Cydney Wong   |   11/ 8/ 2021   |   Reading Time: 6 Minutes

What I Learned (And Did Not Learn) From Genetic Ancestry Tests

Courtesy of Cydney Wong/The Xylom Illustration

This story is supported by a grant from #BlackinScicomm Week and COMPASS Scicomm. All stories under the brack•ish series can be found here.

 

I used to wish I had invented 23andMe.

I think DNA is the coolest thing. Usually, when asked how I became interested in biomedical research, I cite my 11th-grade "Molecular and Microbiology" elective when we watched a documentary about the human genome project. Seeing so many scientists come together to decode the molecule that governs every biological process in our body amazed me. I wanted to be a part of something like that.

We learned that this process had been commercialized to develop direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA testing, and now companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com could determine your genetic ancestry from just a saliva sample. As a multiracial, multiethnic young scientist, that sounded like the best idea on earth. I was actually annoyed that I hadn’t come up with it first. I am the perfect face for something like this, I thought. I have DNA from all over the globe, I’m smart, and I’m interested in genomics research. This sounds like my dream career!


Or so I thought at the time.



Cydney (third from left) poses with her extended family in Dartmouth Village, Essequibo, Guyana, the small town where her grandmother was born. Cydney's grandmother took the occasion to introduce her to her oldest living cousin. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

 

Throughout my life, the question "What are you?" followed me in every space I entered. Everyone from classmates in middle school to custodians in my college dorm, to strangers in the grocery store wanted to know how someone with an obviously Chinese last name ended up with dark spiral curls and brown skin. With this type of test, I could scientifically answer that question! Aside from my fascination with the science and mathematics behind sequencing technology, I felt drawn to the concept of DNA as what makes each individual different. Since no one else would have my exact results, a test like this could provide numerical evidence of something I took great pride in: my unique personal identity.


Everyone from classmates in middle school to custodians in my college dorm, to strangers in the grocery store wanted to know how someone with an obviously Chinese last name ended up with dark spiral curls and brown skin.

Despite my annoyance at the “what are you?” question, I grew up having a very clear understanding of my racial and ethnic makeup. When I was very young, probably in about first or second grade, I was in a clothing store with one of my friends and her mom. We were deciding what to take into the dressing room when an Asian woman in the store randomly stops and looks at me.

Cydney (top left) poses with her family, including her Chinese grandfather, in Chinatown, New York City. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

“Is she Chinese?” she asks my friend’s mom.


Although I was quite shy as a child, I proudly answered. “I’m a quarter Chinese, a quarter Dominican, and half Guyanese.” She seemed shocked I gave such an in-depth answer, smiled awkwardly, and continued with her day.

Regardless, I still felt that someday I had to take one of these tests, like it was designed for someone like me. But what was my plan for when I got my results? Walk around with a printout so I could provide exact percentages to anyone who asked about my ethnicity?


As I got older, I had stopped using fractions and percentages to describe my ethnicity to those who asked because describing myself as “half” or “a quarter” of a race or ethnicity felt like a disservice to my family and to myself.

I already knew my parents’ ancestry, and I was lucky enough to grow up with exposure to Chinese, Guyanese, and Dominican cultures. By the start of my sophomore year of college, I had even visited all three countries. As I got older, I had stopped using fractions and percentages to describe my ethnicity to those who asked because describing myself as “half” or “a quarter” of a race or ethnicity felt like a disservice to my family and to myself. After all, race is a social construct and not defined by the percentage of DNA I inherited from my parents.



Cydney's grandmother’s hometown in Essequibo, Guyana. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

On the other hand, I didn’t have a Guyanese accent, I didn’t even speak any Chinese beyond knowing how to wish my grandfather a happy Chinese New Year, and until high school, ven aquí and siéntate were the extent of my Spanish, thanks to my father saying these phrases to my sisters and me when we were young. I just tell people that I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. Like many mixed-race Americans, I suffered my fair share of racial imposter syndrome. Sometimes I used descriptors like “Blasian”, “Afro-Latina”, or “China-Latina”, but those terms don’t fully encompass my identity. Nothing could give me a satisfying, one-word answer to the “what are you” question.

Sometimes I used descriptors like “Blasian”, “Afro-Latina”, or “China-Latina”, but those terms don’t fully encompass my identity. Nothing could give me a satisfying, one-word answer to the “what are you” question.

During college, I told a close friend about my obsession with 23andMe, and he was nice enough to give me a kit. I spit into the tube. I get my results and nothing dramatic happens. The percentages all work out to approximately what I had expected. I have about 25% East Asian ancestry, a bit of Native American (specifically Caribbean) ancestry, a little over 50% African ancestry (mostly West African), and about 18% European ancestry, mainly from Spain and Portugal.



The Great Wall of China. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

 

I like to think of DNA as a representation of how we are composed of little pieces of all our ancestors. I thought having this breakdown of the unique parts of my genetic code would give me a stronger sense of self because this is, at least biologically, what defines who I am. I was hoping to document my uniqueness, but in fact, we’re a lot more genetically similar than we are different.


Human DNA is composed of building blocks called nucleotides: A, T, G, and C. The sequence of A’s, T’s, G’s, and C’s is 99.9% identical across humans, but just a single nucleotide difference amidst various locations of these long stretches of identical sequences unlock our own immense diversity. These single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced as “snips”) are sequenced in commercial DTC DNA tests and compared to reference genome sets from people with known genetic ancestry to compute how likely the customer has ancestry from a given region. Numerical ancestry results are just a matter of statistics and the amount of reference data the company has from a given population. That’s why people who look like me that have been traditionally undersampled in ancestry test reference databases don’t get as much clarity as we wanted to. Even so, the more Black, Brown, and Asian people do ancestry tests, the more we leave a footprint on the results and reconcile with our tumultuous history.


There’s a difference between thinking of yourself as mixed because your parents are different races versus mixed due to the forced erasure of a culture you never experienced due to the enslavement of a race and erasure of a people peacefully inhabiting their land. I had been so focused on the former that I hadn’t really processed the latter.

Despite our astounding genetic similarity, so many decades of hate, discrimination, colonization, enslavement, and general mistreatment have stemmed from that 0.01% difference, and these tests have brought some of that to light. They illuminate the evidence of colonization sitting right in our genome. Many Black Americans have large amounts of European ancestry in their genome due to the rape of enslaved African women by their white male slave owners. Many Latin Americans have a combination of genetic ancestry from Spanish colonizers, Indigenous populations, and enslaved Africans for similar reasons. It can be unsettling to have numerical evidence of those horrors in your own genes. There’s a difference between thinking of yourself as mixed because your parents are different races versus mixed due to the forced erasure of a culture you never experienced due to the enslavement of a race and erasure of a people peacefully inhabiting their land. I had been so focused on the former that I hadn’t really processed the latter.

In retrospect, I am glad I did not invent this technology. Results from genetic ancestry tests have possibly changed how individuals have identified racially on the US census, revealed family secrets, and sparked conversations about the realities of our racial history. I no longer feel that I am the perfect face for these tests because I definitely did not consider the societal or personal implications of DTC DNA tests when I first became enamored by the concept.



Sunrise on the beach in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (Courtesy of Cydney Wong)

I didn’t need numbers from a DNA test to define my identity. It is determined by my trips to Chinatown in New York City with my grandfather before he prepares authentic Chinese food for us. It’s the stories of my Abuela’s family and their journey from sunny Santo Domingo to Morningside Heights. It’s the loud soca music and scent of sorrel that permeates every Guyanese family gathering. I’m thankful for everything my ancestors have passed down to me, not just my actual genes, but the cultural knowledge and stories of resilience that I carry with me.

 

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Cydney Wong

From Bowie, Md., Cydney graduated with a B.S. in Biological Engineering from MIT and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Georgia Tech and Emory University. She is currently researching into using biomechanics and bioinformatics to better understand glaucoma, a leading cause of blindness, while concurrently being named to the 2021 cohort of the Science ATL Communication Fellows Program. Cydney is a two-time national champion synchronized skater and was on an Afro-Caribbean dance team when she was in MIT.