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Three months have passed since I shared the story of the racial ambiguity and family mystery I inherited, and my plans to get my DNA analyzed by 23andMe. At that time, the results were sitting in my email inbox, waiting for the right moment to open them on the phone with my sister. I was a bit anxious, wondering what questions the results might answer, and what questions they might raise.

The envelope has been opened, and … drum roll please … I’m White! Sort of. Allow me to explain.

My mother as a child

According to the results, my DNA is 99.8% European. Of that, about 80% is Northern European. Most of that is “nonspecific northern European”, followed by German, French, British and Irish DNA. So far, no surprises. There was a teensy bit of Scandinavian blood (surprise!), but that’s not too shocking given the way the Vikings spent hundreds of years gallivanting around what is now the British Isles and Europe.

That’s paraphrasing something my mother used to say. Does she look even remotely Scandinavian to you?

I also have a dose (1.5 – 14%) of “nonspecific” European DNA, but following that were two surprises: a dash of 2% Italian blood, up to another 2% “non specific” Southern European DNA, and about 1% Ashkenazi Jewish.

My mom and her brothers, around 1950.

Wow! So my sister’s affinity for Italian language, food, and culture (she lived there for several months) and my father’s love of Italian music now explained? The Italian-ness of a distant ancestor I once identified (on my dad’s side) suddenly vindicated? Our darker complexions finally de-mystified?

In truth, the Jewish ancestry isn’t entirely a surprise. We’ve speculated that one of my paternal grandmother’s kin changed their name to a less Semitic version when they arrived in the U.S. But is that what peeks through in my brother’s profile, or my sister’s skin tone?

My cousin Eric and his brother Tres, early 1990s.

Questions still remain for me, since 3% Jewish and Italian DNA (mostly on my father’s side it seems) doesn’t explain to me why my mother and her father had black hair and brown skin, why her siblings looked so mixed, why my sister had the Mongolian spot, or why my brother and cousin Eric (that’s him with his brother, “Tres” — yes, tres, like “3” in Spanish — sons of my mother’s older brother) look anything but Northern European.


My sister and cousins Sara and Claire, 1987.

And just look at the contrast between my sister and our other cousins, daughters of my mother’s younger brother!

Perhaps the truth is that yes, indeed, we are biologically and genetically European. Europeans are super diverse — not all of them are blond or “white”. But are we White? Am I?

The answer for me is yes and no. Since getting the DNA results three months ago, I’ve only identified myself as multiracial twice in conversations. I’ve identified myself as White a few times — more than normal — particularly in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict. In fact, my recent blog post The Day After Trayvon: An Open Letter to African Americans from a White Ally outed me as a White person to a Chicana friend and colleague that had assumed for years I was Mexican/Hispanic/Chicana!

My mom as a child with relatives, sitting next to her grandpa. Her mother is to the far right.

My search for legitimacy and integrity continues. The fact is that I go through life looking like a White person to White people, with all the privilege and safety that brings. To pretend or say I’m not White is to be dishonest, to dishonor people of color and multiracial people by co-opting their identity because it makes me feel more comfortable, and to take the easy way out of any White guilt I might harbor.

But the fact is also that my experience, my siblings’ experience, and very likely my mother’s experience have often been that of a brown, non-White person. I wrote about the many ways this has played out in our lives in the first Waiting for Race post.

My Mom, mid-1960s.

How can her appearance not have affected the way my mother was raised and treated, especially in the racially divided Los Angeles of the 1950s and 1960s? I know my ambiguous looks and behaviors have certainly affected my experience, the way I’m viewed, and the way I’m treated.

Another fact is that people — particularly people of color — don’t always see me as White. They see me as Hispanic/Latina, Latin American, Mexican, or mixed. Over 20 years ago in my native L.A., a work buddy told me I should just tell people I was Mexican or Latina, to educate them that Latinos come in all colors. This work buddy was African American — it mystified me that a person of color would actually encourage a White person to “pass”!

Me and my multicolored siblings, 1993.

Ten years ago a Chicano colleague in academia told me he saw me as a Chicana despite my Whiteness. Recently in one of the Pueblo communities here in New Mexico, a Pueblo woman asked me if I had Native ancestry, since she saw it in my facial structure!

My experience of racial and cultural ambiguity is similar to that of multiracial people, which is why I felt at home in that community for a brief time. The experience of being asked on a regular basis — directly and indirectly — “what” I am or “where” I’m from is a dance whose steps I know well, and it’s a dance multiracial people have been doing forever.

My brother and sister, 2008.

But I can no longer legitimately claim to be multiracial. I can claim to be White, since that’s my DNA and much of my experience. But the incompleteness of this label feels oppressive. In claiming something more, perhaps I can expand definitions of Whiteness, challenge stereotypes, and even disrupt oppressive notions of what Whiteness looks like and how Whiteness acts. In claiming something more, perhaps I can leave space to honor the unnamed ancestors that have shaped the fact I am even pondering this question.

I don’t know what label fits me at this point. The DNA analysis is is just another chapter in the story. How about “White+”? “White and Questioning”? Or “biologically European, racially ambiguous and culturally mixed”? How about just “mestizo“?

My journey to legitimacy and integrity continues, as it does for so many. To be continued…?

For another, more artistic exploration of my family’s mixture and my identity, read my poem “Mystery in my Skin“.


  • Melissa says:

    Wow. You capture so powerfully the experience of discovering your genetic ancestry! It makes me want to do the same, while also enabling me to realize how intense the experience can be.

    What a dilemma, to realize that you are actually almost 100% European, even though you have not always identified yourself or been seen as others as White. I’m intrigued by your idea that what is needed is to redefine Whiteness itself; maybe the problem is not who we really are, but the narrow way that we understand those categories. To put a spin on what your African American colleague said, when he wanted you to pass as Latina so that people would realize that Latinas come in all colors: maybe we need to do the same for Whiteness?

    Thanks for getting the conversation (and lots of thoughts) flowing!

    • Susana Rinderle says:

      Thanks so much Melissa! I apologize for making you wait 3 months, a lot to process (I didn’t even get into the medical and health results!). 🙂 Indeed, much to think about and discuss. I look forward to doing so with you!

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