In this article by the Washington Post, we are introduced to Alice Collins Plebuch and her journey of self-discovery. After sending her DNA to an ancestry website and receiving some rather unexpected news (the fact that she has about 50% Jewish ancestry), she spends the next few months coming through her family records looking for answers on this matter. She eventually finds out, through the help of a virtual stranger, that her formerly-Irish, currently-Jewish father was actually switched at birth with another man at the hospital. In all honesty, having reviewed this article, I have to admit I’m rather unmoved. That’s not to say that I consider any of what Collins and her family did wrong, but I just have a hard time sympathizing with (majority white) people who are basically searching for a fun way to say they’re “minorities, too!” In my experience, things like this tend to be a majority-white thing; very rarely will you find a person whose ancestors were formerly enslaved looking to find out exactly what part of their home continent they were taken from.
While there was obviously more to it in this story, I think most of the time ancestry tests tend to be a fun, meaningless endeavor for privileged people to show off the results of to their friends. In considering this story and others like it, I think of a similar experience I had with my dad. Growing up, the story I was always told by him on my mom was that we were some combination of Irish, German, and Scandinavian. This notion would be changed sometime during high school, though, when I was helping one of my friends research Jewish surnames he could give one of the characters he was creating. After combing through Google for a website that would tell us some of the most common Jewish surnames, I was surprised to find my own last name as one of the top results on the page. I remember asking my dad about the experience later that day and learning that my ancestors on his side of the family were German and Russian Mennonites, who had changed their name from Goren or Goetze; a common Jewish surname. In hearing this, he also told me about him and his 100% Jewish friend getting constantly confused for another when traveling abroad (they both were 5’4, dark-haired, with big ears and gapped teeth, after all).
Now, does this news in any way change my identity as a white man,? No; it absolutely does not. I think it’s pretty contrived to pass yourself off as a member of an ethnic group for which you have no cultural identity. Furthermore, I think it’s weird to pass off another group’s shared years of suffering and discrimination as a fun tidbit you get to tell your friends at a party. For difficult-to-categorize, white-adjacent groups like the Irish, and many Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, I think one’s level of success in passing as white should play a large role in their ability to relate to the struggle of their ancestors. Having heard so many stories in this class about the unimaginable struggles people have had to go through to get to this country, it is difficult to think that some people several generations down the line might try to use their stories as a genetic parlor trick.