Futureface: One woman's quest for belonging
‘You try on so many identity outfits. But you never really sate the desire to be a part of something'
Journalist Alex Wagner never really identified with any particular group, until one fateful day in 1993 when she recognized a face on the cover of Time Magazine: her own.
It wasn't literally her face, of course. It was a computer-generated avatar that reflected the racial makeup of the country. The story was called "The New Face of America."
The avatar reflected Wagner's own mixed-race roots.
'The New Face of America' Genetic BreakdownTime Magazine's 1993 November issue featured a computer generated woman. She was racially ambiguous, said to represent the future of the U.S.. The altered face is:
15.0 per cent Anglo-Saxon
17.5 per cent Middle Eastern
17.5 per cent African
7.5 per cent Asian
35.0 per cent Southern European
7.5 per cent Hispanic
"I looked at this image of this woman and I thought, 'that's me!'" says Wagner.
But being the "futureface" of the U.S. didn't quell her hunger to be part of something bigger. Wagner looked like she could be from anywhere, which made her feel like she was from nowhere. So, she went on a quest to answer the question: Who are my people?
Tracing her family tree back to Myanmmar and Luxembourg, Wagner investigated every lead, like a journalist. Her journey is documented in the book Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging.
What she found changed how she saw herself, her family and her people — once she found them.
Wagner fact-checked family legends told to her by her mother, who immigrated from Myanmar, and her father, who grew up in a small Iowa town.
"What I realised is that we had left out chapters of our family story. Each generation gets to construct an identity that takes parts of the old and brings in something entirely new."
At first, it was difficult to confront her mother with these truths. But Wagner says the process spurred deeper conversations about reconciling the harder parts of the past, bringing a new level of understanding to the family.
What's the deal with DNA tests?
Wagner also went down the popular path of ancestry DNA testing, quickly discovering that the results "were less than accurate." Both she, her mother and her father got surprising results that varied from test to test.
One test said she was five per cent Polynesian, another reported "traces of Scandinavian" and eight per cent Irish. It was confusing and made Wagner wonder why people put stock in the tests in the first place.
"Really why are we taking these tests, is it to learn more about ourselves? Well, if it is, maybe we should do the hard work of genealogy to know who our people were."
In the end, Wagner was "much more invested in the fabric of my community." Belonging, Wagner discovered, wasn't found with her long dead ancestors, or in the streets of Myanmar or Luxembourg.
"It dawned on me after I'd circumnavigated the globe and did every DNA test the market would allow, that we are given our community. And they are the men and women circling the globe with us for this unspecified amount of time."