Race Underneath The Skin Spit into a tube and get in touch with your ancestors! Or not. This week we're revisiting a conversation about DNA, and what it tells us about who we are.
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Race Underneath The Skin

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Race Underneath The Skin

Race Underneath The Skin

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good you all? This is Gene. And it's that time of the year again, the time of the year when you're thinking about giving, you know, getting something nice for your moms or your uncle or your little ones or for bae. Aw, aren't you so sweet? Well, since you're in that spirit right now of giving, consider this a little nudge to give to your local public radio station. If you rock with us at CODE SWITCH, you know how often we turn to the tweets you send us and we turn them into whole segments. You know how often we respond directly to the emails that you send our way. The concerns you have, the questions you want answered - that's all the stuff we want to know, too. That's part of the mission of public radio. It's in the DNA of it - thoughtful, community-oriented journalism. So when you support your local public radio member station, it goes a long, long way to making our podcast and other podcasts like it possible. And those member stations can only do what they do because they are supported by listeners just like you. So keep showing your support for your local member stations. Go to donate.npr.org/codeswitch and give. That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch. All right, y'all, on with the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: A few months ago, Elizabeth Warren, you know, the senior senator from Massachusetts, released this video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ELIZABETH WARREN: My mother was born in eastern Oklahoma. It had been an Indian territory until just a few years earlier when it had become a state. My daddy...

DEMBY: So Senator Warren, if you don't know, if you've never seen her before, codes as a white woman. And a lot of Washington types expect her to run for the White House, and so this video was an attempt to quell a controversy over the way she has identified for a long time, as a person of Native American descent or at least partial-Native American descent. Some critics, which include both Native thinkers and writers and also a certain voluble occupant of the White House, although, you know, they are criticizing her for very different reasons, they've taken issue with the way she identifies. And so in this video in which she's trying to silence a lot of this criticism, Warren talks about the stories her family was told about their ancestry. She even submitted herself to a DNA test.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello?

WARREN: Hi. This is Elizabeth Warren. Is Dr. Bustamante in please?

CARLOS BUSTAMANTE: Hi. I'm Carlos Bustamante, and I've advised companies in the direct-to-consumer space, including ancestry.com, 23andMe and Helix. In the center of genome, we did find five segments of Native American ancestry with very high confidence, where we believe the error rate is less than one in a thousand.

WARREN: Now, the president likes to call my mom a liar. What do the facts say?

BUSTAMANTE: The facts suggest that you absolutely have a Native American ancestor in your pedigree.

DEMBY: And, of course, everything was solved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: No, it wasn't solved. Of course, it wasn't solved. That's not how this works. Warren's results read like an inkblot test for a lot of people. You know, they were either damning or affirming depending on what people already thought. A lot of that, obviously, is ideological, of course. But a big reason the tests were not so cut and dried has to do with something we talked about on a CODE SWITCH episode from a little while back because these tests conflate something scientific, that is, DNA, with something social, which is race and identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WARREN: I'm not enrolled in a tribe, and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. I understand and respect that distinction, but my family history is my family history.

DEMBY: So this week, you might be kicking it with your family and sharing some family lore, you know, telling stories about how your great-great-uncle was such and such or whatever. Y'all might even take one of these DNA tests. I don't know how y'all get down. I don't know what y'all do after, you know, you have your fruitcake or whatever. So it made sense for us to revisit that episode on DNA tests and race and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Before I took my DNA test, I thought I was Japanese, Indonesian, Indian, German...

MIKHI WOODS: I would consider myself black American, African-American.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Mexican - just that one single word.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: It's very confusing when all of your life you feel like you're one thing but then you later find out something you were something else.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: In this culture, I realized that people place a lot of importance on their ethnic background.

WOODS: A faculty actually asked me like, what was I? And I said, well, I'm black. And she was like, oh, no, your name and, like, the way you look just doesn't look black.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

It's CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And you were just listening to students from West Chester University who took part in something on campus called the DNA Discussion Project. And that last voice belongs to Mikhi Woods. We called him up to talk about his experience with the project.

DEMBY: A little bit about Mikhi - he's 21 years old. He's from south Philadelphia, like everybody who is worth knowing. And all his life, people have been telling him he looks East Asian, Polynesian, Indian, Samoan - you know, like everything but black.

WOODS: It just began to be, like, a part of, like, my life that I didn't know who I was and I didn't know, you know, what I was made of because everyone used to always question what I was made of.

MERAJI: So when Mikhi found out that his university was giving out free DNA tests to a select group of students, he was like, sign me up.

WOODS: I was just hoping to see anything, to be perfectly honest with you, because I never had a legitimate answer to anything, but it was my hope that I would see mainly African-American or African.

MERAJI: Mikhi was one of 1,200 students who applied to be part of the DNA Discussion Project, a program that's been going on for a little over a decade where students, staff and faculty at West Chester get together, take ancestry DNA tests and talk about how their results affect their understandings of race. And we're going to hear more from Mikhi later in the show.

DEMBY: So millions of people from around the world have taken these commercial DNA tests when they first became available, like in the early aughts. Some of them would cost more than $1,000. Now you can get one on sale for, like, $79.99.

MERAJI: That's more like it.

DEMBY: Yes, you know what I mean? We on a budget. So you spit into a tube and, you know, we took these ourselves. It's a lot of spit. So you spit into this tube, this vial thing, and then you send it off. And a few weeks later, the company sends you back a fact sheet that tells you, you know, you're 55 percent Southeast Asian or 45 percent French and German. It feels like every day I'm hearing some story from people who just took one and are ready to get in touch with their, like, 9 percent Neanderthal heritage.

MERAJI: I have everything but Neanderthal, I would just like to say for the record.

DEMBY: Oh, word. I mean, would you have, like, a prominent brow if you were 9 percent Neanderthal? I don't know. But, you know, very few people knew about these DNA tests back in 2006. That's when Anita Foeman started the DNA Discussion Project. She's a professor at West Chester University.

MERAJI: Can you walk us through the process, how you do this with your students?

ANITA FOEMAN: The first thing that we do is have people fill out a pre-survey, and we ask them, among other things, what they expect to find, and we ask them what would surprise them. We give them the test results - the night before seems to work best so they can process them a little bit. And then we come together, and we talk about what it means in terms of our narratives and why some stories seem to persist and why some go away.

MERAJI: Do you think that, you know, students that you've interacted with who have taken these tests who are like, I'm white, who then see after their DNA tests that they have, you know, 6 percent Sub-Saharan African in their background, do you feel like they're more willing to explore?

FOEMAN: It doesn't have to be 6 percent.

(LAUGHTER)

FOEMAN: It could be 1 percent. Oh, my God. I have a student, one fellow who had - a white kid happened to be sitting next to two African-American students when he shared his results, and he had, like, 1 or 2 percent Sub-Saharan African. And the two African-American students were going to high-five him, and you saw his discomfort.

(LAUGHTER)

FOEMAN: And it was just 2 percent. If you feel this way about 3 or 4 or 5 percent, what do you think is the experience of being black? And then it gives us an opportunity to talk about what that means. And it's funny how different people respond because we're doing some analysis of the findings. And males tend to respond differently than females. Males will say, whatever. Women will say, I'm going to do some research. There was one young woman who had - I think it was 6 percent African ancestry. And she said, there's a story there, and I'm going to find out what it is. So it's not even how much. It almost just magnifies how you already feel.

MERAJI: Anita, I know that it took you 10 years to take the test yourself.

FOEMAN: (Laughter) Are you (unintelligible) now?

MERAJI: Sorry to get personal.

(LAUGHTER)

FOEMAN: Yeah, what would Freud say? I had the 20 percent - and I think actually 25 percent European. And, you know, I had some feelings about that, and they were complicated feelings. I mean, I grew up - they said, like, you look too black. You sound too white. So there wasn't a lot of encouragement for, you know, somebody like me. I'll be 62 in September. It took me a long time to make peace with the kind of black person that I am. And then somebody throws a wrench into it.

MERAJI: Anita told us her parents are pretty fair-skinned, so she knew there must be some European ancestry in there, but that was never discussed. There were no family stories about it.

DEMBY: Yeah, and, you know, for a lot of African-Americans, that European ancestry that we have most likely stems from brutality and a very ugly history here in the states. But Anita said she felt more comfortable exploring her other results, though. She's 66 percent African, and 11 percent of her African ancestry comes from Ghana.

FOEMAN: I had been to Ghana, and, you know, you go to the door of no return.

DEMBY: Yeah.

FOEMAN: And this is the thing that just struck me in my heart - that you look out that door, and it is just chilling. I mean, this is where black people got on slave ships and left their homes and their families. And I thought, damn, probably one of my ancestors walked through that door. It still gives me a chill to talk about it.

DEMBY: It is a overwhelming experience. I'm actually tearing up thinking about that, what it was like to be in that world.

FOEMAN: Yeah, me too. It's a direct line, and it's like this is not an abstraction to me anymore.

DEMBY: Like, over the last 10 years of doing this project, what have you learned about the way people think about race in their - and identity in their own lives?

FOEMAN: Well, the science part was the first thing that really shined because, initially, this project was called science and magic. And the idea was that we would look at the science of the DNA and the magic was the narrative. Like, you create these stories that are, you know, sort of made up. But I quickly learned that, first of all, science is narrative, too. Hopefully, it's directed by the facts, but you're creating a story, you know, all the time based on those facts. The piece that surprised me is how readily people will reject the science and just say, you know, either it's wrong or I don't care or, you know, whatever. So that surprised me. But I'm also surprised by how interested a whole variety of people are in this. I really thought at the beginning that mostly African-Americans would be interested in it because of our history of slavery and because there were those kinds of gaps in our background. And I quickly discovered that it's not just black people who have gaps in their background.

MERAJI: Is there a difference in these discussions that you're having with your students about race after they take these tests versus, you know, how we discuss race in society out in the open?

FOEMAN: When we talk about race, time and time and time again, something awful has happened. Some child has been shot. So people start out with a grimace. As a person who's done a lot of diversity training, I can't tell you how many times I go into a situation with police officers or, you know, in a business setting, and they don't want me there. When I come in, and I've been talking about the DNA, people are excited. They're smiling. They want to talk about it. And I think it's a way to talk about race that's inclusive. Everybody's got DNA. And DNA doesn't have an agenda. And to the extent that our ancestors were able to bring us this far, it's sort of our responsibility to take us on in the most positive way knowing what we know and having learned from all that they lived through.

DEMBY: Anita Foeman is a professor of communication studies at West Chester University. She also runs the DNA Discussion Project along with Bessie Lawton. Thank you so much.

FOEMAN: Thank you. Take care. All the best.

MERAJI: Thanks, Anita.

DEMBY: Coming up - how do you break down your ancestry into percentages? Like, how does that work? We're going to talk to someone from 23andMe, one of the biggest companies in the DNA testing business.

MERAJI: Yep, we're going to talk about Gene's genes.

DEMBY: Oh, goody.

MERAJI: Keep listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, real quick - so our play cousins at NPR Ed, that's NPR's education team, you've heard them on the CODE SWITCH podcast before. They have some questions for y'all about how you talk to your kids about race. Like, when was the first time race as a concept or a category came up in conversation with your kids? What questions did they have? Is there anything you wish would have handled differently? And if you haven't had this conversation yet, do you have any questions about how to begin? They want to hear from you. And if you want to participate, you can tell them a story in a voice memo by emailing it to parenting@npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. And it's the time we've all been waiting for. Let's talk about your identity for once.

DEMBY: Yeah. So I don't know if the listeners know this, but I'm half Iranian and half Puerto Rican.

MERAJI: (Laughter) I knew it.

DEMBY: So as we've said before, I took the 23andMe test. A couple weeks later, they sent me this printout, which was not that surprising. I'm 91.4 percent Sub-Saharan African. The rest is a mix of other stuff - 7 percent European, 0.7 percent East Asian/Native American. And another 0.6 percent that's unassigned. That's probably, like, the beef jerky that I was eating before I took the (laughter) - spit into the vial.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: So let's break down that Sub-Saharan African stat. Eighty-eight percent of that is West African, 1.6 percent is Central and South African. So I didn't really know what that meant. So we asked Jhulianna Cintron. She's a product specialist for 23andMe. And full transparency - 23andMe has been a sponsor of NPR in the past.

Can we just look at my results really quickly? I have some questions...

JHULIANNA CINTRON: Sure.

DEMBY: ...That maybe you can help me with.

CINTRON: Of course.

DEMBY: It says that I am 91.4 percent Sub-Saharan African, and that breakdown is 88.0 percent West African, 1.6 percent Central and South African and 1.9 percent broadly Sub-Saharan African. What exactly is this telling me?

CINTRON: Yeah. So basically, what we're doing is we're assigning you a percentage based on your genetic similarity to our 31 reference populations.

DEMBY: What is a reference population?

CINTRON: What makes up one of our 31 reference populations is a data set of over 10,000 people with known ancestry. And so we assign you a percentage based on that genetic similarity, and the Sub-Saharan African is one of our broader categories. So the West African and the Central and South African are a bit more specific. With the West African, you're looking at a data set of people from various different countries, so countries like Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, and then Central and South African is just looking at that region.

DEMBY: So how does that work? I remember reading a study from a few years ago that said that Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world combined. So how could you ever have enough information to tell you with confidence that someone is from this part of Africa?

CINTRON: Yeah, no, that - you know, that's part of the research. A population won't become a reference - one of our reference populations if we're unable to detect that they're genetically similar. And like you mentioned, there are regions that, you know, have so many different populations among them that we're unable to distinguish them. So if you take a look at your results, something like British and Irish and French and German, those are grouped together because they're too genetically similar to tell them apart.

DEMBY: We were trying to figure out exactly what it is that marked someone as from the British Isles, right? Like, what is it - you're looking at this tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny bit of genetic information. Why would that be different from someone who was French and German?

CINTRON: You know, the research that we've done has shown that there are variations in the base pairs of your DNA. So when we say that we're looking at, you know, the different variants, each of them has, you know, an A, a G, a C or a T. And so it's those differences in that that allow us to determine that you're from, you know, one of those reference populations. Like I said, the variants that we look at for each population are specific to that region and it's because the research that we've conducted has shown that there are differences between the reference populations.

DEMBY: Right. I guess my question is even more elementary than that. Why are there differences between people who might be British and Irish and people who are French and German?

CINTRON: Yeah. You know, I think it just has to do with the fact that there's intermixing. There was intercontinental travel. So there are these differences in everyone's DNA in terms of where you're from.

DEMBY: Thank you so much.

CINTRON: Yeah, you're welcome.

DEMBY: Wait. So let's zoom out a little bit, Shereen...

MERAJI: Please.

DEMBY: ...'Cause during my interview with Jhulianna, I asked her, you know, if she could just explain to us where scientists draw the line around these regions.

MERAJI: Right. And 23andMe has been criticized because some of their sample sizes for groups from certain regions are really small, so it's hard to get super specific. And, you know, on another kind of similar note, we here at CODE SWITCH wondered, do modern-day geographic borders, modern-day countries, how do they align with our genetic ancestry?

DEMBY: Right, right, right.

MERAJI: Like, how does that work?

DEMBY: And so we asked them. They put us in touch with one of their researchers, Joanna Mountain. Here's what she wrote. (Reading) This is an important question that deserves attention. Simplifying, I would say that the subdivisions that show up in the genetic data, when such subdivisions do show up, rarely align with either geographical or political boundaries, creating a challenge for us scientists since we aim to use group labels that our customers will recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is a story about you. It starts with your DNA, your 23 pairs of chromosomes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: My results ended up being African, European and Asian.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I'm 26 percent Native American. I had no idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Now I know. This is me. This is who I am.

DEMBY: Twenty-six percent Native American, Shereen. Let's get into that a little bit because you spoke with an expert who says despite what these ads claim, DNA tests don't really tell you who you are and that they can be problematic in a bunch of ways, right?

MERAJI: Yeah. I spoke to this woman named Kim TallBear. She researches science, environment and technology in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Alberta in Canada. And I started by asking her to read part of the introduction to her book, which is called "Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging And The False Promise Of Genetic Science."

KIM TALLBEAR: (Reading) Housewives, retirees, professionals in their spare time, search for faded faces and long ago names, proof that their grandmother's stories are true, that there are Indians obscured in the dense foliage of the family tree. Some are meticulous researchers, genealogists who want to fill in the blanks in their ancestral histories. They combine DNA testing with online networking to find their, quote, "DNA cousins." Some have romantic visions of documenting that spiritual connection they've always felt to Native Americans.

MERAJI: In that paragraph that we had you read right there, you do talk about genetic testing. What do you think of these DNA tests?

TALLBEAR: The genetic ancestry testing industry is in large part informed by research that has gone on in academic research labs and ancient DNA labs, and I get why that's interesting. Genetics is another form of human history. It's when the scientists and those companies begin to spin these mythological tales about, you know, we all come from Africa. We're all African under the skin. Those kinds of narratives are kind of fantastical. They are informed by material evidence and genetic evidence, but they are also deeply informed by histories of race and colonialism and appropriation. And that's the part that concerns me. And I think quite often, scientists and their consumer public can't really pull apart the old-school racism that's still embedded in newer forms of genetics that seem to be very multicultural and anti-racist.

MERAJI: I know you write in your book - you have this thing that I pulled out, and I have to read it. It's (Reading) scientists who trace human migrations do not tell a story from the standpoint of those people who were encountered. They tell a story from the standpoint of those who did the encountering, those who named and ordered many thousands of peoples into undifferentiated masses of Native Americans, Africans, Asians.

I feel like this is right in line with what you were saying, and I just would love for you to talk more about what that means to you.

TALLBEAR: Africa is not the found-in-nature name of that continent. There have been many names for that land mass probably and the regions within it by humans that have been living there for millennia. There's all kinds of racist, colonial baggage that goes along with the notion of Africa. Africa gets treated like some sort of place of darkness and a place of lesser evolution. And so when contemporary living African populations get treated as if they are the ancient ancestors of people who moved out into other parts of the world, that is an idea that's inflected with racism that's making African peoples less than and less evolved. And I don't think geneticists can see that they're doing that when they spin that narrative.

MERAJI: And you think that that narrative is being almost double-downed on with these commercial genetic tests that everybody is taking, these 23andMe's and these, you know, ancestry DNA tests.

TALLBEAR: Yeah. Well, when people say - like, somebody like Spencer Wells, you know, this Nordic-looking genome scientist, you know, who worked for Genographic says we're all really African under the skin, he might think he's being anti-racist, but I mean, come on. You certainly don't suffer the kind of racism that people who identify and are identified as black would suffer. So those narratives have come out of the academic science, and they are made much more glossy and more highly advertised in the industry now - then you see this on ancestry.com. You see this on television commercials. You know, it's all over the Internet.

MERAJI: And for somebody who comes up to you and says, hey, you know, I did my Ancestry DNA test, I did my 23andMe test, and I found out that I'm actually such and such percent Native American, you know, what's your response?

TALLBEAR: If I don't know them very well and I'm never going to see them again, I just sort of smile and say oh, really? Well, which company and, you know, it would take me three hours to explain why I think that that's kind of a nonsensical thing to say.

MERAJI: Can you give us your three-hour spiel in three minutes?

TALLBEAR: (Laughter) Boiled down in three minutes.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

TALLBEAR: Let's see. I guess I talk about a couple of the problems, and I do this in a lot of my written work. There are technical problems with the tests. And so a lot of times, the scientists I talk to will say, well, when we get more data, when we get more samples, we won't have these technical problems with the tests. No. Because I've heard people say well, no, we just can't tell if your markers are Cherokee or Pequot or Lakota because we don't have enough data. You will never get enough data. Do they think that indigenous peoples throughout the Americas didn't move around, didn't trade, didn't mate and have offspring with each other? Like, we weren't just sitting in caves rubbing sticks together not going anywhere. Like, that - it seems like that's what they think.

MERAJI: So that was one part of your argument.

TALLBEAR: Yeah. The other part is I haven't actually done a full array of DNA testing on myself, but if I did and I found that I had - hey, I have 8 percent Sub-Saharan African ancestry, that would be really interesting, but how could I even begin to make any claims around that? I was raised a native girl in rural South Dakota, you know? I probably do have ancestry from some parts of the world way back that I don't know about, but why would that matter to inform who I am now, especially if I can't even name those ancestors and I can't name the people that they come from? I think that's kind of important.

MERAJI: What if you took it upon yourself to go to that part of the world, visit it, learn, immerse yourself, do you think that that is worth something? I mean, I have heard that people do this after taking these tests.

TALLBEAR: I grew up in the homeland of my ancestors, right? I cannot wrap my mind around what it would be like to be anybody else, whether to be a descendant of an immigrant or an immigrant or a descendant of an enslaved person. So I'm sure that it must be fascinating, and it might be healing. I can imagine that. What I would caution against is being such an American that one is de-animating or making less alive or less mobile the very peoples that you might want to connect with. And I think Americans of all colors are doing that. You know, when they're looking back to these other countries and making claims to belong to a people or identify with a people that they don't even know and haven't claimed them, those people have a right to claim you or not. And it may be hurtful, and it may be something you feel was stolen from you, but you alone don't get to make that decision. That is such an imperialistic attitude, and I think that's problematic.

Now that said, yeah, I can understand that finding out where your ancestors came from in some other part of the world might be healing. And I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing to do, but from my vantage point as an indigenous person, I see a whole lot of American-U.S. imperialism going on in the way people are taking these DNA tests and running around the world making claims to an identity and a people that they don't even know.

MERAJI: Kim TallBear, author of "Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging And The False Promise of Genetic Science," thank you so much for being with us on CODE SWITCH.

TALLBEAR: Thank you for having me on.

MERAJI: And, Gene, we should just note that Spencer Wells is a pretty famous geneticist. He was National Geographic's explorer in residence for 10 years for something called the Genographic Project, and he's been quoted as saying "everyone all over the world, we're literally African under the skin, separated by a mere 2,000 generations. Old-fashioned concepts of race are not only socially divisive, but scientifically wrong" - unquote. He now runs his own commercial DNA testing company.

WOODS: So now, if someone asks, like, what are you, I just say I'm black. And if they ask more, well, then, I'll give them more. I come from Africa and I come from Africa with traces of European and Western Asian, but I'm black.

DEMBY: And also a south Philadelphian. That's very important. So that was Mikhi from the top of the show. He was anxious about his results, but...

WOODS: When I first saw my results, it was honestly just like a really big sense of relief. For African, I was 66 percent. Then - so it was 23 percent European and then 11 percent Western Asian, and that makes up my identity (laughter).

MERAJI: And, Gene, Mikhi says now that he's got another piece of the puzzle, he wants to know more about his African roots.

WOODS: By taking, like, a form of pilgrimage to those places and try to see if people look like me there or not and just try to get a feel for it because at the end of the day, like that's - that's where I'm from. That's where my ancestry starts. It's my motherland.

MERAJI: It ain't about where you stay, it's about the motherland, right, Gene?

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: You know, it's funny because - so Mikhi is 66 percent Sub-Saharan African. I'm 92 percent or something like that, right? And it reminds me a little bit about what Anita Foeman was saying about magic.

MERAJI: What do you mean?

DEMBY: Well, he feels this pull - right? - to the motherland, right? And maybe because that stuff was never mysterious to me, I haven't felt that pull, even though Anita and I felt very similar things about, you know...

MERAJI: Ghana.

DEMBY: ...The door of no return, right?

MERAJI: Yeah.

DEMBY: And my biological father is from Ghana. I don't feel that thing, you know?

MERAJI: So if you don't feel those things - like, what's the story you tell about yourself? You're black American - period - that's your story?

DEMBY: Yeah, I mean - I mean, not to get all in my business.

MERAJI: It's your turn.

DEMBY: I know, right? But my father wasn't around, and so the story I tell myself is a different story. It's not - I don't feel especially tied to Ghana, right?

MERAJI: And the fact that you never quite knew your mother's ancestry, there's no interest there?

DEMBY: So I'm thinking about what you're saying. Maybe the thing is like - I come from a family of African-Americans who, on my mother's side, can trace their ancestry back up through the American South, you know, the whole Great Migration story. That's like how I understand my story. The Ghana stuff is obviously, like, true, but I don't feel it, you know what I mean? I feel like I'm from south Philly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA...

DEMBY: I feel like we're going to get tweets if we don't go out on Kendrick, so let's just say, for the purposes of covering our asses, that "DNA." is the song that's giving us life.

MERAJI: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Flow inside my DNA. I was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception, I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua's new weapon...

DEMBY: That's our show. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. We want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed, and leave us a review or rating on iTunes.

MERAJI: Five stars.

DEMBY: Yeah, five stars, of course. It helps people find the show.

MERAJI: Leah Donnella produced this episode with a little help from me and Maria Paz Gutierrez. We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido and Walter Ray Watson. Our intern is Aleli May Vuelta.

MERAJI: Steve Drummond and Sami Yenigun edited this episode.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DNA.")

LAMAR: (Rapping) Inside your DNA. Daddy probably snitched, heritage inside your DNA, backbone don't exist...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So I'm just going to give you a little nudge, a little friendly reminder, to give to your local public radio station. The way you can support CODE SWITCH and podcasts you dig like it is by going to donate.npr.org/codeswitch. That's donate.npr.org/codeswitch.

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