DNA test kits make popular holiday gifts, but for people of color the stakes are higher.
Graphic by Denzel Boyd for COURIER.

These popular holiday gifts can hold emotionally complex results for people whose family origins have been complicated or erased by history, slavery, and other factors related to race in the United States.

I gave my DNA to a multi-billion dollar company. For about a hundred bucks, I ordered a kit, filled a plastic vial with my saliva—a task that’s easier said than done—and mailed it off to AncestryDNA. Like the more than 15 million other people in the company’s database (by way of their DNA), I wanted to know more about my ancestry. And like the millions of Black Americans who are descendants of enslaved African people, I was desperate to know any single thing about my heritage.

I knew my paternal great-grandparents were sharecroppers in Mississippi, but that’s it. My mothers lineage was always shrouded in mystery. For Christmas last year, I brought her the same at-home DNA kit that I took. She was ecstatic. We took turns guessing which African countries might show up in the results. For months after the results arrived, we exchanged text messages, calls, and inside jokes about the new information, the differences in our results, and the new cousins she’d found as a result. This year, in an attempt to keep her from parading my results around as her own, I gifted my sister with the same test.

According to the MIT Technology Review, more than 26 million people have taken at-home ancestry DNA tests. Historically, sales of these kits peak around the holidays. With DNA databases updating results regularly, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. It’s also a gift that comes with a slew of emotional and privacy concerns.

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Ruth Terry, an American expat currently living in Istanbul, was eager to see her results and her mom’s. Her father is Black, and her mother is Puerto Rican. “For hers, we figured Puerto Rican—so kind of a mix of African, Taino Indian, and Spanish, but when we got our results back, the ethnicity estimates were sort of outsized in places we didn’t expect,” she told COURIER. Their Nigerian ancestry was high, but it was the other details that caught them off guard. “There were these random European places like Scotland, Wales, France, and Norway,” she continued. “It seemed a little strange, and my feelings were mixed.” 

On one hand, Terry said the results “vindicated” her in a way: “I’d always been teased as a kid about being ‘too white’ to hang out with Black people and ‘too Black’ for white people.” 

On the other hand, it brought more questions and lots of emotions. “I didn’t know where the white came from,” she said. “I didn’t know if it had to do with the Europeans who colonoized Puerto Rico, or if it’s from my dad’s side and the legacy of rape and violence and slavery.”

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This year, Terry’s getting a test for her dad, even though Terry says she knows the estimates are “never for sure.” Still, DNA tests often provide enough information to lay the foundation for tracing back family lineages.

A few years ago, Leah Whitcomb, of Punta Gorda, FL, took an ancestry DNA test to help her go farther on her journey of tracing her family history. “A few years before taking the test, I worked on my genealogy and was able to trace my earliest ancestor back to the late 1700s in Mississippi—where I was born,” she said. “I wanted to know more about where my ancestors came from and maybe get some idea about how that shapes me.” 

What she found was that she had some Southeast Asian ancestry and a whole lot of African ancestry. When her results arrived, she learned that she’s 83% African from various countries. “I’m Blacker than what I thought,” she said. “When I found out, you couldn’t tell me nothing. It was a fulfilling feeling to finally have a few countries to say, ‘That’s where my ancestors are from.’”

Other people of color, even those who know generally where they come from, have also used these kinds of DNA test results to find more answers. Jessica Sun Lee bought herself the 23andMe kit eight years ago. As a transracial intercountry displaced person, or transracial adoptee, Lee only had falsified adoption paperwork to go by. 

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“I’d already tried to search for my roots via my adoption agencies and came up dry,” she told COURIER. “DNA tests were a way to hopefully learn more about my genetic makeup and lead to biological relatives. At the time, I was more interested in knowing my story than a relationship with my Korean family.” 

Amazingly, the results and DNA connections helped her find hundreds of distant cousins (many who were also adopted out of South Korea), connect with a Korean Australian family member, and find a second cousin. Unfortunately, none of the connections were strong enough to lead her to find more about her biological parents. 

“Over the past eight years, I’ve gone through a series of short-lived excitement followed by conversations that fizzled out,” she said. “It was wonderful to feel biologically connected at first, but the high of that wore out over time.” 

Kali Sisneros, of San Francisco, CA, refuses to take a DNA test to find out her ancestry despite the fact that many in her family have—but not for privacy reasons. Her concern is how such tests are used to “perpetuate racism and construct whiteness.”

“My dad’s side of the family is Latinx by way of New Mexico, and after taking the test, some close relatives decided that they could identify as white for the first time,” she said. “They literally grew up as brown kids. This also erases the Native blood on both sides of my father’s family tree.” 

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Sisneros has no interest in identifying as white: “That is not my lived experience.”

Of course, privacy concerns regarding these kits are also valid and represent one of the greatest worries that gifters and testers have, according to Dr. Verenis Estrada of Testing.com

“There is concern about how the DNA will be used after the ancestral information is provided,” she said. “I would encourage all consumers to be vigilant consumers and read the terms and conditions of their agreement with at-home DNA test kits.” She notes that many companies will not share common identifying information, such as your name, linked to your genetic data, but you need to read your agreement to find out what they can share.

April Salazar, who took an ancestry DNA test years ago, said she understands the concerns about privacy, but that “shunning these tests can be a kind of privilege.” 

“One of the reasons I really wanted to do the test was to find out more of my family’s unknown heritage,” she told COURIER. “It turns out we have significant Indigenous North American ancestry that was erased thanks to centuries of cultural genocide.”

Understandably, many people of color turn to DNA kits for answers, said Whitcomb. “For many of us, our history was stolen from us. DNA kits, though controversial, provide a bit of insight into that lost history.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to remove a previously included quote.