An Examination of Ethnic and Family Identity Development among African Americans Connecting with Genetic Relatives from Africa
Evolving Ethnic Identity of African Americans With African Relatives

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

The evolving ethnic identity is the process of ethnic identity shifting in emphasis by uncovering information about the African relative's ethnicity and claiming this as one’s ethnic heritage.


Initial Racial-Ethnic Identity

Participants entered the genetic genealogy experience with various ethnic and/or racial labels such as African, of African descent, African American, and Black. They believed that some, if not most, of their ancestry came from Africa.

The reunification experience did not create a sense of being of African descent. It affirmed it. To illustrate, Joseph entered this experience with a generalized pan-African ethnic identity. He viewed all Africans and people of African descent as Africans and all together and felt that all Africans should love each other.

I would say that for me being Black and African were always co-equal. I was aware of the differences between myself as African American and Continental Africans, but my upbringing taught me to minimize those differences as much as possible.

Nzeh viewed himself as African American, but it was an identity that encompassed his generalized African identity. He explains, before, I said that I was African, but it was easy because I was indiscriminately African. I didn't know where in Africa I was from. I was African American. Kwasi explains, I’ve always been proud of being a person of African descent. So, DNA just offered the confirmation.

In contrast, Marquis entered the genetic genealogy experience with a racialized Black American identity devoid of an African ethnicity. As he explains, as Black people, we're taught a Black and White view. Oh, you're Black, you're not African. I don't know how that happens. Marquis, a young man with a very dark brown complexion, recalls that during adolescence, he hated his skin color. I wanted to be white so bad, and I looked in the mirror, and it was just like, Ugh. He grew up in an environment of colorism. The lighter skin tribe members would be honored, even my brother, for example, he's very light. Just raised with this, pretty much a white supremacist, almost self-hating thing that was passed down to me. Marquis describes, I grew up with the inherited prejudice against myself. …I would avoid the mirror…Then, when I see the mirror, I'd be like, "Oh, man," and be kind of hurt by it. My lips were kind of thick, my color and everything…Like painful lack of self-esteem. Marquis explained that it was through researching African history that he grew from such thinking. At some point, he began to become more informed, which created a desire to defeat colorism and internalized racism. I don't know how my eyes became open to it, but there were little things, little documentaries and stuff that made me actually have a hunger to defeat that inside of me and all around me, but especially inside of me. Marquis explained, by the time I got DNA tested, I had already done a whole lot of research on life philosophies and such.


Reviewing Test Results

All participants looked at the admixture results first. Two participants explicitly explained that they viewed their admixture results first because of how prominently the admixture results were displayed. Kwasi explains, It was probably the first thing I saw because it's typically what is easily presented first when you open your DNA results on their website. And Nechelle said that she viewed them first, because Ancestry had such information most visible/salient. However, based on the process of dealing with a sense of lack, an implicit reason for viewing the admixture results first may be because learning about their ancestral ethnicities from Africa is the most common reason for taking the DNA test in the first place. Based on participant recollection, at the moment of viewing admixture results, participants’ ethnic identity, both from previously known information and from new information learned from the admixture results, was salient.

    Participants explicitly reacted to:
  • having a high proportion of total African ancestry within whole ancestry composition
  • knowing a specific African region or country associated with the highest single African proportion in their admixture
  • having specific African regional results confirm prior expectations


It was a true shock. …my results came back on Ancestry at 91%. Nzeh exclaimed, Man! It showed 37% Nigerian or something. And I told my family, and some of them hollered, "Oh, we're Nigerian?" To see that it was like, wow!

Seeing all these regions, especially Senegal, and Nigeria, were all expected because I saw many folks, especially from the top regions, that looked a lot like me. It was vindicating; it felt great. I'll tell you, for weeks, I was on a high from that.


In contrast, Nechelle initially was not excited to see her African admixture: I never felt excited about African [ancestry] until my DNA match.

After viewing their admixture results, participants viewed their genetic matches, which sometimes provided an additional source of ancestral ethnicity information. Genetic matches are a list of DNA profiles within the company’s database who share DNA with the participant, indicating possible relatedness. Participants recalled having a heightened emotional response to seeing genetic matches who appeared to be from Africa. Willie explained, It was really amazing because, first of all, to be able to see someone that had nothing but ethnic background from Africa based on the countries was a really beautiful thing. Nzeh recalls, And I was like, Wait a minute! Hold on! They're getting matches?...it says that there's family from the Congo, specifically from this group! From Niger, huh! Nechelle states simply, Honestly, identifying relatives from Africa was serendipitous. Marquis is unique because when he found a relative from Africa for the first time, he was actively looking for African-looking names in his results.


Refocusing Ethnic Identity Exploration Based on Genetic Relatedness

When relatives from Africa who tested with the genetic genealogy company responded to the initial contact from participants with information about their ethnicity and birth country, participants were able to research a more personalized African ancestral history using the kinship evidence of their genetic relatedness with that person from Africa. To illustrate, based on Kwasi’s genetic relatedness with a relative from Madagascar, he refocused his family research. As Kwasi recalls, he [the relative from Africa] said, yes, both of my parents are from Madagascar…I [Kwasi] started reading about Madagascar and the African connection between America and Madagascar…So, I was like, wow!, one of those ancestors must have been mine.

That was very important to me because the moment that I would discover this information [African ancestral ethnicities], I would begin to reach out to ethnic tribes in that particular country and began to learn more about their culture, way of life, and visiting them, and living with them. That was my deep motivation.

Sometimes participants’ relatives from Africa spent time sharing information as engaged agents of ethnic socialization. For example, Willie learned about his own ancestral ethnicity and family history by listening to his relative from Africa talk for hours about his ethnicity and family history.


He took selfless time out of his schedule to just educate me on the Mandinka culture and his mother and his father and things of that nature, how he grew up, and how he transitioned out of the country of Guinea to Senegal. I mean, we spent hours and hours.

The reunion [in Ghana] took place in December, and of course, that was one week. But I actually stayed there [in Ghana] seven more weeks and traveled throughout the entire country. Every part of the country learning more about culture and things of that sort, and one of the relatives had actually traveled with me.


Participants emphasized that there was a key difference in engaging in ethnic socialization with living relatives from Africa who are members of the ancestral family group as opposed to gleaning information from the results of a genetic genealogy test.

You can walk around and say, you know, I'm Yoruba. Well, I know the word Yoruba, but I don't know anything else about Yoruba…But then when you meet your relatives, it's a whole other level. Oh man, now there's an exchange that takes place. There are an exchange of ideas; they start telling you about your family and the stories they've heard about their ancestors who were taken across the Atlantic. It's just a whole other level.

The exchange of historical narratives occurs in both directions. While the emphasis was on the relatives from Africa sharing information with the participant, participants also shared information about the history of African Americans. They sometimes use these moments to delve deep into core social issues such as the African and African American divide. As Joseph explains, So we talk about that as friends and as relatives and try to get a better understanding of each other's story. Nechelle illustrated grappling with the complex histories of African countries based on her family history.

It gets more complicated, and I mean no disrespect, but it gets more complicated understanding without bringing your own biases in the history of Africa. It just gets like, "Okay, I'm trying to sort it out. I'm trying to really understand the history of Ghana." Ghana went through some stuff. They are still going through some stuff, but I'm trying to flush it out.

She hopes to use her relatedness to bridge divides among African peoples.

Before finding relatives from Africa, Joseph engaged in research about African American history in general.

Primarily because it was always stressed as an important subject by my mother and other adults in my life. As I began to grow as a historian, I found that it was only natural that my foundational outlook should be rooted in my ancestral and genetic memory/perspective. It was the only logical choice for me as a man of African descent to study history and the world from the perspective of my forebears.

After finding relatives from Africa, his research refocused on the specific African country and ethnic groups of his ancestors determined based on the ethnicity of the relative from Africa. In other words, his research about his ethnicity changed from being general to specific, from being based on the African American population level to more specific familial level research of the histories of his relatives from Africa, believing these to be his ancestral ethnicities through his ancestors.

A key component in the experience, as illustrated by Nzeh, is that this claim of ethnic identity was based on finding relatives from Africa and then learning about their relatives’ ethnicity. For example, the strength in Nzeh’s conviction that he is African is based on the genetic results linking him to specific relatives from Africa.

I'm African. I am a West African man. I mean, period. And genetics is backing that up all the way. At the point that you find family, at the point that you find family members of yours related to you genetically, related to you biologically, related to you familiarly from the African continent, you can't lie to Africans. You know what I mean? You just can't, and if you do, you're a damn fool.


Shifting Ethnic Identity

While participants engage in ethnic exploration, they begin to shift their ethnic identity towards Africa and being African and African American. The shift in ethnic identity is in terms of intensifying or sharpening the focus on mosaic Africa within an African American identity.

Strengthens Connection to Africa. Identifying relatives from multiple African countries strengthened Kwasi’s connection to Africa.

Ah, so it really, like, wow, I am definitely from Africa. You know. [laughter] And my family [relatives from Africa] comes from all over, you know. …each present-day nation of West Africa I probably had an ancestor, or several ancestors came from each one of those nations, present-day nations. So, it’s fascinating; it’s just, it strengthens my connection to Africa.

Identifying as African. Nzeh entered the experiences identifying as African American; he was African with a generalized historical context. As he explains, whereas before I said that I was African, but it was easy because I was indiscriminately African. I didn't know where in Africa I was from. I was African American. When he found a relative who was Igbo from Nigeria, Nzeh identified as being of Nigerian descent or of Igbo descent. But after a while, he found more relatives from various countries across Africa that it was no longer a simple matter to claim the identity of one family group. But we had so many ethnic groups or so many people, so many relatives from different ethnic groups across Africa that it became difficult to say, Oh, well, you know I'm just Igbo. It became more complicated for Nzeh to find a fitting African localized ethnic identity. But as more and more relatives come in from different places, you're like, Oh shit. Where do I belong? What do I say I am? Because I'm all of these things, and I don't want to be dishonest.

Nzeh now self-identifies as African and perceives that others view him as African as well. So, I'm African. That's my orientation; that's what people see me as. It is an African identity that has intensified or gained specificity. It is a more informed African identity based on connecting with specific relatives from Africa. He emphasizes that his ancestry began in Africa, not elsewhere, and that his current ancestry composition is a result of events that occurred during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

I'm African. My ancestry, my being here [in the U.S.], didn't start in Europe. It didn't start in Israel. It didn't start here [in the U.S.]. It started when my African ancestors were taken as captives and brought here, and the subsequent admixing that happened after that, but it still began in Africa. So, I'm African. My identity became a lot more complex since before testing to now.

Although claiming ancestry from Africa sounds like common wording among African Americans, for Nzeh, his African identity is now much more specific.

Carboni and Willie also illustrated having an African identity. Carboni identified as being a co-ethnic person with his family members from Ghana. As he says, I am Fante. I am Ghanaian. Carboni felt a daily sense of belonging to the ethnic group(s) of his family from Africa through this frequent communication with them, this communication of a feeling of culture and life and being a part of that ethnic tribe has become a daily part of my life. Similarly, Willie said, I understand the rich culture of my people in Africa and how great and how rich of a resource the continent of Africa is…it makes me happy just simply to be an African. As Joseph asserted, he asked me was I African. I said, yes. Having entered the experience with a generalized pan-African identity, Joseph affirms, I still identify as a Pan-African. I am now more informed, and my identity has been reinforced by genetic genealogy… The science gave me specifics of what was already known. Even though Joseph strongly identified as an African of Nigerian descent, he questioned the level of acceptance and belonging he may receive at events catering to Nigerians. Joseph explains, I've been contemplating, Should I go, should I not go? Should I go, should I not go? At the end of the day, it's like I am young, I am of Nigerian descent, why not? But then, at the same time, I still kind of felt like there's still that divide there. Not divide, but still kind of like that.

Marquis insists that the authority to claim an identity is not outside himself. No one can really tell us that we're not African. He made a distinction between claims based on cultural upbringing and claims based on ancestry. Marquis declared that based on the evidence of ancestry, African Americans are as African as any other African.

As far as African citizens, of course, I can't say that—Of course, I'm not an African Citizen, and of course, I haven't been raised with certain traditions. However, as far as a sense of belonging, as far as being native somewhere, you can't say that Ghana and Nigeria, those areas, I'm not native to. I know I am. Because of that, I think of African Americans in that same light. I see them as other Africans, who are most of the time mixed. It's a beautiful thing.

Nechelle felt unique in her experiences because she claimed both her African and European ancestry through a positive lens. I feel unique 'cause yes, I have European, and I have African. I'm like, Okay, it's all good.

I still consider myself African American. I'm more likely to, but I always keep in mind, I'm Asante [an ethnic group primarily from Ghana]. …I'm like Asante, Asante, Asante, that's intriguing for me...I still see myself as an African American, though, to answer your question. I just, I just, the idea of knowing that my ancestors are from the Akan group. That brings me great pride and both groups are represented. It's a little intensified. It's a little intensified.

Like others, the African in her African American is intensified and incorporates both her Black American and African ancestral heritage.

Typically, during the early portions of the Evolving Ethnic Identity process, participants enter the Recognizing Relatedness process.



Previous: A Sense of Lack in African Ancestral History

Next subject: Recognizing Relatedness due to finding African relatives among genetic match results. (Coming soon)