NEW YORK — 23andMe caused Leonard Kim not one identity crisis but two.
The first came in 2016, when Kim, who was raised believing he was 100% Korean, took the company’s DNA ancestry test and learned he was almost half Japanese. Then, earlier this month, he was out for drinks with his wife and some friends near his Los Angeles home when someone questioned his Japanese ancestry.
So Kim, 34, took out his phone and consulted the 23andMe website. That’s when he discovered his ethnic identity had changed. The site that once told him he was about 40% Japanese now pegged that figure at 5%. He was, in an instant, fully Korean again.
Korea’s history with Japan is one stained with colonization, cultural oppression, and bloodshed. It took months of denial and soul-searching for Kim to accept a previously unknown Japanese lineage. Learning it was all a waste felt like existential whiplash.
“People in general, we have so much of our story that we use to define who we are, and when you have it all come together and then shatter apart, it puts you in this strange place,” Kim said. “It’s like, OK, so what’s my real identity?”
Kim’s story is not unique among the millions of people who have bought into consumer genetic testing for clues about their ancestry. Peter Cho, the head of design at a tech company, had roughly the same experience after submitting his saliva sample to 23andMe, yo-yoing from a shocking 58% Korean to 95%. Other customers have had less jarring changes, watching, for example, as small amounts of Spanish DNA have vanished to be replaced by genetic ties to Italy.
To the companies selling tests, the ever-evolving DNA ancestry reports are more of a feature than a bug. Each website is upfront about the fact that a given test result is only as accurate as the data behind it. With more data come more granular conclusions that almost inevitably tweak ancestry results. And because genetic datasets have long been overwhelmingly white, even an incremental update can lead to pendular shifts for customers of color. The same phenomenon holds true for genetic tests offering information on health or disease risk.
“We try to convey the notion that this is a living document,” said Robin Smith, head of 23andMe’s ancestry division. “It does change over time.”
It’s easy to see why more consumers might take note of the changes. Direct-to-consumer genetic testing has ballooned from a luxury niche into a viable market, with spit tubes available by the box at Walgreens and marked down for Christmas or Mother’s Day. The field’s two biggest companies, 23andMe and Ancestry, claim to have tested more than 25 million people combined.
“We try to convey the notion that this is a living document. It does change over time.”
Robin Smith, head of 23andMe’s ancestry division
The tests offer an educated scientific guess, but the way they’re marketed could easily convince customers that they amount to conclusive proof of identity, said Debbie Kennett, a genealogist who has written at length about the genetics of ancestry.
One 23andMe commercial follows a tourist on what appears to be a personal genetic sojourn, trekking around the globe as her DNA relation to each region — 29% East Asian, 3% Scandinavian — flashes on the screen. (The company calls this “heritage travel” and just partnered with Airbnb to promote it.) Another ad from Ancestry features a man named Kyle discovering his long-assumed German lineage is instead linked to the British Isles, prompting a costume change from lederhosen to a kilt.
“I think the way the tests are marketed is misleading, because people are led to believe they’ll take a test and find out who they are or where they’re from, and that is not the way to view these results,” Kennett said.
A spokesman for Ancestry said its “testimonial ads” are based on customers’ “first-hand experience, in their words.”
The whole premise of spitting into a tube and learning, say, that you are French or Colombian is inherently fraught, said Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at NYU School of Medicine. DNA is science, yes, but ethnicity is a cultural construct, and borders are political ones. To blur the lines therein is to invite trouble, he said.
“This idea that you are your genes is just false,” Caplan said. “Your genes really don’t carry racial, ethnic, and cultural markers. We do that. We divide them up. So there’s always been an underlying suspicion on my part that there’s more culture than biology in these [ancestry] reports.”
Smith, from 23andMe, said the company is mindful of the distinction between genetics and identity, both in its marketing and in how it presents test results. Each of the company’s database updates is accompanied by a blog post explaining what it does and doesn’t mean for customers, he said.
“The bedrock for us has always been the science,” Smith said. “We try to fixate on what does the DNA tell us. We’re clear up front that DNA is not identity. DNA is not culture.”
For some customers, that doesn’t sate the temptation to divine meaning from ancestry test results — and it doesn’t ease the sting of having those results shift under their feet.
Angelica Duke had a genealogical mystery. Her grandfather, since deceased, spent his life insisting that his mother was a lady in waiting to the queen of Spain. On the one hand, that claim clashed with the family’s Scottish heritage, and Duke’s grandfather had a habit of exaggerating. On the other, he spoke fluent Spanish, and his name, Frederic, was inexplicably lacking the K one would expect from a Scot.
It all seemed to come together two years ago when Duke’s 23andMe ancestry results revealed a small percentage of Iberian DNA, leading her family to conclude that, “OK, maybe there is some veracity to this claim,” she said.
Then, earlier this month, Duke signed into 23andMe and discovered that her ties to Spain had evaporated, in their place a connection to Italy. She knew her results had always been subject to change, and that trace amounts of DNA could never close the book on a family mystery. Still, the update was “a little bit of a slap in the face,” she said.
“It is serious,” Duke said. “It’s something people internalize, to a certain extent.”
That was the case for Kim. He works in marketing, where he gets paid to help people build their personal brands. That means encouraging them to dispense with artifice and “tell their true stories,” Kim said.
Since that night at the bar, following his own advice has grown more complicated.
“Maybe I should be trying to dissociate my connection to my heritage because I can’t trust the data,” Kim said. “Maybe I should go back to being just Leonard and not Leonard who’s a Korean or Leonard who’s a Japanese person, which is where I started before I took this test.”
An entire side of my family would like to know why our Melanesian has disappeared and which European ethnicity the commercial DNA companies have now decided our Melanesian is, as it now shows us entirely European on one test where we all previously had Melanesian. One relative who also got the Melanesian took another company DNA test, and the same percent of his DNA where he got Melanesian is being referred to as, “unassigned.” (What does that mean?) I also took another DNA test on yet another website, but it still shows it under Oceania. Also, pretty much every Gedmatch calculator shows it, but for some reason the commercial test companies are making it disappear. We also had changes of some of our European ancestry as we had pretty sizeable percentages of Iberian peninsula, which we have zero known ancestry from, and has since disappeared, which apparently must have changed into another European region. However, DNA results changing into a neighboring European region doesn’t seem that unusual, as at least they are on the same continent, whereas Melanesian comes from an isolated group of islanders from the opposite side of the globe. A lot of people like to say unusual results are just noise, but if true, it would be really nice to know how islander DNA got confused with European DNA, and what data the companies have relied on to make it suddenly disappear and convert to something European, as we’re now showing as entirely European on most commercial tests.
Thanks for setting my thoughts at rest. I am interested in connecting with an individual or institution which can enable to learn the basics in genealogy. I am planning to publish a book on the history of my Clan in Uganda and it includes family-trees going back to17th century. Best regards, ODWORI-MBOKO.
Angelica Duke’s grandfather may still be correct; that Spanish ancestor may have had Italian heritage but lived in Spain. Duke is the anglicized version of Duque. My ancestors traveled from the Indies to Europe, Canada, Australia and Latin America and we’ve reconnected with many through Ancestry and Family Search records of birth, marriage and travel going back 100 years. 23 and Me has backed that up and added a few more countries into the mix.
And the even more dramatic results- finding out the father you’ve known for 45 years really isn’t your biological father. Very confusing and a dramatic impact on “who you really are”.
I watch the commercials of fifty-sixty tear old people ‘finding’ they’re partly of some ‘other ancestry’ than they believed and getting excited for the change in their lives and I have to wonder: are the repudiating whatever they have accomplished and going off on some tangential path because of a test? All these people, without fail, are so proud to find they are of such ‘noble ancestry’ that it all becomes trite, because everyone comes from ‘noble ancestry’. What gets lost is that no matter how noble their newfound clan or tribe, they personally might still be descendants of, at best, the village idiots, or at worst, a long line of town thieves, rapists and murderers. Each of our great, great, great, great, great grandmas or grandpas might be who or whatever, but we are what we have made of ourselves.
That last sentence is both true and important, L Feld. I am quite interested in the results of my DNA ancestry, but I’m also perfectly aware that who I “am” is the result of the choices I’ve made in my life, choices shaped by the values, attitudes, and beliefs I hold.
I’m going to pass your comment along- perfect!
Quite true,my friend.Kudos,and God bless you,and Happy Veterans’ Day & Thanksgiving too.
What people don’t know is East Asian ethnic group like Japanese, Manchus and Koreans share common ancestry. They were from same offsprings just about 1500~2000 years ago not even 3,000 years. Anyone who has one of above three Northeast Asian ethnic in ancestral line, will end up somewhat related to Japanese or Korean.
That is really interesting! I’ve really wanted my husband to get tested, mainly for our son’s benefit, but I’m pretty sure he never would. (I am Asian only by marriage, by the way, so I’m sure my son would have really interesting results if he ever got tested!)
I like Leonard’s attitude. I think we put too much emphasis on nationality- when in reality we are people of the world and people of God. With that in mind we can then dispel perceptions and expectations from nationality and embrace who we truly are- ever changing, ever evolving, ever growing people and if you have the heart of God nothing else really matters.
I think what you wrote is beautiful and profound, diana. I would suggest one change to what you wrote, though: that we are “people of God.” Different cultures on this planet have different religions, and many people have no religious beliefs whatsoever. For that reason, I would suggest replacing the word “God” with the word “Love.” Hopefully, since Jesus said “God is love,” that should work for you. 🙂
I went from 13% to 49% Italian. My daughter is 35%, her Mother is 58%. Seems the original was more accurate, which begs the question…where did the “New” numbers come from and why?
I started out with DNA testing with the National Geographic Genographic Project’s very first DNA test. That was around fifteen years ago. Since then the Genographic Project has refined its DNA test twice, and I retested with them both times. I’ve also tested with five other companies. It was very clear to me from looking at the results that these companies can’t actually pin-point where your ancestors are from. They can pretty clearly get you on the correct continent, and maybe the correct region of that continent (my results for all the tests have mostly been northwestern European) but as far as reliably being able to tell me that I’m a certain percent Irish or Scandinavian or whatever, the varied results I’ve gotten from all these tests have clearly demonstrated that they can’t actually do that. Still, I’m glad that I’ve gotten this testing done, especially because of the educational materials provided by the various companies as part of their results. I’ve learned a lot about history that I did not remember from my school years. I’ve also read many of the books authored for the general public by geneticists such as Spencer Wells, David Reich, and Bryan Sykes. I am actually more interested in ancient human DNA and the stories it tells than I am in my own DNA lineage. After all, DNA can’t really tell me who I “am”; my years spent growing up in southeastern North Carolina in the 1950s and 1960s, and the places I’ve lived since then and the experiences I have had have given me my actual identity. (To clear up possible confusion, I have an Asian surname through marriage; I did not have Asian parents.)
P.S. I made a mistake when I wrote that I was first tested with the National Geographic Genographic Project around fifteen years ago. It was over fifteen years ago. I found when I did a google search that their first test was released in 2005.)
Being a Science educator, I knew they had a limited database & needed more participation to get a definitive read. I joined way back when it was running $300 or more to participate. Saved and gave kits to the last males on different branches of my Mother’s Paternal tree. Only to find out later they discarded the kits as junk, even though they said they wanted to be included. NEVER AGAIN!
I believed that minorities were not sufficiently included in the database. I knew my Paternal 5th GGGF was from Germany. We are directly related, not by slavery but marriage/blood. Our family documents legitimize our family straight down the line. We still have deeded property in trust. All 4 companies got that right. But 23&ME renaded later. Luckily his tombstone still stands & documents the facts we were taught.
They still haven’t gotten my Maternal GGrandmother correct. It was her husband that was a descendant of slaves.
He told the story of how the Hairston’s of Virginia forced slaves to walk to Mississippi to develop additional plantations. It was a brutal time. Even my Maternal GGGrandmothers stories brought tears to my Grandmother’s her eyes. My Grandmother stopped talking about her Family when I was 6/7. My Mother said the story was told frequently when she was a child by her Grandmother & was hurtful. My GGrandmother was even listed on the DAWES List. She was a Sioux Indian. Now, I strongly dislike Myheritage/dna, they were & still are the only one that got THAT right. Ancestry.com connected me with Relatives I haven’t seen since I was a child & remembered them!
23&Me stated, according to science fact that I am DARK SKINNED & denied the fact that I as a child & adult was considered ‘HIGH YELLOW’.I explained I was beat up EVERY DAY AFTER UNTIL 7th grade because of my skin color. Called names until I went to college. 23&Me wouldn’t back down! Pictures are not proof! But I found more of my Father’s family there.
WHAT’S SO NEAT…AS THEY LEARN MORE, THEY SEND YOU UPDATES. Some possible family members disappeared BUT some reconnected when they found out their families true history. We’re not ‘Kissing Cousins’ but the truth offered their families to have a dialogue.
I now look at it as the spice to a celebratory dinner. I look forward to updates and try to connect with the distance extensions of the family.
Family Search is the best to search those records, they have census, ship registries and birth records, plus you can filter search results by country of residence, it’s a great tool.
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