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Talking about race is hard. West Chester University researchers think DNA tests can make it easier.

The DNA Discussion Project studies students’ responses to the results of DNA-based ancestry tests and how those results can shift personal narratives and shape their relationships to others.

Bessie Lawton, left, and Anita Foeman, professors at West Chester University, recently wrote a book about how DNA test results can shape people's identities and personal narratives, based on their ongoing research project with WCU students.  They are shown on the campus of West Chester University on Aug. 31, 2021.
Bessie Lawton, left, and Anita Foeman, professors at West Chester University, recently wrote a book about how DNA test results can shape people's identities and personal narratives, based on their ongoing research project with WCU students. They are shown on the campus of West Chester University on Aug. 31, 2021.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

As a child, Kim Wederfoort was fixated on the mystery of her family’s origins. “I thought about it probably more often than a person should,” said Wederfoort, 24.

As a mixed-race person, she regularly fielded questions from classmates about where she got her complexion or curly hair. Her initial answer, “I’m from New Jersey,” was rarely satisfactory, forcing her to map out her family’s origins: a mother who was Dutch and Indonesian by way of Suriname, a father from Curacao whose blend of Spanish, Dutch, and Indian ancestries reflected the colonial history of the Caribbean.

It was no surprise, then, that during freshman orientation at West Chester University in 2015, one presentation in particular grabbed her attention: a call for volunteers for the DNA Discussion Project. The initiative, run by Anita Foeman and Bessie Lawton, professors of communication and media at West Chester University, studies students’ responses to the results of DNA-based ancestry tests and how those results can shift personal narratives and shape their relationships to others.

Since the project’s inception in 2006, more than 3,000 students have participated, and their experiences form the backbone of Foeman and Lawton’s recent book, Who am I?: Identity in the Age of Consumer DNA Testing.

For many, DNA test results change “what is believable and what’s not believable,” Foeman said. “You have a different data point, and it changes the conversation.”

They hope their research will make it easier to have conversations about race, especially at a time when many companies are devoting more resources to diversity training.

Lawton, whose interest lies in intercultural communication, said DNA tests offer a way to level the playing field in conversations about diversity. “Everybody’s DNA has gone through the same process of analysis,” Lawton said.

Foeman said that the emotional experience of learning where you came from or discovering family secrets could create bonds between people.

DNA also offers a framework to talk about multiracial identities, which Lawton noticed was missing from the way race was traditionally handled on forms where people have to choose a single option.

Telling family narratives with DNA

Ancestry DNA tests break down the fraction of a person’s DNA that resembles genomes from different parts of the world. Although more than 99% of the human genome is shared between people, the remaining pieces can be traced back through generations to ancestors hailing from a particular region. Ancestors from different places lead to a combination of genetic markers.

Direct-to-consumer genetic tests don’t sequence the entire genome, but instead skim it, like a person tasked with reading a long text quickly. By reading less than 0.05% of the three billion pieces of the genome, the test can focus on parts that differ between ancestries and quickly compare each person’s genetic sequence to a database of people from around the world.

As this database grows over the years, and technology improves, the test gets more precise: For example, early tests used to tell Lawton that she was from Asia. Now, they can discern that she is Filipino and Chinese, even pinpoint the specific part of China.

For the DNA Discussion Project, volunteers fill out a survey about their self-perceived race and attitudes about it before taking a test from AncestryDNA. The survey includes open-ended questions about how people identify racially, how peers identify them, gaps in personal narratives, and how they felt about learning new information from their DNA.

Although there are more than 14,000 students at West Chester University, more than three-quarters are white, motivating the researchers to actively recruit a more diverse cohort.

Student volunteers then spit into a tube and send off their sample. Six weeks later, they receive an annotated map alongside a pie chart breaking down how much of their ancestry is attributed to each region.

When Foeman first started the project 15 years ago, it was hard to find labs that could run DNA tests that weren’t forensic. The tests were slow and expensive. Foeman’s first grant of $1,500 bought just four DNA tests; now, direct-to-consumer tests are less than $100.

After getting their results, students then take another survey and participate in a series of workshops and discussions.

The researchers have seen only a handful of people who had a single ancestry composing 100% of their pie chart, although many students assume that could happen before taking the test. In a study of 45 participants, more than three-quarters were surprised by their results. But still, more than half were positive about what they had learned.

When Wederfoort received her DNA test results, she was “absolutely blown away.”

“I didn’t expect the map to be so diverse and so colorful,” she said. Her big surprise? The test revealed that she had African ancestry. None of her relatives could explain it.

Lawton thought that adding scientific data to family narratives would change people’s perceptions. But survey results showed that often wasn’t the case. “Identity negotiation is a product of so many different things. It’s not just DNA samples,” Lawton said.

One student was East Asian but adopted into a German family. Even after the DNA test placed her ancestry in East Asia, she continued to identify as German. “Her lived experience was a stronger factor in identification than this paper,” Lawton said.

Every family has a narrative, Foeman said, and it often implicitly carries a genetic story with it. DNA tests don’t always make these narratives more stable.

Foeman found that people of color were more moved by DNA tests to reshape their stories, but white people were not. In fact, white participants were more likely to try to explain away DNA test results that suggested non-white ancestry. “The reality is they don’t have anything to gain by being multiracial,” Foeman said. “People are going to try to stick to the best narratives they can get.”

‘Normalize conversations about race’

Wederfoort doesn’t see herself any differently now that she knows more about her ancestry, but she does feel empowered to make different choices. For example, she now feels more comfortable wearing a scarf to bed to protect her natural hair, a common practice among people with African ancestry.

She also believes that she can bond with other multiracial people more easily now that she has a clearer picture of her own heritage. Foeman saw this kind of camaraderie forming as soon as results were shared in the discussion sessions, with high fives exchanged between students who shared unexpected ancestries.

That’s why they see a role for DNA tests in diversity training. DNA tests that look for markers of health conditions, distinct from the ancestry tests that the DNA Discussion Project uses, have already begun to appear in the workplace as part of the benefits offered by Philadelphia-area employers such as Jefferson Health and the Teamsters.

In Lawton’s research, she noticed that diversity training often seems to deepen divisions between people by enforcing roles of minority or majority. But psychologists suggested that the more effective approach to reduce prejudice was to increase contact between groups and emphasize commonalities. A forum such as the one created in the DNA Discussion Project, which has people from different backgrounds coming together to discuss the results of a test that they all took, could be a more effective strategy, she said.

“Let’s start our conversation by emphasizing how similar we are, and then we’re 1% different? Let’s deal with that,” Lawton said. “But first, let’s understand that we are all important parts of this institution.”

As Foeman enters her final year at West Chester, she and Lawton plan to recruit 300 incoming freshmen to take DNA tests and participate in the last iteration of the project that she will lead.

“The goal is really to normalize a conversation about race and for West Chester to be a place where we talk about race in a functional, positive way whenever and wherever it comes up,” Foeman said.

Foeman remembers the very first round of surveys she administered solicited such responses as “I don’t know what I’ll do if I find that I have African ancestry.” But learning about the diversity in their background can make them realize they aren’t as different from others, she said.

Now, when people ask Wederfoort where she’s from, she has a clear answer: She’s African American and Asian, the two largest pieces of her ancestry pie. She hasn’t always been in close contact with her father, but they met up recently and she learned that he, too, had taken a DNA test and found a large proportion of African ancestry.

Foeman and Lawton have also taken direct-to-consumer DNA tests. In Foeman’s results — 23% European ancestry, a tiny piece of Asian ancestry, and the rest from the Gold Coast of Africa — she sees her story as one shared by millions of Black Americans: people abducted from the Gold Coast, enslaved on plantations in the South, and the eventual Great Migration of freedmen to the North.

When she first saw these results, she had an instant flashback to a trip she took to Ghana, where she visited the Door of No Return, a gate that enslaved Africans were forced through to board ships to the Americas.

“Some of my relatives probably walked through that door, and that’s pretty stunning,” Foeman said. “We’re looking at DNA but it just splays out into every aspect of human experience.”

The Future of Work is produced with support from the William Penn Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project’s donors.