Article Library / Annual Assessment

2013-2014 Annual Assessment

On an individual level, consumers are taking DNA tests for personal interest and are learning something new about themselves and their ancestral origins. Already in 2006, a New York Times article stated, “genetic tests, once obscure tools for scientists, have begun to influence everyday lives in many ways. The tests are reshaping people’s sense of themselves,” albeit more so in the United States than in other countries.17

DNA testing for genealogical purposes is especially popular within the African American and Native American communities. Both communities have an interest in exploring their ancestral roots, but for very different reasons. African Americans, many of whom are descendants of slaves, have no record of their ancestors’ precise geographical origins. Through genealogical testing, African Americans are able to learn more about their pre-slavery roots. In 2006, PBS ran a four-part TV series called “African American Lives” that traced the ancestry of famous African Americans such as Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, and Oprah Winfrey using DNA analysis. The show’s success prompted PBS to produce a sequel series with an educational outreach component to raise awareness about genealogical research.18

Within the Native American community, a few tribes have utilized forms of DNA testing to prove familial linage for tribal affiliation and benefits19. Some college applicants are even doing DNA tests to detect Native American ancestry in order to improve their application profiles.20 Kim Tallbear, an anthropologist at the University of Texas and member of a Native American tribe, made the following comments to New Scientist magazine on why the issue of DNA testing has generated controversy within the Native American community:

I think there is suspicion by many Native Americans that scientists, who are largely not Native American, want to turn our history into another immigrant narrative that says “We’re all really immigrants, we’re all equal, you have no special claims to anything.” There are also people who don’t want to have a molecular narrative of history shoved down their throats. They would prefer to privilege the tribal creation stories that root us in the landscapes we come from.21