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Can at-home DNA tests challenge racial identity?

A woman’s hand holds an iPhone that is showing her DNA matches on
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Lindsay Webster has genetically matched with over 40,000 people on She’s hoping to find cousins who are matches, who also descended from John Punch or her Southern Bantu People.

Lindsay Webster has never thought of herself as anything other than White. But after taking an at-home DNA test, she’s discovered one percent of African ancestry. Do these tests have the power to challenge racial identity?


KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Lindsay Webster grew up in Fauquier County and lives at her family's farm.


KEYRIS MANZANZARES: She's a nurse practitioner who spends her free time with her husband caring for their French bulldogs and feeding her peacocks.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: Peter! Peter's the pretty one. Beautiful.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: Schools, of course, had integrated in the, I believe, late '60s, early '70s around here. I went to school with, you know, different races at a certain age. I went to Remington Baptist Church for perfect attendance for Sunday school, and I learned every Sunday, "Love all the children of the world." Red, black, yellow, white, you know? There's a whole song about it. And then during the week, you don't hear always the kindest things about people of another color from the same Christians who teach you that on Sunday.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Webster says she always felt different than others in her tight-knit community, and didn't understand why people around her couldn't see beyond race.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: I am a white girl. That's who I am, right? I'm blonde hair, actually, I was born with brown hair and it turned blonde by the time I was a year. I do not tan at all. When I tell you I have no melanin, I have none. I glow in the dark. I'm white, pale white. And so I saw myself as that.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Turns out, Webster's family lineage can be traced to a man named John Punch.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: He was born 1605 in Angola, and he had one son in 1630.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Who's considered to be the first enslaved African in the colonies that formed America.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: I am white. I'm white. I don't think of myself as anything other than that, but there's 1% of me that is not, which means my mom has a higher percentage, my grandmother had a higher percentage. The other generations had a higher percentage. And if the mindset of people in this country hadn't changed from that one drop law, where would our lives have been? How would things have been different for us? I think it speaks to the ignorance of that time, but I think it also speaks to the issues of today. It just feels like there's that connection there, that kind of, I inside of me knew that there was a connection. My son's biracial. I teased him. 'You're not the first biracial kid in this family by about 400 years, son, sorry to bust your bubble.'

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Webster's ancestry DNA results show that her 1% comes from Southern Bantu Peoples, which can be traced to Sub-Saharan Africa.

MICHELLE TAYLOR (GENEALOGIST): When you do a DNA test, often when I am, people say, oh, I'm X amount African, X amount European. Well, Africa is a really large continent. So the Sub-Saharan region that appears is very much connected to the slave trade.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Michelle Taylor specializes in African American genealogy. She often travels to the Library of Virginia for research as she builds family trees for her clients.

MICHELLE TAYLOR: I think that DNA tests definitely can challenge racial identity because you're looking at things in a new lens. You go in taking the test with an identity you've already assumed, and now you have a test that is telling you maybe something a little different than what you had already went in thinking you knew.

ASHLEY RAMEY CRAIG (COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT SPECIALIST, LIBRARY OF VIRGINIA): I would say you hear a lot that all roads lead through Virginia. A lot of people can either pinpoint an ancestor stepping on Virginia soil for a period of time, or they spend centuries here. So we have everything, sometimes everything in one location. That can be county records, state records, bible records that you might have to go to many other institutions to look for.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Ashley Ramey Craig is a community engagement and partnership specialist for the Library of Virginia. From March through October, the library hosts a series of genealogy workshops for those building or digging into their family tree.

ASHLEY RAMEY CRAIG: So we start off on a beginner genealogy workshop that will give you information of where to look, which records you should use, which records you find more information in.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Shawn Utsey, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is teaching his students about racial identity this semester. During class, they learned about Utsey's complex family tree.

SHAWN UTSEY (PSYCHOLOGY PROFESSOR, VIRGINIA COMMONWEALTH UNIV.): Now Martha Graham, my great-great-grandmother, was born in 1841. This is one of her sons. Obviously, she was not married to a white man. Likelihood is that this is the product of a rape or other form of coercion.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: A 2014 genetic study revealed that on average, the African American genome is 73.2% African, 24% European, and 0.8 Native American.

SHAWN UTSEY: Living in a racially conscious society requires all of us to create narratives that explain who we are, right? And so we typically think about America, the institution of slavery and how it's impacted Black folks, but white folks were also impacted by the institution in ways that we've not yet discovered. And so all of us in relation to that institution, that common history, construct narratives that explain who you are in relation to that. We want to talk about the complexity of Black identity for people who perhaps are or not biracial, right?

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: Utsey says that DNA is a truth teller, and that more white Americans than we think could have African ancestry.

STUDENT 1: There was not really a lot of information.

SHAWN UTSEY: Tell me when your family began to contemplate the possibility of African ancestry, what was that? Was that shocking to you all or did it make sense historically? What was your reaction? So there's no real scientific process by which we arrived at racial groups, but we have agreed on the racial groups. And so we have rules around who fits in what group. And obviously the one drop rule suggests that anybody with one drop of African ancestry is Black, regardless of how they look. Even in slavery, when people began to pass and not return, right? Those who passed and became white and continue to be white, you know, white today, they are discovering that ancestry.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Webster says her DNA results don't change how she views her race, but instead bring to light her 1% of African blood.

LINDSAY WEBSTER: I think it's about acceptance, you know? And just knowing where you're from. It may not mean anything to someone else who wants to deny it. It may not mean something to someone else who feels like it's such a minute percent, but to me, it meant the world. I love it here, it's beautiful. It's a place of peace for me.

KEYRIS MANZANZARES: For VPM News, I'm Keyris Manzanares.


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