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Genetic Testing Raises New Questions About Race

With the rise of a competitive market for personal gene testing, the tool is becoming more available and affordable to the public. People can now swab their cheek, send the sample off to a lab, and wait patiently for a private company with a massive gene database to tell them where in the world their genes are from. But what do these tests reveal about personal identity and what do they imply about race? 

Host Frank Stasio talks with Glen Fisher, financial aid advisor at Durham Technical Community College, who took a DNA ancestry test, and Charmaine Royal, associate professor in the department of African and African-American studies at Duke and the founding director of the Duke Center on Genomics, Race, Identity, Difference.

Royal is leading a conversation about DNA testing and race tonight at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh at 7 p.m. Follow this link to livestream the event.


Charmaine Royal on what a genetic ancestry test measures: 
As humans we have a common origin, common ancestry, and we share a lot of our DNA. In moving from one place to another in the world our genetics and our environments change over time. The genes adapt to the environments. But there’s still a lot among us that is still common and that we share. And so when geneticists are looking at ancestry they're trying to see what parts of the genome have been inherited from different parts of the globe or different populations across the globe. So they will look at a person’s DNA. They compare it with DNA they have in databases from people from around the world.

Glen Fisher on his growing interest in his ancestry:

Public schools always taught us that African-Americans began in slavery. And we celebrate it. Every February we celebrate achievements since slavery. And there’s always this darkness – like what were we, where were we, and who were we before that particular institution. And so I start to dig deeper, and like most African-Americans I came to nothing – a darkness.

Glen Fisher on the healing effects of knowing your roots:

That first generation of ancestors who were kidnapped and brought over here, that was the first thing taken away from them. They were told that the generations after you would not know where they’re from. And that’s a part of this process. And in 1865 when we were free from chattel slavery that became so – that you free physically but you would never know where you’re from. So this was healing for me, healing for my family, and healing for my ancestors.

Glen Fisher on traveling to a Tikar village in Cameroon where he traced his ancestry DNA:

I am still pinching myself. I can’t believe that experience happened. ‘Cause you know African-Americans, we have so many misconceptions about Africa. Especially our relationship to Africa… My particular tribe, my particular group of people, not only were they welcoming, they welcomed me home as a king, literally… The whole village threw a celebration. I have it on YouTube. Singing, dancing, drumming [I] sat beside the chief. It was like a celebration of a returned ancestor, and I just started crying – started wailing actually.

Charmaine Royal on people’s mixed reactions to their DNA ancestry results:

What I found in the studies that we’ve done is that people's responses to the test results are often informed by what they bring to the testing and their motivations for testing. There are some people who come in wanting to confirm their family narratives, their family stories. And for some the tests do that. But for some people they will get information that is the complete opposite from what they found out...Some people come in thinking they have Native American ancestry, wanting to have Native American ancestry, and get zero percent. For some people that zero percent doesn’t really change anything…They say ‘ok the test says zero percent, I guess my family story is wrong.’ Then you have those that will say ‘zero percent, that is incorrect. Our family story says we have Native American ancestry so the test in incorrect.’

Laura Pellicer is a digital reporter with WUNC’s small but intrepid digital news team.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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