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‘Something about me was taboo’ – how DNA testing forced my family to face up to my Blackness

In an extract from Georgina Lawton's forthcoming memoir non-fiction, Raceless, the author writes about the moment she found out she wasn't biologically related to her father and the nefarious side of the DNA-testing industry.

10 Jan 2021

I used to believe Mum and Dad were total opposites, but when I think about it now, they shared many characteristics and balanced each other out perfectly. If you did not know them well, you might assume they were gentle, generous, fairly reserved people whose emotional displays bordered on the stoic. 

If you knew them better, you’d realise they were also strong-willed and proud, with tempers that flared occasionally in the privacy of their homes, and a shared sense of quiet rebellion that ran through their core but which I think was largely muted after they had me and my brother. Still, we got glimpses into those parts of their personalities now and again. My mum was fun-loving in a defiant, do-what-I-want kind of way, a trait that I suspect was quickened by her restrictive Catholic upbringing. I remember seeing her anew on the nights when she seemingly ceased to be my mother, nights when I didn’t recognise this woman who commanded the attention of whole bars, singing old Irish songs with her brothers in Clare, and dancing around garden furniture at adult BBQs with her friends from the school run. On these nights, my brother and I would see our dad dial down his behaviour. He’d join in with everyone, have a laugh but he’d crack fewer jokes, he’d drink even less. He’d always keep it together so he could take care of the rest of us.

My mother and I had a generally good relationship when I was a child. She’d play ‘this little piggy went to market’ with my toes, and helped me make up a song entitled ‘Walking with my Eyes Closed’ that comprised pretty much just that line on repeat for the entirety of our 15-minute walk to school every day but would become something of a morning anthem until I became too big to need an adult chaperone. The distancing that would later strangle a part of our relationship did not exist when I could not fully comprehend the secret at the heart of us. My parents’ unity and stability almost, but not quite, extinguished many of the doubts that would later take hold of me.

“My parents’ unity and stability almost extinguished many of the doubts that would later take hold of me”

For all of his incredible characteristics, however, the topic of our difference was totally off-limits between me and my father. When I started piecing together the hidden parts of our history, when I forced myself to take a fresh look at my childhood through the lens of a grieving daughter hungry for answers, I started to pinpoint where things must have pained him. When I look back now, I can see my father’s total inability to face up to the fact that I had brown skin, where he had white. I can recognise the blank expression and the rushed, staccato answers or long pauses as both a coping mechanism and a defence tactic. He didn’t know what to do with it, the issue remained unresolved.

Whereas I have a distinct memory of my mother encouraging me to identify as white when I was nine years old, I don’t recall my dad ever doing the same. But I do remember around the same time, how Dad took me for after-school swimming lessons at our local leisure centre in Carshalton. He was given a form to fill out by the lady on reception relating to my ethnic background (remember these terms are incorrectly used and the form was used to try and infer my ‘race’). It was a dry, bright day sometime in autumn; I remember wearing my navy blue, winter uniform. My head just about grazed the top of the counter. I could see my dad, in his dark blue fleece that he wore to work every day (and rarely washed, much to the chagrin of my mother), deliberating for a split second over which box to tick before him. The biro hovered above the page before it was brought down beside a box on the right-hand side, next to a line that said: ‘Prefer not to disclose’.

‘Dad … why did you tick that?’ I asked as we headed through the barriers and up the blue-carpeted stairs to changing rooms that smelled like chlorine and burnt straight hair.

‘Because it’s none of anyone’s business,’ he replied without looking at me but holding my hand.

I don’t remember pushing him for a deeper explanation, or bringing it up again at home. But I do recall that feeling of him being there, and not being there; physically holding onto me while avoiding eye contact and the uncomfortable truth between us. I actually don’t think I ever discussed that moment with anyone in my life, but it is a memory that remains distinct and defined. What was my ethnicity? And why had my father refused to pick an option? Was I black or white, or . . . what then? Despite the colossal – and badly kept – secret written all over my body and enshrined in a family-wide silence, I had deduced that something about me was somehow taboo and definitely not up for discussion. And that was a very unsettling thing for a child to contend with, and even more unsettling still when it co-existed with an otherwise happy childhood. My racial heritage existed, clear as day, for many others around me, but at home, the reality of its impact did not – unless I drew attention to it, which I had learned did not result in any meaningful discussion.

When things did get particularly rough or confusing for me, I’d come home to see my father cooking us dinner or my mum ironing my school uniform or my brother playing with his friends in the garden, and reason that whatever worries I had paled into insignificance because I had a family and I should be grateful for that. I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the frightening possibility that I might not be related to someone, because what if that meant I had to be separated from my home? I had – almost – everything I needed.

“I had deduced that something about me was somehow taboo and definitely not up for discussion”

When I was really young and I was told off for answering back, or my mum refused to tell me where the Mini Cheddars in our house were hidden, or my dad didn’t let me win at Monopoly or Guess Who, the weight of these so-called micro-injustices would often cause me to pout, frown and let fly that well-worn retort – ‘this is the worst day of my life!’ As if my childish mind actually knew and understood back then what a bad day actually looked like – ha! If only I had known. In my childhood there was no such thing as bad days – not really – only days when I didn’t get my own way – and the perceived indignity of those moments made it feel like something truly horrific was happening. But it wasn’t. I didn’t truly realise what a bad day was until 12 May 2015 – the day Dad died of cancer. Then again, almost a year later, when I received the DNA test results that told me we weren’t father and daughter. Those two days stand out in my memory as the bleakest in my life.

When the results came through that spring, I was at the desk of my women’s magazine internship – the third I’d had since leaving university a year and a half before. I was surrounded by piles of expensive clothes, female writers tapping away on MacBooks, old covers of young, white women with gleaming teeth and perfect straight hair hanging from the walls. It was a fluffy, easy and totally incongruous setting in which to receive life-changing news about my identity. That internship had been a decent distraction, as had the two before it, all of them an attempt to mould things back into the shape of something resembling A Normal Life without my father around. Sometimes it worked, at other times everything felt futile, transient, pointless. That day, during that last demotivating stretch of the afternoon (close enough to 5 p.m. that you’re desperate to go home but not quite at the point where your boss has left yet so neither can you), I was surreptitiously scrolling through Facebook when the email landed in my inbox.

It was 4.33 p.m. on 18 March 2016, and while I’d been expecting the email, I’d be lying if I said the impact of the results didn’t initiate a near full-on breakdown, immediately.

I received a password-protected document, and after a slight internal panic that I’d forgotten my details while trying to keep cool in front of my boss, I was in. At the top of the page was my dad’s full name underneath a column entitled ‘alleged father’. Next to this was another column called ‘probability of paternity’, and beneath that was the figure: 0%.

Zero per cent? Zero. Per cent. Zero. As in . . . nothing at all.

“DNA tests are being used for nefarious ends, which indisputably hits those of minority heritage the hardest by correlating biological traits with racial or ethnic labels”

In the end, between 2016 and 2019 I took four consumer DNA tests – one sibling test, one paternity test and two ancestral composition tests with MyHeritage and Ancestry – in an attempt to shed light on my genetic story. Each one initiated a shift in how I viewed myself and my place in the world, forcing dark and dusty skeletons out of my family closet and fast-tracking those closest to me through a myriad of racial understanding checkpoints.

But these DNA tests have also left me exasperated, angry, confused, disappointed, distraught and lost. They’ve told me of my true relationship with my dad – a pill that has not only been bitter to swallow, but which nearly choked me. They’ve left me in no-man’s-land with regard to my own immediate black biological family but have connected me with so many others around the world with whom I share similar points of reference.

For many people of colour who don’t know their racial background, and those within the African diaspora whose personal histories have been marred by the trauma and highly inconvenient logistics of slavery, there exist more specific risks and complications than those related to long-lost family. Genetic ancestry DNA tests are being used for nefarious ends by insurers and government bodies, which indisputably hits those of minority heritage the hardest by correlating biological traits with racial or ethnic labels. A phenotype is an observable trait, influenced by genes as well as the environment, such as skin colour, eye shape, hair texture. Within police work, forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP) is an emerging technology that seeks to infer a person’s characteristics from their DNA in order to assist with criminal investigations. But while there are merits to this type of work, critics argue that it elevates the argument that there is a genetic basis for phenotypical differences between groups. And there is evidence that FDP is already producing results that implicate black people, or those of African descent,2 and endangering indigenous and colonised populations who are most vulnerable to the misuses of data in forensic DNA profiling.

The African-American geneticist Rick Kittles even blocked his research from being used by scientists to inform marker technology in the forensic world, explaining that he “didn’t want to help them put more black people in jail”. The misuse of our genome by institutions we didn’t even know had our data is also becoming more of an issue. In 2015, a study of 228 direct to consumer DNA tests found that 48 per cent of the companies allow genetic data to be disclosed to third parties and 25% state that they may disclose data to law enforcement agencies. 

This information is often hidden in complicated privacy agreements online. At this scale we can see that genetic ancestry and family tests aren’t just a cute Christmas gift from a rich aunt or a fun way to assuage a middle-class family’s interest in their German or Scottish lineage – in many cases, they are political kryptonite. Using DNA tests for ancestral analysis could also be helping to entrench the status of the dark and foreign ‘other’ in Western societies, inciting fear and helping ground laws that result in the denial of freedom and quality of life for minority groups.

And what it leads to is even more personal, political and poignant for the same groups whose histories have been blurred by trauma. As I already explained, the conclusions drawn in company ethnicity estimates are not always accurate and can dismantle cherished family histories, without any explanation of the limitations of the science.

“Genetic ancestry and family tests aren’t just a cute Christmas gift from a rich aunt or a fun way to assuage a middle-class family’s interest”

When I received that initial result about my dad, my whole world muted, like a film on pause. Zero per cent. I could feel the air take on a disturbing characteristic of being totally unbreathable as my lungs became pinched. I was choking at my desk, unable to see straight, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think. I closed the window and getting up super slowly because my legs were suddenly in iron casts, I walked outside to the corridor with my phone in my trembling hands. Zero per cent. How could this be?

I leaned against a large pillar in the hallway and let large salty tears fall all the way down on to the floor below. Everything slipped out of focus. What the hell was going on? I had to call my mum.

“You need to tell me right now why my DNA test results for me and Dad don’t match. It’s the same company that does Jeremy Kyle and while I find that show highly classist, I certainly trust that the results aren’t faked, so you better tell me.”

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Calm down. What test results? Why are you talking about Jeremy Kyle?”

Standing in the corridor armed with results that completely obliterated my sense of self, garbling about The Jeremy Kyle Show in a barely hushed whisper, was not how I’d planned to spend the last few weeks at this internship. (My next move was to nab an internally advertised role as a features writer, my rise to journalistic success would be swift, seamless.) While waiting in agony for the results, I’d looped in and out of email chains with representatives from the DNA lab over various complications (more on that much later) before receiving this set of results. In limbo for weeks due to said complications, I’d tried to maintain my composure at work each day and mentally prepare myself for any eventuality. But of course, somewhat predictably, a set of results that I had not predicted hit me like the weight of a sledgehammer to the skull.

In that moment in the corridor I wished so badly I could return to the past and change it all, travel back to a time when ignorance was bliss, delete my decision to take the test from the stratosphere. But I couldn’t. And now, I had to persist. One way or another, I had to peel back the layers of this secret until I got to its messy, viscous centre. And what would I find? I tried desperately to keep my voice steady and low as I told my mum about the test I had processed in secret (a dramatic outburst would have been at odds with the hallowed halls of this pristine mag where I had no friends and very few allies), but panic was rising in my throat like warm bile, and my mascara was starting to streak down my face.

“How, Mum? How has this happened?” An editor from the beauty department sauntered past on her way home, shooting a quick look in my direction.

“I don’t know, Gina . . . ” came the slow response.

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Well, I can’t understand it myself . . . there must have been a mistake, surely? I don’t know why it’s saying that about your dad. He wa—” she stopped, “He is your father.”

“Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure that you don’t know anything else?”

“I don’t know, it must be a mistake,” Mum said again, faster this time.

“We need to talk when I get home, OK? And I need to talk to the DNA company again.” Mum stayed quiet, except to agree that we would indeed talk later, and that yes, I should definitely call the lab because was I sure these things were “all above board”? I wasn’t sure. But I wasn’t sure of anything any more, I didn’t know what or who to believe.

I wiped my face as I prepared to return to my desk. Unable to comprehend the situation I was in, I thought about my mum’s tone – cryptic in its calmness. Was she in shock too?

It had to be wrong, I thought. Emboldened, and desperate, I pulled up the email again, re-reading every word beneath that column with my dad’s name and the percentage. “The comparison of the DNA profiles of Georgina Lawton and the alleged father does not support the hypothesis that James William Anthony Lawton is the biological father of Georgina Lawton. Based on testing results obtained from analysis of the DNA loci listed in the technical data, the probability of paternity is 0%.

Their words were clinical, callous in their minimalism. I read it again, and again suddenly understood that everything was forever changed. I had stepped into a different world, a new timeline in which my link to Dad by birth, biology and blood was gone, pulled from the universe forever. But, then again, it had never really existed. The similarities I’d told myself we shared, the mannerisms and features that I thought bound us together and transcended our obvious differences – they were never true. It was a fallacy, invented by my parents to protect me, and them, from addressing the truth.

This test proved that my entire life had been drenched in deceit. My dad was not mine – a simple fact others looking at our family from the outside had suggested again, and again, over the years. It was so ludicrous, so crass and just like everyone had joked about all those times. I was disappointed in all of us. No, worse than that, I was repulsed. And the worst part was, my father wasn’t even around to help us make sense of it all, to tell me whether he knew all along, to remind me that nothing would change between us. I could already feel myself losing sight of his love.

Georgina Lawton is a twenty-something journalist, travel writer and host of Audible’s DNA podcast, The Secrets In Us. She has been a weekly Guardian columnist, with her work appearing in a number of other publications. Follow her on Twitter @GeorginaLawton and Insta @georginalawton_

This edited extract was taken from Raceless: In Search of Family, Identity and Where I Belong, published by Little, Brown on 18 February 2020. Pre-order now.