Stopping The Gatekeeping: My Ancestry DNA Results

March 21, 2014  |  

Last month, I wrote about my Guyanese family for our Ancestry.com project. My article received some backlash because of its title: “We Are Not African:” How My Guyanese Family Erased Their African Identity.” I heard the quoted prefix “we are not African” while viewing a documentary called The Neo-African American, in which producers interviewed a Jamaican woman who said she and her family members were not African. Instead, she identified them by their ethnicity: Jamaican.

Her dismissal made me immediately say “what the %$#&?!?!” Besides the anger her statement generated, I, unfortunately, heard my own family members and others of Caribbean descent say the same. I also knew the source of her disengagement with African identity. Colonialism expunged African culture from slaves during slavery and after it was abolished in the British West Indies in 1834, creating generations of people who know they are black but assume they’re not “too black” (aka African).

Both of my parents stated that while they were children growing up in colonial Guyana it was considered intrusive to ask people where they were from. Therefore, people conformed to labeling each other based on physical features. In lieu of that reality, my Ancestry.com DNA results surprised me in part. I know Guyana had a large West African population during the 17th-19th centuries and our culture is infused with Nigerian and Ghanaian traditions, but I never heard about Malian culture being integrated. Also, both of my grandfathers’ are half-Amerindian but Native American ancestry didn’t show in my DNA; instead I was linked to a trace region of mid-Asia where Native Americans are believed to have migrated from several thousand years ago.

While investigating my ancestry, I had to learn to become comfortable with the limited information my family knew about their African and Amerindian ancestry. I also had to consider people migrate — a lot. A part of the migration narrative revolves around the gains and losses of leaving what you consider home. If your culture is more open to revealing personal history, but you move to a place where people are not, you will have to adjust how you communicate your migration narrative.

An essay from the PBS series, “Do You Speak American,” tackles communication under the subject of gatekeeping. Author John Fought explains that the gatekeepers in groups often erect imaginary or real barriers for the outsider based on language when judging by another stigma is not acceptable. Gatekeeping takes place among people of different ages and cultures and we have a choice in how we want to portray our heritage. Perhaps my family members will follow my lead and adjust their communication style to a more liberal manner. I, for one, am excited to learn more information about these cultures that make up my DNA for the sake of my future children who, I hope, will one day be able to fully understand their racial and cultural identity.

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