OPINION: Ancestry tests are inaccurate for POC


El Shedrick, Opinion Writer

In recent years, ancestry or DNA testing has become a popular way to determine someone’s background and family history. However, there needs to be discussion about the accuracy of these tests. Are they only accurate for white people? What about people of color? 

The DNA testing company Color Genetics offers an example of this problem. In 2018 the company released a statement saying that it will offer customers a new type of genetic testing that could inform them if they are at risk of heart attack, but this test was designed with white people in mind, meaning it is inaccurate for people of color. Because these algorithms were created with people of European descent in mind, the test is not as accurate for other groups like Black, Latino and Asian Americans. 

Another example of this is well represented by Sigrid Johnson. She was a Black woman, but a DNA test said she was not. Even though she knew she was half Black and half Italian, she was surprised to find her DNA results revealed only 2.978% African. It turns out the company analyzing her DNA focuses on forensic genetics and legal paternity tests, which only examine some segments of DNA. When Johnson took another DNA test from a different company years later, she wasrelieved to find that she is of African descent. However, more than a third of her ancestry was marked as low confidence, meaning her DNA did not match with the companies data sets sufficiently. This is because the companies reference sets are mostly European, so there was not much to go off of. 

It is very important to acknowledge the disparity existing between people of color and white people within ancestry testing, but more important is addressing this issue. So, what can companies do to address such racial inequity? 

The first and arguably most important thing companies can do is to build a diverse team. In 23andMe’s statement last week, Anne Wojcicki said she was “ashamed to say I do not have a single Black employee who is at director level or above.” This sends a message to potential customers of color that they are not represented in the company. The next thing that companies can do is be transparent and demonstrate why genetics have value. Minority groups have a history of being betrayed by medical researchers in the past, which is why being transparent about what data is being used for is extremely important.

Recruiting underrepresented populations to enroll in research is also another important step that needs to be taken. Projects to include underrepresented populations are helpful but have only made a dent in the issue. Compensating people for their data could be a way to increase participation in research, but this is tricky because it needs to be done in a way not viewed as coercive and is approved by institutional review boards. These are not concrete solutions to this disparity, but they do offer a place to start for increasing the accuracy of ancestry tests for people of color. 

Why is this important? At App State, the demographics show the lack of diversity present on campus. According to the most recent data, Black students only make up about 5.9% of total enrollment, and Latinx 8.1%. When talking about important subjects like family history and background, it can be very easy to center oneself in a situation and assume that something like an ancestry test would provide answers for anyone seeking them out. However, it is important to recognize that this does not apply to everyone, and bring attention to an issue like this that under-represented groups are facing. If App State wants to truly welcome diversity, an important step is making sure that diverse groups are not left out of the conversation.