Wednesday, January 04, 2017

DNA shows students their ancestries are mixed; knowledge could help heal a fragmented nation

Emma Krentler was surprised to find African,
Asian and Middle Eastern ancestry in her DNA.

(Washington Post photo by Melissa Rudolph)
DNA testing is showing students at West Chester University in Pennsylvania that their racial make-up isn't always what they thought it was, Susan Svrluga reports for The Washington Post. The results are giving "them a neutral place from which to start to talk" and could be a helpful in rural areas in a country fragmented by race.

Anita Foeman, founder and primary investigator of the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester, wondered: "What if people started finding out things they didn’t know about themselves?" Svrluga writes. "So she begins with a short survey asking people their race and what they know about their ancestry. They spit into a vial. Several weeks later, they get an email with an estimate of their ethnic makeup, a color-coded map of their past."

"That leads to questions, stories and curiosity," Svrluga writes. "It is a welcome reset from awkwardness, defensiveness, suspicion. Now that the DNA tests are cheaper, Foeman is able to ask all the students in her honors class—almost all of them freshmen just getting to know or redefine themselves—to take the test."

Students who identify as one race have been surprised to find they have other races in their ancestry, even if it's only a small percentage, Svrluga writes. "Statistically, Foeman and her colleague Bessie Lawton have found people overestimate their European heritage and whiteness, and underestimate ancestry from other regions. Half the people think their families will respond positively to results before they take the test. Afterward, fewer than 1 in 10 think so."

But the class has allowed students a place to talk about race, Svrluga writes. Student James Devor told Svrluga that the DNA test “helps us understand we’re not all from one special place, which is really peculiar to America. Because we’re all from different areas, with different ideas that come with that ethnic culture. What makes America great is we have all those cultures combined.” (Read more)

This item was first posted Jan. 3 but was reposted as part of overcoming a technical issue.

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