Bessie Lawton, West Chester University – Ancestry DNA Tests

DNA tests are becoming more popular in our culture.

Bessie Lawton, associate professor of communication studies at West Chester University, explores why the results don’t always match the story we believe about ourselves.

Dr. Lawton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication, and her BA (Journalism) and MA (Communication Research) from the University of the Philippines. Her research interests include intercultural and interracial communication, as well as identity negotiation.

Ancestry DNA Tests


What are you and where are you from?

These questions are at the core of the popularity of personal ancestry DNA tests. Since 2006, the DNA Discussion Project has led the conversation in tackling the inconsistent biological and narrative construct of race. Using a basic protocol, we ask participants how they identify racially, then ancestry DNA test them, and when results come in, we discuss the relationship between the DNA profile and the known narrative.

We are finding that people do resist changing narratives, sometimes questioning the test and sometimes choosing to just ignore the data, saying something like, “this is my culture and I am sticking with it.”   People with all reactions do tend to share the data, posting on social media. African Americans and Whites overestimate their Native American ancestry and Whites overestimate their European ancestry. Women are more likely than men to change behaviors based on new DNA information.

In the long term this new data is shifting how we see race with reactions to unexpected data that range from shock, to excitement to disbelief, and some disappointment when results are too “boring.”

Lately, people have the option to download raw data from different labs so that they can compare results. We plan to explore reactions to the various profile options and see what these tell us.

This new scientific era offers an opportunity to develop narratives that honor our pasts and help us create new, narratives for the future. 

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