Nikiah Washington live-streamed the unboxing of her Ancestry.com DNA testing kit as one of her young sons might a new toy, complete with all of the same excitement and anticipation of what would come next. The kit contained a vial for her to spit in and a return envelope. After sending her saliva to Utah-based Ancestry.com, Washington would receive an analysis of her genes, finally answering questions she’s had all her life about where exactly her ancestors are from. For Washington, a black woman living in Crescent City, Florida, science was about to challenge her notion of who she is—and she was ready to broadcast all of it live on Facebook.
She’s far from alone. There’s now hundreds of ancestry reveal videos on YouTube and Facebook, featuring people looking for answers about the past in their genes. In the videos, people lay their bets on what they think their heritage is—and then, live on camera, they share their actual ethnicity, according to a DNA test, with the entire internet.
These videos are popular, racking up tens, even hundreds of thousands of views. They’re like mini, modern-day Maury Povich episodes; those discovering the truth about their family history produce all manner of nervous laughter, gasps, tears of happiness and, when the results are shocking, tears of pain. More incredible than the range of reactions is the fact that people are willing to share such personal information with the internet at large.
The trend has taken off in part because DNA testing kits from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com are now so cheap (around $100) and easy to order online. For many people, this is the only way to explore their ancestral history because there is no paper trail of where their family called home before they got to America. This is especially true when ancestors were forcefully uprooted. So it may not surprise you that most of the DNA ancestry reveal videos on YouTube are being made by young black Americans.
When RyMingTahn Daniels did her test, she was shocked to find out that 26% of her DNA is of British origin. She talks in her video about feeling like there were secrets in her family.
“I was so confused,” she said. “DNA doesn’t lie, but people can.”
Many people who identify as black express confusion in their videos at discovering significant European ancestry in their DNA. Of course, because it is YouTube, the comments section will always be there with answers, however difficult to hear: “The European percentage is a direct result of our slave ancestors being raped and bred at will by white men,” wrote one commenter.
If, somehow, you’ve gone through life without having to confront the terrifying legacy of slavery and rape in this country, one that has largely been left out of our history books, you cannot ignore the story that genetic data tells. According to a study released in 2014 which looked at the genetic make-up of Americans, the average ethnicity estimate for African Americans is 73.2% African, 24.0% European, and 0.8% Native American.
It would be easy to look at these numbers and imagine that this blended racial identity has been the result of recent interracial marriages, and to be sure that’s sometimes the case. However we now have science that can date when these genetic admixtures happened. Kasia Bryc, senior population geneticist at 23andMe and one of the authors of the study explained that our chromosomes are a mixture of contributions from our ancestors: “Each generation reshuffles [and the] recombination causes the segments of ancestry to get shorter and shorter,” she explained.
DNA tested at 23andMe offers a chromosomal painting where you can see these segments; longer segments were contributed more recently, and shorter segments are from more distant relatives. The lengths of the segments for African Americans in the study, on average, showed that the majority of the European DNA contributions were made prior to 1860, by male ancestors.
Discovering that her ancestors were raped by the men that enslaved them is something Nikiah Washington knew she might have to deal with going into the test.
“There is something really weird, surreal, spiritually challenging about it,” she told me. “If a man did not rape that slave, I would not be here.”
Inadvertently learning about family trauma is an unadvertised risk of taking one of these tests.
Ancestry.com and 23andMe charge similar prices, but most of the people of color posting reveal videos on YouTube use Ancestry.com kits. Ancestry.com seems to be targeting this demographic, having run ads during the broadcast of the Roots miniseries remake earlier this year. (The ads that both Ancestry and 23andMe run are actually similar in style to the reveal videos, featuring customers happily finding out their heritage.)
The videos range from celebratory to emotional to downright confused as people are confronted with the results of their tests. Some people take the tests hoping to reinforce racial identity with scientific proof. One video from last year, produced by twins named Kevin and Keith Hodge, has half a million views. The twins have 1.6 million YouTube followers who usually tune in to see them discuss their work-out regimes and food. They decided to take the test because some of their audience had expressed frustration that the twins, who have a light skin tone, identify as ‘black’ and not ‘mixed.’ The twins turned to the DNA test to settle the debate. In their reveal video they boast about their ethnicity estimate of 58% African ancestry, or “majority African,” in their words.
While video makers regularly chastise people for making assumptions about “how black they are” based on skin tone alone, some do worry that the tests will change their sense of identity by revealing how “genetically black” they are. YouTuber @OnlyMe_Marilyn confessed that she “was scared” to open her results.
“I didn’t know what it was going to tell me,” she said in her video. “For 27 years all I knew was that I was black.”
When her analysis indicated she was genetically 82% African, she edited in the signature Lion King howl as a celebration.
As someone with a lighter skin tone, Washington is familiar with being challenged on her identity. “Skin tone is a really big thing for African-American people,” she said. “I was a little afraid to broadcast [my results because] I have a lot of issues with people questioning how black I am.”
In order to determine where in the world your DNA is from, the Ancestry.com kit that Washington used looks at 700,000 different spots on the genome. The genetic markers found at those spots are then analyzed by computer programs that compare them to the markers of people who are known to be good representatives of distinct ethnic groups around the world. Those ‘reference populations’ correlate to twenty-six different geographical areas across the globe.
Ancestry.com’s reference set is made up of publicly available data and proprietary data that was purchased four years ago from the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, which worked for fifteen years isolating DNA samples from people all over the world.
“That is where the real power comes from,” said Catherine Ball, Ancestry.com’s vice-president of bioinformatics. “[Sorenson] collected samples from Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and, most excitingly, a ton of samples from western Africa, which is a huge game changer because it is not well represented in public databases. If you have ancestors who were enslaved Africans this is really the only way you are going to be able to track those ancestors down.”
It’s not just about getting a genetic time machine into one’s past; many people who take the tests are hoping to stitch together families split by the slave trade generations ago. Both Ancestry.com and 23andMe offer an option to be matched with living genetic relatives in their databases. After she took the test, YouTuber @Udoka O was shocked by how many people contacted her eager to make a familial connection. Udoka was raised in Texas, but her entire family is from Nigeria, so when she started getting contacted by her genetic cousins, she was surprised that most of them lived in the United States.
“It was very intrusive at first,” said Udoka. “But then when I thought more about it, I started to understand that this is a big deal because for a lot of black Americans they don’t have the connection to their family lineage that I have.”
While she found it awkward at first, she now keeps in touch with a few of them through Facebook. Others looking for answers and support have flocked to online groups like DNA Tested African Descendants, which has over 11,000 members discussing everything from how to deal with the emotional fall-out of a test like this to how to do further research into your family tree.
Growing up in the U.S. in a family of Trinidadian descent, Nikiah Washington had heard stories about how her grandmother, who had long waist-length braids, was half Chinese. She was also told that a great-great-great-grandfather was Arawak, a people indigenous to the Caribbean.
“That is something they believe,” she said. But the place where oral history meets science can be dangerous territory. When we’re looking for answers about our ancestry, it can be difficult to prepare for what we may find. Washington worried her ancestry results would throw these family tales into dispute.
But that’s also the beauty of this science: The preservation of otherwise-lost narratives may be one of the great gifts of modern genetics. Large-scale genetic studies could one day paint migratory maps and tell stories that have been scrubbed from the history books. A genetic test on the descendants of Thomas Jefferson, for example, offered proof that the nation’s third president fathered a child with an enslaved woman at his estate 200 years earlier.
The notion that science could solve subjectivity in the telling of history is certainly exciting, but the way those truths bump up against lived experience is much trickier. If ethnicity estimates can prove someone’s racial identity, they could also disprove them. The tension between the undisputed truth of science and the tenuous construction of race is not easily resolved.
When Washington got her results back from Ancestry.com, she live-streamed opening them to 100 of her Facebook friends. As her youngest son giggled in the background, Washington, wide-eyed, read them on the company’s website. She was delighted to find out that 85% of her DNA is of African origin.
“I feel very African and I’m really happy about that!” she said.
As she clicked further, she found out she is 13% European and 2% Jewish, news she greeted with a hearty “Shalom!” If you’re quick with math, you may have already guessed that Washington also found out that, contrary to what she had been told her entire life, she is not Chinese.
“The fact that I am only African and European, is really emotional for me,” she said to the camera. “I just kinda feel like my ancestors were brought over here as slaves and then raped. I’m not being very eloquent, this is kind of a lot.”
Ten hours later, on her way to work at a nearby elementary school where she is a counselor, Washington took to Facebook once again to stream some of the emotional aftermath. “I cried a lot,” she said. “I guess I’m thinking about not just the biological things that are passed down but the spiritual things, the experiences.”
Later, after she’d had time to process the results, she was feeling more optimistic. Despite the test’s capacity to rehash historical trauma, Washington still sees it as a tool for healing.
“You have to go in your hole and you feel a little depressed, but it shows you how important you are, how out of something so terrible, you made it,” she said. “Eighteen million different things had to happen for you to be here. It can show you that you are a miracle.”