To Test or Not? Singular or Multiple Heritage? Genomic Ancestry Testing and Americans’ Racial Identity


Hochschild, Jennifer, and Maya Sen. 2015. “To Test or Not? Singular or Multiple Heritage? Genomic Ancestry Testing and Americans’ Racial Identity.” The Du Bois Review 12 (2): 321-347. Copy at

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DNA ancestry testing may seem frivolous, but it points to two crucial questions: First, what is the relationship, if any, between biology and race? Second, how much and why do people prefer clear, singular racial identities over blurred, mixed racial self-understandings, or the reverse? We posit that individuals of different racial or ethnic backgrounds will have different levels of support for this new technology. In particular, despite the history of harm caused by the biologization of race, we theorize that African Americans will be receptive to the use of DNA ancestry testing because conventional genealogical searches for ancestral roots are mostly unavailable to them. This “broken chain” theory leads to two hypotheses, of disproportionately high Black interest in DNA ancestry testing—thus an implicit acceptance of a link between biology and race—and high acceptance among Blacks of multiple heritages despite a preference for evidence of roots in Africa.

To test these hypotheses, we analyze two databases of U.S. newspaper articles, one with almost 6,000 items and a second with 700. We also analyze two new public opinion surveys of nationally representative samples of adult Americans. Most of the evidence comes from the second survey, which uses vignettes to obtain views about varied results of DNA ancestry testing. We find that the media increasingly report on the links between genetic inheritance and race, and emphasize singular racial ancestry more than multiple heritages. The surveys show, consistent with our theory, that Blacks (and Hispanics, to some degree) are especially receptive to DNA ancestry testing, and are pleased with not only a finding of group singularity but also a finding of multiple points of origin. Qualitative readings of media reports illuminate some of the reasons behind these survey findings. We conclude with a brief discussion of the broader importance of DNA ancestry testing. 

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Last updated on 10/08/2018