Special thanks to Shannon Stettner for her help with this piece.
If you’ve spent any time either watching television or on social media in the past few months, there is a high likelihood that you’ve run into a commercial, blog post, or Youtube video featuring DNA ancestry tests. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have been pushing these tests as important ways to find out about your family history. Which sounds pretty cool. However, much like Canada150, many historians find themselves incredibly frustrated by the increasing popularity of these tests. I can neither confirm nor deny that some yell incomprehensibly at the television screen whenever one of the Ancestry.com commercials comes on. Now, there are numerous articles out there explaining the scientific limitations of these tests. For instance, this recent piece on Gizmondo talks about how the results of these tests aren’t always reliable, due to the limited availability of comparative data, which alleles are being used to access ancestry, and just plain error. However, there haven’t really been any detailed discussions about the limitations of these tests from a historical perspective. So, in today’s blog post, I’m going to talk about exactly that, with a particular focus on the complicated nature of historical populations, the “science” of race, the role of white privilege, and notions of belonging and community.