Can you use your DNA to "buy" racial identity?

The Daily Bruin, a UCLA newspaper, writes about some interesting motives for DNA testing: the attempt to identify yourself--or perhaps your children--as members of a particular ethnic group for the purpose of getting past racial quotas for college entry, for financial aid, or for tapping into some of the money generated from American Inidan casinos. Some are even trying to claim Israeli citizenship on the basis of a genetic test result.

The article chides those who chose this path:

Systems of racial preference are praiseworthy but plagued by the fact that racial identity is impossible to quantify. Manipulation of such systems is not only shameless, it also undermines them. And to further complicate the issue, these ethnic ancestry tests have a margin of error that scientists say can be misleading.

Science should be used for the pursuit of knowledge, not personal advancement within any possible loophole. It would be naive to expect people to ignore opportunities that would give them better pay or entrance into a better school; on the other hand, corporate employers and college admissions officials can't do anything about it without taking on the hazy task of assigning a numerical value to that which makes someone a certain race.

The very idea that one can test out of, or into, belonging to a particular race is fundamentally flawed. These genetic tests are applying an absolute science to something that is far too personal to be measured empirically. In addition, if you're at the point where you're taking a test to see if you are a member of a specific race, then you probably don't identify with that race in the first place.

Moreover, testing might be able to create a balanced genetic breakdown of all students in an incoming class, but it does not guarantee a diversity of ideas and perspectives. Isn't that the purpose of having individuals from different ethnic backgrounds, especially in an academic setting?

While working on an issue about modern tribal members for a magazine called Oregon's Future (, I learned that tribes in the Northwest do not consider a person a tribal member on the basis of a DNA test alone--cultural connections are key. Some tribes even require that you live on tribal land.

They conclude:

This latest case of DNA testing highlights the problem of defining race.

Increasingly in the United States, race is a set of experiences with which one identifies, not a matter of fractional ancestries.

Marie Godfrey, PhD

Genetizen's blog | printer-friendly version