I've never been afraid of clowns or heights. My phobia has nothing to do with nightmarish visions of painted faces or potentially falling from thousands of feet in the air—it had to do with me simply introducing myself to others.
You're probably thinking that I have horrible social anxiety (which, if you must know, I do), but the social anxiety was just one tiny part of it. I've been afraid of introducing myself to others because, as soon as I do, people always ask me, "Where are you from?"
And when that happened, I would feel myself die a little bit on the inside. Because for the past 22 years of my life, I didn't know how to answer it.
I mean, don't get me wrong—I have always known a few things about my familial history. Geographically, I knew that I was a born-and-bred New Yorker, and came from a long line of people who were also raised in the city. Racially, I knew that my father was a black man who took pride in his roots through the music he made, the poems he wrote, and his union with my mother. I also knew that I was Muslim, based on my parent's decision to convert to Islam before my brother and I were born. After my father died, my mother continued to instill that sense of pride in my brother and me.
But the history of my mother's origins was not so cut-and-dry. Both she and her brother were placed in foster care as infants, and have no information about their familial history. She isn't sure if this was done intentionally or if it was simply the way the chaotic system was set up at the time—this was Brooklyn in the '70s, after all. But regardless, my mother has made the conscious choice not to seek out the family who gave her up. I never questioned her decision—it's her choice, after all—but the gap has always left me feeling incredibly unstable in who I am. I felt like there no history that I could call my own.
My "phobia" quickly turned into shame—shame about not knowing my roots and shame in feeling like a fraud in my own skin. Eventually, I learned to transform those feelings into poems, and when writing it out wasn't enough, I got the courage to do what no one in my family had ever done before: I took a DNA test.
23andMe is the first and only FDA-authorized genetic testing kit that people can take at home, and it not only helped me discover that I was half West African and half southern European (something that I did not see coming) but also gave me some much-needed insight into my health risks that I wouldn't have had known about otherwise. And even though I went all out and requested to have both my ancestry and health report reviewed, Tracy Keim, 23andMe's VP of consumer marketing, says that people can limit what they do and don't want to know.
"Having access to your genetic data could uncover information that one might find surprising, and we let people know this before they mail back their kit. Everyone's DNA story is different. It's not a one-size-fits-all service. And we offer choice," she says:
The choice to meet new, unexpected family through the DNA Relatives option is one. We also offer the choice to review certain genetic health risk reports, like Parkinson's or late-onset Alzheimer’s. Our service is about choice, and you can choose to participate in everything we offer or just get your genetic data and opt out. It sounds cliché, but we believe everyone has a DNA story—and it's up to you to access, understand, and benefit from it. So far, we've seen remarkable stories of new family bonds, friendship, and missing pieces found.
My results took roughly a month to come in. I remember looking at them while sitting on the train. My hands were trembling because, finally, after spending my life unsure of who I am, the results were there within my grasp. It was surreal. I was about to go from feeling like a nomad to having every cell in my body traced back multiple generations. But the results didn't give me the feeling of satisfaction that I'd craved and expected.
Was it reassuring? Yes. Did it confirm what I had wanted to know all along? Yes. But ultimately, did it change me? No. Because I have always been who I am. My sense of self didn't suddenly change just because I found out about my ancestry—it just supported it, like a cast does a broken bone.
I had long romanticized about one day feeling like I belonged somewhere, so I hadn't anticipated that the results would leave me feeling almost the same. I had put such a heavy burden on myself to find out in order to feel at peace. And the results did do that, but it didn't make me feel more grounded in myself. It only made me realize that I can't find reassurance in numbers or statistics—I have to find it in myself, by myself.
I am still learning how.