Ashifa Kassam, The Guardian, July 2, 2018
People who use home genetic testing kits to unlock the mysteries of their ancestry tend to “cherry pick” the results, relying on preconceived biases to embrace some of the findings while disregarding others, new research suggests.
Home genetic testing has become a multibillion-dollar industry that has seen millions of people around the world sign up for swab kits in hopes of uncovering the secrets hidden in their genomes.
Researchers at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia focused on how the results shape perceptions of race and ethnicity. They interviewed 100 Americans from various ethnic and racial backgrounds who had taken the tests, returning to them 18 months later to examine whether the tests had gradually shifted how they saw their identity.
The findings, published this week in the American Journal of Sociology, showed that most of participants – 59% – did not alter their views on their identity, despite receiving new information from the tests.
“I was surprised to find that, for most people, they didn’t adopt the ancestries suggested by the test,” said Wendy Roth, a sociologist and lead author of the study
Those who did heed the results did so on a selective basis, she added. “They didn’t embrace them full-scale — they cherry picked.”
Participants tended to embrace identities that they saw positively or that they thought others would accept. Test results that were disliked were simply rejected or ignored in some cases.
“So it’s not like people were seeing this genetic information as being definitive. They were really allowing their social desires and influences to change how they reacted to it,” she said.
One of the participants who identified as a white Mexican American before the test was found to have Native American, Celtic and Jewish ancestry. Researchers found he embraced his Jewish roots over the other ancestries highlighted in the test.
Another participant was adopted and had always believed herself to be Native American. After the test suggested she had no Native American ancestry, she dismissed it as inaccurate and continued to identify as Native American anyway.
A notable exception was among some of the white respondents, who were more likely to embrace new racial identities as long as they felt others would still accept them. “They were really excited to try on this identity that made them anything other than just white,” said Roth.
Some of this might be explained by the type of person who takes this test, said Roth. “Many of these people were looking for a sense of belonging. They didn’t know where their family came from, many of them were adopted and they were just looking for a place to belong.”
The findings suggest that genetic testing could end up reinforcing race privilege, said Roth, citing the example of someone who has always identified as white but now, based on the test results, takes on a new identity as white and black, or white and Native American.
“It doesn’t have any consequences for them. They can try it on, mention it when it’s to their advantage and ignore it otherwise. So it doesn’t have the same consequences as race does for non-white people,” she said. “That can really lead whites in particular to think that race is like that for everyone.”
Among those in her study who embraced their test results, more than 80% of them went on to document this change in the census — upending the tradition of racial categories based solely on appearance or knowledge of descent. “If that becomes commonplace, that’s a real concern,” she said. “That means that those inequalities are going to be underestimated.”
Roth is now carrying out similar research on randomly selected samples to see if the findings — which hint at the myriad of social factors that plays into our concept of race — carries over.
“It really emphasises to me that race is much more complex than just information that’s encoded within your genes,” she said. “Even if they are getting this information, they still interpret this information in terms of who they want to be, how they want to present themselves and what they think society will accept. And then they choose to either embrace it or ignore it based on that.”