In 2014, I learned that I had “0.4% trace ancestry”.
About two years later, “trace ancestry” was identified as Nigerian.
I shook my head in disbelief. Which one of my known ancestors contributed African DNA in my genome?
With what I had researched of my family history, however, slavery didn’t seem right. None of my ancestors, not even in colonial times, were involved in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Living up North in Buffalo, New York, near the Canadian border, I thought I was as far away from slavery as possible. I tried to convince myself there were no slaves in my lineage.
I felt repulsed at the thought of slavery when I learned about it in high school and college. As college students, we watched the 1977 TV miniseries Roots, based on the book by Alex Haley, in the dorm’s lounge. I watched one episode at home with my parents. In 1984, for the 100-year-anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s 1894 novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, a film adaptation of the book was aired on PBS, American Public Broadcasting System. Both of these films gave me a sense of the suffering endured by enslaved people in my country’s past.
But how did American Slavery in the United States fit into my ancestry?
Could I be jumping to conclusions? Maybe there were couples who met and fell in love. Maybe this isn’t as bad as it seems.
I simply put it the back of my mind. I’d research my African ancestry sometime in the future.
Updated DNA Results
The future arrived in July 2022 when an upgrade chip for a more detailed analysis was offered by 23andMe.com. I paid for the upgrade. The results were posted in my online account in August of 2022, but I didn’t retrieve the results until October. I didn’t fully comprehend the new breakdowns until January 2023.
My updated DNA analysis tweaked my Germanic and Polish European percentages, Scots-Irish and English percentages. The following are new ethnicities:
- 3.8% Spanish and Portuguese DNA
- My previous 0.4% Nigerian disappeared and four smaller ancestries were detected:
- 0.2% unassigned (unidentified)
- 0.3% Levantine (coastal Mediterranean Middle Eastern countries)
- 0.3% North African
- 0.2% Senegambian and Guinean.
These percentages represented the first time an individual entered my genome from a particular ethnicity. The total of these four small percentages adds up to 1.0%.
I’ve Been White All of My Life – I Don’t Know How to be Part African
This is an unexpected, disorienting, shock. I’ve been white all of my life. I don’t know how to be part African. What is the best way to talk about this? Do I say I’m mixed race? But there’s no genetic basis for socially-constructed racial categories.
When I stumble with my words sharing this news, most white people are positive. Some reciprocate with stories of their own unexpected DNA results from Africa or Western Asia that changed their perspective of their own diverse ethnic background. Mixed-race people and interracial couples are delighted. Black women and men smile brightly as they raise a hand giving me welcoming fist bumps. One black woman said with a smile, “Hi Sis!”
A few people see my fear of rejection. They comfort me with words of kindness, “Don’t worry what others think. If they reject you, you don’t need them anyway!”
Other people are dismissive. One smug white woman flippantly replied, “We ALL came from Africa thousands of years ago.”
Some people are angry. Others go straight into public shaming.
On January 22, 2023, I attended a live, national, online Zoom hour-long discussion on race with about 60 people. It was a follow-up to an in-person, day-long seminar in Buffalo, New York on November 5, 2022 with Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and Nanette Massey, a local African American lecturer on diversity, equity, and inclusion. DiAngelo and Massey were together again, on Zoom, on a chilly Sunday afternoon for a follow-up meeting titled “Ask Me Anything”.
Three hours prior to the meeting, Massey sent out an email to paid registered participants asking us to send in our questions for review. In her opening remarks, Massey told the attendees that she and DiAngelo chose a specific emailed question to begin the session. The way she avoided stating the topic outright, and the tension in her voice, I knew it was my topic that hit a nerve. She signaled for DiAngelo to take the lead.
DiAngelo announced the subject of the first email was a white person discovering small percentages of African DNA in their genome. She said she wouldn’t call out the name of the person who submitted the question, but if that person wanted to identify herself, she could.
She was clearly baiting me.
I sat in silent horror. My anxiety levels rose as she glared at me through her computer’s camera. Within seconds, I was in full-blown PTSD response, frozen in place with heart pounding and blood pressure rising. I sat very still, aware that my face was seen by 60 people. I took in a deep breath.
DiAngelo authoritatively snapped at me, “You’re not bi-racial. The percentages of African DNA in your genome are so small, it’s miniscule and not relevant.”
I felt red-hot anger at her insult and the assumption that I committed a grave offence against black people. Neither one of these women understood my question.
What harm did I cause by asking what terms do I use to talk about this? If they had opened up the discussion to the rest of the participants, these women might have heard other white people share their DNA revelations, too. I was singled out for committing a perceived offense. I soon witnessed I wouldn’t be the only white person harassed by these co-facilitators.
What followed next were harsher condemnations directed at other attendees who were grilled to admit their racism. We were lectured to, demeaned, yelled at, and told we must fess-up to our racism and pledge to be “less racist.” Nanette Massey sharply warned us white people to “show up, shut up, receive and affirm, listen and validate” what blacks have to say, yet, it was clear that neither Massey nor DiAngelo showed the same courtesy to the white participants. We were already committed to work for improved race relationships; otherwise, we wouldn’t have signed up. We were made to feel guilty for being born white and raised in a culture of racism.
They Missed My Point Entirely
Maybe these women thought that I’m bragging about my less than 1% African DNA, carrying it around like a badge of honor or trophy. Maybe they thought I wanted to be seen as African American so I could start acting black and talking black and wear my hair in corn rows. Maybe these women thought I’m using my DNA as a status symbol to gain street cred, or I want reparation money.
They missed my point entirely. I don’t want street cred. I’m not bragging. I’m not wearing my African DNA as a badge, trophy, or status symbol. I’m not changing my personality to act and talk black or wear my hair in corn rows. I don’t want reparation money. I won’t be checking the African American box for my race on questionnaires. I’m not applying for scholarships under my newly discovered African ancestry. And I’m not wearing Black Face.
I’m Naming, Claiming, and Owning Precisely What’s in My DNA
On the contrary, I’m naming, claiming, and owning precisely what’s in my DNA. Because it’s there, in my genome, I am part West African and North African. I am bi-racial. I am part Spanish and part Portuguese. I am part Middle Eastern. No amount of indignant reaction directed at me will change these facts.
These two women don’t want me to talk about the small percentages of North African and West African DNA in my genome. Why not?
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. calmly and compassionately addresses hidden African DNA with his white guests on his PBS TV (Public Broadcasting System Television) show Finding Your Roots. Dr. Gates encourages open and honest discussion about white people learning that they have African DNA in their genome. He says, (I’m paraphrasing): “The percentage number of 1% or less of African DNA is very significant. This DNA came from one person, the one person who brought African ethnicity into your genome. How does this make you feel?”
Unlike some white people who aren’t ready to accept what’s in their DNA, I’m facing ugly truths as to why African DNA is in my European white genome.
I’m also an adoptee whose origins were denied to me by social custom and by law. For me, this is a matter of personal identity.
Read Up on DiAngelo Before Attending Her Workshops
When I read online reviews of DiAngelo’s two books, I read many scathing reviews of DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility, and its sequel, Nice Racism, and of her seminars.
One of the reviewers gave an explanation of a term I hadn’t heard of before.
This reviewer initially praised the book White Fragility for naming the racist behaviors white people do to black people, but then, the reviewer pointed out major flaws in DiAngelo’s thinking. She said that Robin DiAngelo doesn’t explain the differences between ADOS – American Descendants of Slavery and BIPOC – Bi-Racial People of Color – who are recent immigrants to America [or BIPOC adopted people who were brought to America by their adoptive parents]. By lumping these two groups of people together, DiAngelo completely erases the specific American history that resulted in the social and economic conditions of oppression and discrimination experienced by ADOS blacks in America today. Their enslaved ancestors have been in America for 200 to 400 years. BIPOC people don’t experience the same racism that ADOS black people experience.
If I had done my internet research homework on Robin DiAngelo’s reputation for verbally attacking white people to force them to admit they are racist, I would never had bought her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, nor would I have paid to attend her first seminar ($40), nor paid to attend the follow-up Zoom discussion ($5).
To her credit, DiAngelo initially does a great job engaging her audiences with a 6-hour presentation based on her book. The seminar I attended in November 2022 in Buffalo, New York was co-led by Nanette Massey, a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion workshop facilitator. Both women engaged participants in lively, thoughtful dialogue with introspective exercises, all the while using humor. At the end, they posed for photos with participants. DiAngelo chatted with fans and signed her books.
These are the hooks used to lure unsuspecting progressive white people in to her further seminars, with admission fees, of course. Nanette Massey organized these workshops in Buffalo. DiAngelo travels around the country, with her workshops hosted by other diversity co-facilitators.
Once you’ve bought into the “cult” (as author John McWhorter calls it and I agree), it is in the follow-up session that the niceties disappear, revealing the cult leader’s real intention – with or without a secondary co-facilitator. Grilling participants as to what we learned from the first 6-hour session, demanding to know what racist slights we’ve committed in the recent past, and what we are doing today that is racist is the attack mode not seen in the first session. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes and ears the vicious verbal attacks, demanding answers, and yelling at participants to admit their racist actions. I certainly won’t give Robin DiAngelo or Nanette Massey a second chance to publicly humiliate me for the purpose of telling me I am racist when I asked a sincere question. I don’t want to witness them barrage others into submission.
My advice to rational thinkers is to read the reviews posted on DiAngelo’s books’ Amazon page and other outlets online, and read the many critical essays of not only the books White Fragility, and Nice Racism, but spot-on assessments of Robin DiAngelo herself.
Watch Out for Nanette Massey, Too
I may be Nanette Massey’s first public critic as I haven’t found any published critical essays of her work.
At the end of her 6-hour seminar with Robin DiAngelo in November 2022 in Buffalo, New York, I asked Nanette how she learned to give these workshops, what were her credentials? Instead of answering me like anyone who has just given a presentation should be open to answer such questions, she sat there with a tight, forced smile on her face, rolling her eyes at me. Her evasive refusal to answer my question is a misguided response to her message to white people: “Don’t ask blacks to answer your questions because we aren’t responsible to educate you”.
Ok, from a race perspective, I can see that point. Black people don’t have to explain race issues to white people.
But that wasn’t my question to her. I hadn’t heard of diversity, equity, and inclusion workshops until that day, so I was genuinely interested as to the training needed to conduct these workshops. My intention wasn’t to insult her. Nanette certainly doesn’t know how to return professional courtesy. She doesn’t give common decency to session participants.
I am a social worker by profession and had a professional interest in Nanette’s training. Over the years, I’ve been to many trainings outside of college: teens acting out, teen pregnancy and parenting, mental health, suicide prevention counseling, homelessness, food insecurity, adoption psychology, adoption laws, and adoption reform. With my experiences as both a conference attendee and a presenter at adoption reform conferences and seminars for adoptees, natural parents, adoptive parents, social workers and psychologists, I’m familiar with open questions and answers between presenters and attendees, sharing our life experiences, educational backgrounds, and qualifications. Yes, adoption reform conferences are attended by whites and blacks and other BIPOC folks who treat each other with respect by answering questions without racial indignation.
Nanette’s silent treatment with eye rolls and staring back at me with a smirk on her face leaves me to read her mind, as if I should automatically know what I “did wrong”. She gave me the impression that she is conceited, and misguided. Instead of hearing what I asked her, she immediately blocked out the context of my words. She was insulted that I dare ask her a question and refused to treat me like a human being. Nanette saw me as a white women and not as a person.
And yet, that is exactly what she demands of white people: “Just to talk to blacks like we are people, because we are people”, she said in an angry tone of voice to her audience. Massey’s indignant response to my simple question tells me she can’t talk to white people as equal human beings to her. This game playing behavior does nothing to advance communication or improve race relations. Her attitude makes the situation worse.
The same goes for Robin DiAngelo.
Follow-Up Workshops are Aggressive and Hostile
The format of the follow-up session titled “Ask Me Anything” was not only non-productive to improve race relations, it was aggressive and hostile. What’s the point of organizing a follow-up session when participants are slammed for asking reasonable questions? If the point is for white people to learn, then why harass us when we ask intelligent questions?
I do not recommend reading White Fragility, or Nice Racism, nor do I recommend attending DiAngelo’s and Massey’s workshops.
Stay safe. Stay sane. Stay away – from these women.
Looking back now, I think DiAngelo and Massey are caught up in their own negative thought loop. If their goal is to instruct white people to be less racist, and to ultimately eliminate racism from American culture, they need a different approach.
Native American Approach to Instructions on Racism
For a totally different methodology and antidote to racism, I’ve been to presentations on The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny given by Native Americans at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst. The presenters’ approach to largely white audiences was more respectful, honest, and egalitarian than the two workshops I’ve attended by DiAngelo and Massey.
The Native American speakers were aware that their presentation would address sensitive matters that could trigger shame and guilt in their non-Native audience. They were quick to say before, during, and after their presentations that the material addressed the past as well as the present but was not an attack to make non-Native people feel guilty or stressed in any way. The purpose was to educate, to inform, not to attack. As a result, the audience was receptive to critical thought and discussion of how history affects the present in understanding how Native peoples are treated in policy, which leads to prejudice and discrimination. White people were not made to feel guilty of racism that our ancestors perpetrated, not in our own behaviors in the past or in the present. We felt better about ourselves and our interactions with indigenous peoples to work together for positive change.
Update on my African Ancestry:
I located the ancestor from whom I inherited African DNA. My 2nd Great Grandmother immigrated to Buffalo, New York from Germany in 1870.
I am not part African American. I do not descend from American slavery.
I am part African Portuguese and African Spanish. I am a product of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Portugal and Spain.
I am a descendant of both the Oppressor and the Oppressed.
- “White fragility is real. But ‘White Fragility’ is flawed.”, Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post, June 18, 2020
- “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” John McWhorter, The Atlantic, July 15, 2020.
- “Our Endless Dinner With Robin DiAngelo, Suburban America’s self-proclaimed racial oracle returns with a monumentally oblivious sequel to “White Fragility””, Matt Taibbi, Racket News, June 30, 2021.
- “Nice Racism by Robin DiAngelo review – appearances can be deceptive”, Ashish Ghadiali, The Guradian, July 11, 2021.
- “What’s So Bad About Robin DiAngelo”, Nathan J. Robinson, Current Affairs, July 19, 2021.
- “Robin DiAngelo’s Fragile Narrative”, Rachel Lu, Law and Liberty, August 9, 2021. https://lawliberty.org/book-review/robin-diangelos-fragile-narrative/
- “White Fragility: Unpacking the Kafka Traps of Robin DiAngelo’s NYT Bestseller”, Julian Adorney, FEE.org, April 17, 2022.
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo, Beacon Press Books, Boston, Massachusetts, 2018.
- Nice Racism –How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2022.
Nanette D. Massey, Writer, Diversity & Inclusion Workshop Facilitator, Buffalo, New York, 2023. https://nanettedmassey.com/