Out in the Open

'I just see myself as me': What DNA tests don't say about who you are

Olivia Bowden knows that her mom's an Indian immigrant to Canada and that her dad's Caucasian. She also knows that DNA, which is scientific, should not be conflated with race, a social category. And yet, as a biracial woman who's struggled with belonging, she still wanted to take a DNA test to affirm who she is.

Olivia Bowden took a DNA test to verify her race, even though she knew she was half-Indian, half-Caucasian

Olivia Bowden took a DNA test to get answers about her race, only to feel ‘ashamed’ for seeking outside validation of her own identity. (Vanessa Paxton)
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This story was originally published on May 31, 2019.

When Olivia Bowden sent her saliva away for DNA testing, she already knew what the results would be. She's of Indian ancestry on her mother's side and European on her father's.

"I think it was more confirmation to myself that I am who I say I am," she told Out in the Open host Piya Chattopadhyay.

The Toronto woman's identity had long been more a concern for others than herself. When she waited tables while in high school, customers would try guessing her ethnicity.

"I don't really know how I present," said the 25-year-old. "I just see myself as me. I wouldn't say I'm white, and I wouldn't say I'm Indian either."

She felt no doubt about her cultural belonging. She grew up with her mother's traditions: the Indian cooking, the Bollywood movies, the Hindu practices.

But outside her home, she felt she had to prove her identity. She'd walk through an Indian grocery store worried others would see her has "just a white girl who wandered in."

People 'cherry pick' from their DNA results

Olivia Bowden grew up feeling like she always had to prove her identity to others. (Submitted by Olivia Bowden)

Despite the popularity of genetic testing, knowing your own DNA only goes so far in settling uncertainty about who you are.

A study published last year by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that many people who use DNA testing services tend to "cherry pick" the results, embracing some elements of their genetic heritage while disregarding others.

"We don't just tend to believe in the science and believe [its] proof of racial or ethnic origins," the study's lead author Wendy Roth told host Gloria Macarenko on CBC Vancouver's On the Coast in June 2018.

"We tend to defer to our social interests — what we like, what sounds positive, what we want to be, and how we think others will see us," she added.

"It really proves that so much of the idea of race and ethnicity is social rather than genetic."

The testing is also imperfect. Charlsie Agro of CBC Television's Marketplace and her twin sister, Carly, bought home kits from AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA, and mailed their samples to each company for analysis.

Despite having virtually identical DNA, the twins did not receive matching results from any of the companies.

Genetic makeup 'doesn't change who I am'

As a biracial woman who's struggled with belonging, she wanted to take a DNA test to affirm who she is. (Submitted by Olivia Bowden)

When Bowden's DNA test results came back, they told her exactly what she'd expected they would: her ancestry was half Indian and half European.

"I felt relieved that the test confirmed to me that I am who I think I am," she said. "And then I was ashamed that I needed this test to confirm that to me."

She now sees her genetic makeup as a much less significant determinant of her identity.

"Whatever way the percentage moves, it doesn't change who I am," she said.

"The better thing to do is really just to have conversations with your family about belonging and who you are, and you'll probably get the answers you need from that."


With files from CBC News. This story appears in the Out in the Open episode, "Put to the Test".

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