an object of scientific research and genealogical desire until individuals and groups emerged as ‘Native American’ in the course of colonial history. Without ‘settlers,’ we could not have ‘Indians’ or ‘Native Americans’—a pan-racial group defined strictly in opposition to the settlers who encountered them” (p. 5). Alondra Nelson voices reservations in her book about the emancipatory potentials of DNA testing because it can be revered in ways that supplant and diminish non-genetic narratives and histories. From these perspectives, it is clear that DNA indicators of particular ancestries are themselves products of social decisions and take on new social meanings in public life and discourse.

Following in the footsteps of this scholarship, we are interested in how DNA ancestry testing results are discussed and interpreted within the public sphere. In our study of how ancestry tests are mediated on YouTube, we observe a tendency for consumers of ancestry testing to simplify and conflate ancestry with race and ethnicity. This can, in part, be attributed to the very structure of the tests themselves; AncestryDNA reports results as “ethnicity estimates” or sometimes refers to the product more generally as uncovering one’s “genetic ethnicity.” Ancestry, ethnicity, and genetics, from this perspective, are interchangeable.

For example, a man named Anthony, who self-identifies as mixed race and anticipates that he will have a share of African, European, and Native American ancestry, summarizes his results as follows:

“So the results I got is that I’m 55 percent European. Um, I was really psyched about that. I knew I have white in me but I didn’t know it would be, like, that overpowering. Like mostly white…. I wasn’t, like, overly shocked – I guess – because I know my mom has got some white in her.”

By regarding ancestry in Europe as synonymous with being white (race), as Charles does, individuals effectively “biologize” race and ethnicity. In doing so, DNA test users extend this “racialization of ancestry” by conflating behavioral traits or tastes to particular racial and ethnic groups. For instance, a woman who reflects upon what she considers to be a relatively large share of Italian and Greek ancestry says:

So that definitely explains, you know, my whole life. Why I grew up eating pasta [holds up a bag of dry pasta], pizza, and watching Godfather-type movies and the Sopranos. So I am over a third Italian and Greek.

In this example, the woman’s existing social behaviors, including her enjoyment of Italian food and popular media that feature Italians in stereotyped roles, is explained biologically through a DNA test that identifies ancestral connections to Italy. These kinds of claims made in narrations of ancestry test results illustrate how seamlessly people connect biological information and social and cultural practices that have little to do with DNA or biological inheritance.

Our analysis of YouTube videos also showed that those who take ancestry DNA tests often expect the results to either fortify or potentially change how they perceive their own identity. In light of her ancestry results, a woman named Linda began questioning her identity, saying “I’ve been raised for 34 years now being black, but my tests reveal that I’m biracial.” In processing her results, she exhibits a tendency among consumers of DNA technology to feel compelled to adopt and incorporate their results as their own, even if it changes their previous identity perceptions. For example, in another video, a man named Langston says, “I’ve always wondered “what am I?” … “am I fully black?” … its good to know what you are.” The ancestry results, from the perspectives of people processing them, showcased people’s desire to find ‘proof,’ in this case through their ancestry results expressed quantitatively, to give them answers to ‘who’ they are and as ‘what’ they ought identify themselves.

This process, however, is uneven as some consumers emphasize certain ancestries over others, a finding that aligns with Roth and Ivemark’s (2018) notion of “genetic options theory,” which emphasizes that consumers of DNA testing technologies do not accept wholesale the results of their genetic testing but make selections about what to emphasize in their results. For example, Dani, who identifies as biracial, describes how she feels ambivalent about certain ancestries because they represent, in the results, a small proportion of her overall ancestry composition:

I got three percent Russia, one percent Scandinavia, and less than one percent European Jewish. And, um, all these are really small so I don’t let me take them seriously… But I mean, I’m not even really sure I really am that, especially since it’s less than one percent. That is so small …. I don’t really take the percents [sic] that are less than like ten or eight very seriously because it’s really down the line.

Beyond Dani’s case, we find that many people doubt “small percentages” but are more inclined to doubt them when they are from certain regions of the world, like the Middle East, that are stigmatized in American culture. In contrast, people may exalt small percentages of ancestries in Europe, as many consumers do with Scandinavia. We find, thus, that while consumers of DNA testing may weigh their “options,” many are inclined to do so in racialized ways, venerating ancestries that they regard as “desirable” or that are perceived as “cool” – even if they aren’t a large share of their results – and minimizing the relevance of ancestries that may be stigmatized or marginalized in society.

While ancestry DNA testing is widely marketed by companies such as AncestryDNA and 23andMe as offering consumers a way to connect to a broader humanity through their own individual ancestry, it is clear that this technology also offers the possibility of reducing the complexity and diversity of human experience. By promoting DNA as the authoritative and scientific way to identify ancestry (or, in the case of AncestryDNA, your “genetic ethnicity”), users seldom critically question the limitations of this field and erroneously conclude that ancestry is synonymous with race and ethnicity. An important consequence is that ancestry DNA testing, as popularly understood, can reify to the public race and ethnicity as biological categories rather than as social constructions. In the process, such testing risks reinforcing biological notions of race and racial stereotypes that scholars and activists have worked to debunk for the last several decades.

Note: All names have been changed to pseudonyms to provide anonymity to individuals quoted here.


Amina Zarrugh is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Texas Christian University. Her research focuses on politics and forced disappearance in North Africa and race/ethnicity in the U.S. Her work has appeared in journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Critical Sociology, Middle East Critique, Teaching Sociology, and Contexts, among others. She completed her BA in sociology and government and her MA and PhD in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Luis A. Romero is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. He researches immigration enforcement, such as immigration detention, crimmigration, race/racialization/racism, and Latina/o/x Studies in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as Ethnic and Racial Studies, Humanity & Society, and Journal on Migration and Human Security, American Behavioral Scientist, and Contexts, among others. He completed his BA in sociology at Texas A&M University and his MA and PhD in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Paige Buell completed her BA in anthropology and political science at Texas Christian University. Her research interests center on migration and she has worked as a case manager for Refugee Services of Texas. In 2020, she was awarded the Andrew Miracle Paper Award from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at TCU for her research entitled, “Gang Violence and Migration from Honduras.”