An Examination of Ethnic and Family Identity Development among African Americans Connecting with Genetic Relatives from Africa
African Americans Recognizing Relatedness with African Relatives Found using Genetic Genealogy

This series is based on a study that examined family identity and ethnic identity among African Americans who used commercial genetic genealogy services such as Ancestry and 23andMe and tools such as GEDMatch to identify genetic relatives from Africa.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: A Sense of Lack in African Ancestral History
Part 3: Evolving Ethnic Identity of African Americans With African Relatives
Part 4: African Americans Recognizing Relatedness with African Relatives Found using Genetic Genealogy

Recognizing Relatedness is the process of going from acknowledging that a person is a potential genetic match to claiming that person as a family member.


Recognizing Relatedness

Typically, during the early portions of the Evolving Ethnic Identity process, participants enter the Recognizing Relatedness process. During this process, participants’ motivations for Reviewing Test Results shift from using the biogeographical ancestry results to determine ethnicities to using the genetic matches results to identify relatives from Africa.

    Two components of recognizing relatedness are:
  • Identifying relatives from Africa
  • Claiming kinship

African American participants engaged in genetic genealogy with the notion that there was an association between genetics and ancestral ethnic groups. They also associated the results with being able to identify relatives born in the U.S. during or after the U.S. slave era. Initially, relatives born in Africa before or during the slave era were typically found serendipitously in the results. After finding relatives from Africa, participants shifted the focus of using the genetic genealogy from ethnicity to relatedness.

My primary focus at the time was the ethnicity estimate. And then, later on, the kind—that kind of kept me coming back was the cousin matching features…Especially if I could find living relatives who were from Africa, that was my greatest hope.

But when you begin to connect and collaborate, link up with people that you literally are related to that have been separated--you know for a fact--from your family lineage from the Transatlantic Slave Trade, it's a beautiful thing to be able to unite with them.


Nzeh emphasized that there was a qualitative difference in knowing his African ancestral family history compared to learning about his African ancestral ethnic history.

I don't know how else to say it, but that there is no stronger connection that you can have than to the actual family members to Africa. That's not only knowing what ethnic you're from, that's knowing what's family your ancestor was taken from.

Similarly, Willie explained the same phenomenon, it's one thing for you to get ancestry.com test results and them telling you your background—totally different plethora of an experience when you actually are engaging with someone that's like blood and flesh.


Identifying Relatives from Africa

The more they continue in genetic genealogy, the more they inevitably learned about the science of genetic relatedness and the rules of identifying a true match (i.e., IBD match).

    The process of identifying relatives from Africa consisted of:
  • Determining if the genetic match was from Africa
  • Determining if the genetic match was a true genetic match


Determining if Genetic Match is from Africa.

Determining if the person represented by the genetic match is from Africa goes from selecting a genetic match in the results to receiving a verbal or written confirmation from the person managing the genetic match’s profile that the person was born in Africa or born of parents from Africa. Participants explained that they began the process of determining if the genetic match was from Africa by first noticing that a genetic match in their results list could be a person from Africa. Participants then went to the relative’s public profile and gathered information such as the name associated with the DNA kit, name of the DNA kit’s manager, shared ethnicities, and other personal information provided by the manager of the DNA kit. If the shared ethnicity estimates showed that only regions from Africa were shared between the participant and the genetic match, there was a good chance that the genetic match was a person from Africa. However, there was also the possibility that the genetic match was for a person of African descent and the manager for the genetic match’s DNA kit selected the option to only show admixtures shared with other genetic matches. In this second situation, the genetic match could be an African American, for example, and only share African admixtures with the participants, which would cause the participant to see African-only admixtures. Finding a genetic match with African-only admixtures was an indication that the genetic match was a person from Africa. When participants saw results with African-only admixture, they continued in the process of determining if the genetic match was from Africa.

Participants continued in the determination process by contacting the manager of the genetic match’s profile. If the manager of the genetic match’s profile responded to the participant, the manager confirmed or refuted that the genetic match or their parents were born in Africa. If the manager did not respond, but the participant found the genetic match on social media or some other source, and the source could provide ethnic information about the genetic match, this information was usually used as evidence of the genetic match’s ethnicity. The process is repeated for each potential relative from Africa.

One of the key features at the beginning of determining if a genetic match is from Africa is the active pursuit of information about a genetic match found in the results list, even if that pursuit was not specifically about Africa. In the current study, all participants are managers of their own DNA profile and so obtaining any information about a genetic match is usually through their own active searching among their genetic matches. Notably, a pre-process event is the participant actively supplying their saliva sample to the company for the purpose of DNA analysis and responding affirmatively to the company’s online consent forms. Later in this process, the participant continues to search for information about the genetic match, specifically because of the indication that the genetic match is from Africa. Participants entered this process subsequent times to continue to learn more about their genealogy, typically to search specifically for genetic matches from Africa.


Determining if the Genetic Match is a True Genetic Match

At any point in the process of determining if the genetic match is from Africa, participants questioned whether the genetic match was a true match or a false match. A true match is identical-by-descent (IBD), a segment of DNA that has been inherited from a common ancestor by both the participant and the genetic match. If the segment is IBD, then at least one parent of the participant and at least one parent of the genetic match would also have shared DNA.

Questioning the validity of a genetic match is based on a tester’s understanding of the science of genetic relatedness. Participants range from believing the genetic match is a true match simply because the company lists the profile as a genetic match to skepticism. As they gain more knowledge and experience, participants shift from only using the results provided by the company to using a basic understanding of relatedness science to confirm relatedness, to using a greater understanding of the science of relatedness by using tools that enable chromosomal level comparisons. At this latter end of the range, participants use rules to provide strong evidence of relatedness to identify that the genetic match is from Africa and is a true match.

At the time of the interviews, all participants were exercising a greater understanding of the science of relatedness to provide strong evidence of finding relatives from Africa. There is excitement and a sense of confirmation when the genetic match from Africa also matches a participant’s parent.

You know it’s like, you know, when I, ah, when I looked at the DNA results of either one of my parents and a new match, particularly if that new match is an African, it’s just like, wow! It’s a wow moment for me every time.

A genetic match matching the participant and one of their parents provides information about how the genetic match is related to the family. For example, when Willie’s genetic match also matched a parent, it provided him with “double confirmation” that the person from Africa was their relative but also which side of his family to connect the relative. Kwasi explains a further application of the method, “So that was fascinating within itself, and then the fact that this person not only match me and my father but also match my father’s second cousin.” Matching his father’s second cousin means that Kwasi knows the specific great grandparent to whom, out of Kwasi’s total of eight great grandparents, his relative from Africa is related. The genetic matching was used to add relatives from Africa to specific branches on the family tree and enriched stories to the known family history. This use contributed to understanding why participants continue in the testing cycle by testing additional known family members. There was an excitement of finding and communicating with relatives from Africa even if the identity of their specific shared ancestor was unknown.

Chances are pretty great that we won’t ever figure it out, but that doesn’t matter…I’ve never imaged that I would have that type of connection to actual, actual family, blood relatives…that I’m actually communicating with people back in Africa who are blood relatives.

They explained the relatedness using scientific concepts such as IBD and overlapping segments (e.g., on the same spot). Kwasi continues to explain finding a relative, he matched my father and my father’s second cousin on the same spot, so that let me know that…it’s definitely an IBD match, a real, you know, Identity by Descent match.

Through engaging in genealogy to identify relatives from Africa, participants also developed a range of skills and interests in related fields.

Phonetics or language/dialects have been helpful…Genograms are also interesting…discovering the identity of Jane/John Does and assisting law enforcement in solving cold cases. Fascinating to witness different emerging specialties not only in the field of justice but family/individual therapy.


Claiming Kinship

Claiming kin moves beyond the technical process of identifying a relative from Africa to a more socioemotional process of claiming kinship. It is a shifting of emphasis from discovering and confirming biological relatedness to the socioemotional components of doing family.

    The components of this process are:
  • Naming the relationship
  • Recognizing the extended family nucleus
  • Perceived acceptance


Naming the Relationship

Naming the relationship is a description of how participants refer to the relative from Africa during the interview with the researcher. Participants referred to the genetic match as relatives, family, or cousins. None referred to a genetic match from Africa that they determined to be a true match as not being related.

Though relatedness was discovered through DNA testing, participants emphasized that their relatives from Africa were family, cousins. This is illustrated when Nechelle explained her desire after discovering the relatedness, “I want to see them face to face…I want to see my family because they are my cousins, and they're not just genetic cousins; they're my cousins.” Referring to their relatives from Africa as relatives, family, or cousins was common among the participants as they shared their experiences. African ancestral family reunification is a new phenomenon among the African American population, and so at this early stage of the phenomenon, participants had difficulty articulating their sentiment. However, participants generally claimed the relatives from Africa as family.

I think just it, oh my gosh, that's just so, I mean to know that you're a DNA match to something, to someone that's across the world that you never met and that—Oh my gosh. It's kind of hard to—Family's big. Family is big. Family's, it's kind of hard to put into words. I mean, this is my family. This is my roots. This is where I came from. These people are from the same ancestry, and yet we're so far apart. You know?...We have different experiences, yet we're family. I mean, it's just kind of hard to put into words.

Carboni set Ghana family practices as the barometer for doing family, leading him to reevaluate his U.S.-based family experiences as lacking. This sense of lack was based on his not experiencing Ghanaian family norms continuously during his life in the U.S. As he says, when I connected with my family there [in Ghana], I recognized how much in America with my family that I'm missing.

When participants explained their experiences, they typically referred to the relative from Africa as a cousin without the distinction of the degree of relatedness. For example, biologically speaking, the relatives from Africa that African Americans identified approximately their fourth to eighth cousins (sharing third to seventh great grandparents). The biological connection in the ancestral family group provides a level of certainty in the relatedness. As Kwasi explains, because the DNA doesn’t lie, and we are family.


Recognizing the Extended Family Nucleus

Recognizing the extended family nucleus describes the way participants view the relative from Africa concerning the family composition or family structure. The phrase extended family nucleus refers to the sentiment that the primary functioning family unit (i.e., family nucleus) is the extended family unit as a norm and that the extended family unit includes relatives from Africa. Structurally, the ancestral family group formed by eighth cousins is an extra-extended family structure.

Only Carboni articulated the family structure. He explains of his relatives from Africa, So, they have become, and they are a part of the extended family nucleus. According to Carboni, relatives from Africa were both becoming members of the family unit (i.e., socially) and had already been part of the family structure (i.e., biologically). For him, it was a conscious social acceptance of what already was. This phrase extended family nucleus is a peculiar phrase indicating both that he accepted his relatives from Africa as being within the social-biological boundaries of his extended family and that the functional unit of his family was the extra-extended family structure. Although the family structure was specifically articulated only by Carboni, there are hints of the idea from all participants.


Perceived Acceptance

Perceived Acceptance within the Claiming Kinship process refers to the sense of being recognized by relatives from Africa as being a member of their family. This could range from not feeling accepted at all to feeling completely accepted.

There is a power in feeling claimed as kin that is well illustrated in Joseph’s experience with a family video. As Joseph explains, they [relatives in Nigeria] actually made a video for me saying, Hey, the past is the past. We love you, we love your family, we want you all to come back here... Joseph had tears of joy when he watched the video. The relative’s family accepting Joseph’s membership within the family was documented in this family video in their claiming him as kin. This claiming, in turn, led to the saliency of his family identity as a sense of belonging or a sense of membership.

I just broke down crying…And I was like, Oh my god, this is my family, this is my actual relatives in Africa telling me that, We want you all back. We want to connect with you; we want to know you. And I'll tell anybody…You know the whole tears of joy thing.

The fact of biological relatedness, as expressed by Joseph, has historical significance and is not essentialism of family based on sharing biological connections. Joseph perceived that his relatives were calling Nigeria his homeland. It was a place to return to even though it was the participants' ancestors who were taken multiple generations ago. This points to a sense of belonging based on other members of the group recognizing the participants’ membership. But this also illustrates an evolving generational orientation for participants. It was a highly meaningful experience for Joseph to hear relatives from Africa tell him that he was loved and welcomed in the present and that the trauma in the past of the Transatlantic Slave Trade could be left in the past. Joseph was connected, reconnected to his new family that already was. The sense of continuity linking him to his ancestors in Africa was forming in a very real way.



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