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A few months ago I ordered a DNA test kit. It arrived quickly and has been sitting on my coffee table ever since. It’s one of those things that I’ve been wanting to do ever since these sorts of tests have become widely available. I really want to pretend it’s just idle curiosity, yet after it arrived I found that I felt some anxiety about the outcome. There are several companies which offer such tests. I decided to get the one from National Geographic, partly because it appeals to my nerdy side, but also it help me maintain a sense that this is an academic exercise. Yet it would be futile to deny the fact that a large part of my interest is related to wanting to know my ethnic background.

It sounded like an interesting idea when I ordered the test. Then suddenly, it seemed as if everything everywhere was about race, race, race, wherever I turned. I don’t know if we are have a major cultural change regarding our attitudes towards race or if it’s just one of those waves, almost like an intellectual or conversational fad, that washes through society from time to time. Suddenly, the ethnic, racial or ancestral portion of my identity wasn’t the private matter I always thought it was, but seemed to be a public question. Although no one was asking me in particular, it’s been floating in the zeitgeist.

So, now I’m sitting here waiting for an hour to elapse because I foolishly made myself a cup of coffee before sitting down to finally open the box. Inside the box there was a sleek-looking booklet with the kind of photos you expect from National Geographic about the “human story.” Well, it’s good to know that at least that part of my identity won’t change. Or maybe it will. The test might tell me I’m part Neanderthal.

Besides the glossy booklet, there’s some instructions and a consent form. The first instruction is to not eat or drink for an hour. Then you are supposed to scrape the side of your cheek with a swab, put the tip of the swab in a vial and send it back to the company. The box, the vials and the consent form all have a sticker with a code number affixed to them.

I thought it might be interesting to write about this. Since one of the reasons I wanted to do this is because I do not know what my ethnic background is, I thought it might be interesting to start writing before knowing the answer. According to the instructions, it can take ten weeks for the results. During that time, I might do a series of posts about race, ethnicity and identity with this particular context in mind.

This test looks at autosomal and mitochondrial DNA, and for men it can look at the Y-Chromosome DNA. The Y-Chromosome traces the direct paternal line whereas the mitochondrial DNA can trace the direct maternal line. This is a little bit of a disappointment for me since I have zero knowledge about my biological father. The direct maternal line is one of the few things I currently know. Unless oral history is incorrect, that should be traceable to England.

More on this later.