DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that Ancestry.com mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.

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