Tuesday, August 15, 2017

On 23andMe the Strangeness of Genes

As I mentioned in a previous post, I did finally get around to doing that whole 23andMe DNA test thingamajig this summer after probably a good year of hemming and hawing about it. It's been a few weeks since I first got my results, but I've been truly fascinated by some of the things I found out, especially in regards to the ancestry side of things. 

Suffice it to say that my mixed race heritage has always defined quite a bit about my physical and biological identity whether I wanted it to or not. When I was a kid, I was a shy wallflower type that just wanted to fit in, so I used to hate being mixed because of the constant questions I always got about my ethnicity and heritage. As an adult though, I've come to realize that being different or unique isn't so bad, so I've learned to embrace it for what it is. I've even become quite curious about the bare-bones, honest details of who and what I am from a cultural heritage standpoint.

Lots of people grew up in households where cultural identity and heritage were really, seriously important things. That wasn't the case with my immediate family when I was growing up at all. I knew my dad was black and that my mom was probably mostly of Irish heritage, but that's about it. Neither of my parents seemed to consider those aspects of who they were to be terribly important. My brother and I were certainly never encouraged to really identify with anything about where we came from ethnically speaking, especially in regards to our black side. 

Neither of my parents ever dared say so in so many words, but I sometime got the impression my blackness was considered a negative to overcome in life, even by my father who is honestly as black as it gets by society's standards. It was certainly nothing to express any sort of pride in the way I saw being done in other families that included black people. Interest in anything related to black culture was pretty strongly discouraged (and in some cases even "corrected"). However, I was actively encouraged to be "grateful" I had light skin, hair that flowed and grew long, or features that were relatively Caucasian-seeming in comparison to other people with similar backgrounds -- like I lucked out in dodging bullets I could have been hit with because of where I came from.

Looking back, all of that was really pretty fucked up and I have to wonder what my parents were even thinking in getting together and producing mixed children if they didn't actually want to raise children with that background. Granted the atmosphere at home was only part of the reason, but I truly felt like there was something wrong with me -- like I was disappointing, unattractive, and just plain "weird" in a way other kids just weren't. As I've gotten older though, I've come to realize none of this had anything to do with me. It was about personal hang-ups my parents apparently both had in regards to what it means to be black or what it says about you if you choose to embrace your blackness. 

Case in point, once I reached young adulthood, I started hearing all the time from my dad about the Native American heritage I'd supposedly inherited from his side of the family and was encouraged to embrace that for reasons I still don't totally understand. (I guess anything's better than being just plain old black.) My father's never necessarily been someone I associate with honesty or transparency though, so I never knew how seriously to take that -- one of the many reasons why I wanted to have a 23andMe done in the first place. I wanted to know how much of what I've been led to believe about my heritage was real and how much was bullshit I could just go ahead and let go of.

As you can see from my ancestry report, there isn't any Native American in my heritage, which there obviously would be if it were any major part of my father's heritage. What I do have back there somewhere is some apparent Asian heritage, which really intrigues me. I also have a good deal of Scandinavian and Iberian heritage, which is also complete news to me. I was pretty surprised to find out that I have as much European ancestry overall as I apparently do as well. I always just assumed I was mostly black genetically speaking, but I guess that's not necessarily how genetics works (with one type of DNA being "stronger" somehow than another). I certainly didn't figure my predominant heritage would come up as Irish/British, but there it is just the same. 

I kind of hate that if I'd never had this test done, I wouldn't have known about some of this stuff in any way whatsoever. However, I love that I now have this information from an accurate source I feel like I can trust. I feel this immense interest in my heritage beginning to emerge as a result and I'm excited to see how that develops for me in the years to come. I've never really identified that closely with any one part of my heritage, partly because of my upbringing and partly because I really do scan so thoroughly as "mixed" to other people, but I like this new feeling. I feel like I'm somebody -- somebody with an identity that's attached to a real history, and a heritage, and a background. The fact that my parents never thought it was important that I appreciate it is now irrelevant.

In other news, I also opted in to 23andMe's relative matching network, because I figured "why the hell not". There are apparently over 2,000 people in their databases that are genetically related to me to one extent or another, which just blows my mind. Many are distantly related cousins or something and they live all over the United States. I think a few may even live elsewhere, but I can't quite remember right now. 

I'm a pretty passive person, so I haven't actually reached out to any of these people on my own, but I have had three people contact me through the site wanting to compare DNA results and whatnot -- two guys and a girl, all distant cousins. The girl in particular expressed a lot of interest in maybe getting to know me better. We added each other on Facebook and actually spent a little time yesterday afternoon talking about heritage and whatnot. It was actually a pretty cool experience. I'm really not used to having most of my blood relatives take much of an interest in me as a person, so that was a nice change of pace for sure.