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
of African descent,
African American, and
They believed that some, if not most, of their ancestry came from
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
all together and felt that all Africans should love each other.
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
I’ve always been proud of being a person of African
descent. So, DNA just offered the confirmation.
as Black people, we're taught a Black and White view.Marquis, a young man with a very dark brown complexion, recalls that during adolescence, he hated his skin color.Oh, you're Black, you're not African.I don't know how that happens.
I wanted to be white so bad, and I looked in the mirror, and it was just like,He grew up in an environment of colorism.Ugh.
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
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
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
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
Nechelle initially was not excited to see her African admixture:
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
he asked me was I African. I said,
yes. Having entered
the experience with a generalized pan-African identity, Joseph
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,
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.
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.
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.
Next subject: Recognizing Relatedness due to finding African relatives among genetic match results. (Coming soon)