DNA Ethnicity Results Connect Us, Not Divide Us

Do DNA ethnicity test results perpetuate racism? My experience says the opposite is true.

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Do DNA ethnicity results perpetuate racist thinking?

Recently, a few critics have complained that DNA testing—and the marketing surrounding it—reinforces negative ideas about race and may perpetuate racism. For example, a recent article in The Guardian (UK) criticizes DNA-origin-themed holidays as a kind of publicity stunt that legitimizes archaic racial distinctions.

However, my experience is that DNA ethnicity results often cause people to rethink old prejudices—which is just the opposite effect. This is actually a stated goal of testing company Living DNA: “to show humanity that we are all made up of all of us, dissolving the concept of race through Ancestry DNA testing” (emphasis added).

Two recent marketplace experiences confirm the positive possibilities that can come out of learning DNA ethnicities. The first was a study done by consumer goods company Unilever “to see whether finding out about their heritage has an impact on their unconscious biases,” as reported on CNBC.com. According to the article, 63 of their marketing and ad agency staff in three international cities took DNA tests. “Unilever assessed employees’ stereotypical thinking using an academic test before getting the results of the DNA tests that showed their heritage….The DNA results provided information about employees’ ancestry, and once they got the results, staff participated in a workshop to understand how stereotypes are learned and how the brain can ‘unlearn’ them. People’s stereotypes reduced ‘significantly’ afterwards…[with] a 35 percent reduction in unconscious bias.”

Second example: the short video below shows what happened when travel search site Momondo shared DNA ethnicities with a group of people from around the world:


DNA ethnicity doesn’t inherently divide us

DNA ethnicity results are less about “race” and more about geographic (and occasionally cultural) origins, as best your DNA can tease out. Such information is neutral: it’s migration history. As in most things in life, it’s how you use the information that matters.

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Last month I delivered DNA test results to middle schoolers at the Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Academy in Atlanta, Georgia, USA (shown above). I loved one response from a girl who found out she had Asian ancestry:

“I realize now that I could be related to anyone I see, even if I don’t know them!”

Yes! DNA teaches us that we are all connected. We can use DNA ethnicity results to reinforce a positive sense of belonging and expand our shared identity, instead of buying into negative “clannishness” that causes cultural divides and racist thinking.

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If you agree, please share this article with your friends and add your own thoughts about how DNA can bring us together in positive ways.