Ancestry Testing and the Problem of Belonging
A few weeks back, my Dad forwarded me an email from his dad’s cousin, Mark. Mark is a retired schoolteacher and, at the time of the email, was on vacation with his wife in Belgium. I’ve never met Mark but, as my grandfather’s cousin, we shared a common lineage that he was in Belgium investigating. He sent the results to my Dad, knowing that he’d recently taken an interest in our country of origin since a recent test confirmed, much to our confusion, that my Dad isn’t German. In fact, what Mark had discovered was that we could be traced back to a city in southern Belgium from which my great-great-great-grandfather left in 1853 to move to Missouri. This came as a relief to me – there’s no way we could’ve been Nazis (my last name is Reischling) and that same great-great-great-grandfather fought for the Union, not the Confederacy. Two historical lineages I had hoped I wouldn’t inherit. I only took a cursory glance at the rest of the information; it seemed that the men in my family had a predilection for marrying Irish women and spoke French.
The whole concept of tracing one’s family history is nothing new. During the Spanish Inquisition, Christians would obsessively document the purity of their blood by proving that none of their ancestors were neither Jews nor Muslims. In antebellum America, this same practice continued into the 20th century where ancestry archiving was used to determine the extent of a person’s blackness and thus, their categorization within a segregated society. Historically, these lineages served as convenient means of separating societal classes that relied heavily on constructing racial difference around one’s bloodline and its supposed “purity.”
My own fear, that I’d discover my ancestors had been involved in genocide, came amidst news of some prominent German families prying into their own histories and discovering ties to the Nazis. Some, like the heiress to the Bahlsen cookie fortune, initially made tone-deaf remarks expressing a lack of remorse in her family’s complicity. The Reimann family, the second-richest family in Germany, upon learning of their parents’ and grandparents’ abuses of forced laborers, issued an immediate apology with a plan to donate about $10 million dollars to an undisclosed charity.
My great-uncle’s trip to Belgium had nothing to do with correcting past wrongs or trying to prove the purity of our Belgian heritage. From what I can tell, he just wanted to learn a little bit more about his family’s history because it was interesting to him. This seems to be the new trend in DNA testing, as companies like Ancestry.com, 23andme, and MyHeritage have exploded in popularity since 2017 – servicing more people in that year than all previous years combined according to a study in the MIT Technology Review. As of 2018, more than 15 million people have received a test from one of the sites offering a DNA analysis that will tell you, roughly, where your family can be traced back to along with other genetic quirks like tendencies to enjoy certain foods or sleep in certain positions. Some of this hysteria can be attributed to the concomitant rise in a wellness industry that sells the possibility of a previously unattainable grasp on one’s self-improvement and self-understanding. But there’s also something to be said for the technological advances that made DNA testing accessible and the increased marketing budgets that made it ubiquitous.
Yet these testing sites have not quite escaped the long shadow cast by the racist overtones of blood purity proofs. Recently, these same companies have courted controversy by retaining the rights to sell the DNA data to companies that want it. Critics envision a future wherein health insurance will refuse to sell patient’s fair policies based on their DNA makeup. In light of these breaches of privacy, it’s worth asking why people, like my own family, flock to these websites knowing the risks involved, but also knowing that there isn’t any real, current societal benefit to knowing what country in Europe you descend from.
I say Europe because, as the New York Times reported in 2018, 75 percent of users on these sites are of North American or European descent. Like my family, everyone wants to find out exactly what kind of white they are. That genealogy testing mostly appeals to white people isn’t necessarily surprising. Legacies of slavery and European colonialism have ruptured nonwhite lineages and left many with holes in their family history and no clear or easy way of filling them. But the appeal of DNA testing remains murky, if only because it seems to be knowledge for knowledge’s sake at this point. My life has changed in no substantial way since discovering I was Belgian.
This is the wrong way to approach the question, however, because it ignores the way sites like Ancestry.com present themselves to consumers. They offer a sense of belonging, boldly claiming to answer some larger human questions that border on the existential. But the idea of a lost sense of belonging isn’t only a marketing ploy – Democratic Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, in an interview in March on “Morning Joe,” claimed that the sorry state of the political climate could be partly attributed to the disintegration of communities. What he meant by community was a bit idealistic, he mentioned places where people stuck with the same employer their entire life, where everyone knew everyone’s name. But he diagnoses the same ills that Ancestry.com purports to cure – that modernization has set people adrift.
There is some historical weight behind this argument. As historian Eric Hobsbawm argued in his study of the transition from 18th to 19th century in Europe, up until 1861 the vast majority of Europeans lived in agrarian communities where they spent their entire lives. But the situation was changing. As the economy industrialized, relying increasingly little on agriculture, farmers poured into Europe’s urban areas to work in the factories that required immense sums of labor to churn out their product. Thus the birth of urbanization, the exodus from the farms to the cities, coincided with a breakdown in traditional ways of life and the small communities that sustained them. And city life offered something totally different from the small parishes that checkered the European countryside: intense proximity to strangers. Indeed, as sociologist Georg Simmel would later note, this was the defining feature of cities – one could live really close to someone they’d never meet.
Movement into cities is only expected to continue in the coming decades. A study done by the UN in May 2018 predicted that by 2050 68% of the world would live in urban areas, a 13% growth from the 55% that currently call cities their home. With this comes many of the benefits of city life: diversity, an increased freedom to self-define, and the economic mobility to change jobs. Yet, urbanization hasn’t always gone entirely uncontested. White Americans fled to the newly-created suburbs after slavery ended and black Americans started their own urban movement. And this debate between the two ideals of how America should be built – large scale urban areas versus suburban communities – has shaped most of the urbanization argument over the last century. But shrouded in this is the logic that Ancestry.com operates upon and the problem that Buttigieg announces: that people are moving too much and not getting to know their neighbors. Without community ties, we might only be left with family ties, so it seems natural that we would want to extend these ties into a distant past that offers a more encompassing sense of communal identity.
After I found out my Dad’s country of origin I began to enjoy the small moments of recognition when I noticed some other Belgian people on TV that had the same dark eyebrows as me. It was a bit of familiarity I’d never expected would matter. It didn’t, however, fill me with any new, primal sense of understanding about my place in the world. I made one of the worst jokes of my life about how it probably explains my love of waffles, and that was about it. I think that’s the appropriate response. An increasingly urbanized world might break with tradition, but it also can serve as a check on the more exclusionary and homogenizing versions of community that cozy up to such things as “blood purity” laws and “The White Flight.” This is not to say that I think Ancestry.com and co. are behind a rise in nationalism. Nor do I think urbanization is the solution to racism. Both of those things would be absurd to argue. They’re symptomatic, rather, of a larger dissatisfaction with what we want from the pasts we’ve inherited. Do we want understanding? Probably not. More so confirmation that our lives extend beyond the narrow scope of a specialized economy that makes us argue for our own irreducible individuality. That no one else is like me. That strangers will remain strangers in an unforgiving city. Now that’s a pretty lonely thought.