She Grew up Black. Shocking DNA Test Said Otherwise.

Sigrid Johnson Thought She Was Black—But Then Got Unexpected DNA Results
Jared Rosenthal
Published on

Every time a new discovery is made, or a technological breakthrough occurs, human beings must decide how to use this new knowledge. We can choose to embrace it, and harness it to make our lives better, or ignore it as something new and frightening, burying our heads in the sand.

In 2015, a woman named Sigrid Johnson came face to face with that choice on a deeply personal level. She had spent most of her life secure in the knowledge that even though she was adopted, she knew her heritage. When she casually took a DNA test to support a friend’s study, she never expected that this simple favor would set off a chain of events that would force her to reckon with her own identity.

Early Life

Sigrid Johnson was born in 1953 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were both African-American, and she was raised in a home that celebrated America’s Black history. Sigrid’s cousin was an activist in Georgia in the 1960s who worked with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and when her family went to visit, they were always conscious of the ‘Whites Only’ signs on the water fountains they saw around town. Being Black was just a normal fact of life — until Sigrid turned 16.

When Sigrid was 16, her mother finally broke down and told her that she was adopted. Her birth mother was a white woman who had an affair with a Black man. She gave her baby up for adoption when the young infant’s coloring began to mark her as different than her blond-haired half-siblings.

Even though this came as a shock to Sigrid, she took comfort in the fact that at least half of her was Black; half of her was how she always identified herself. She graduated high school and went to a historically Black university, immersing herself in her Black heritage. As she went through her life, she carried her heritage proudly.

When a friend asked her to be a part of her research study on ethnicity, racial identity, and the effects of unexpected DNA results in 2015, Sigrid thought nothing of it. She swabbed her cheek, sent her sample in, and was floored when the results came back.

Sigrid’s Unexpected DNA Results

The lab working on the study returned precise results that indicated that Sigrid was only 2.978% African. It sent her into a tailspin trying to figure out how to reconcile those results with her sense of self.

Eventually, the New York Times picked up her story, and paid for her to take several more DNA tests from other providers, which offered completely different results that were more in line with her presumed heritage. After these results came in, she even found biological siblings, including a half-sister who was also put up for adoption by the same birth mother.

How Will Unexpected DNA Results Change Us?

As more and more people take DNA tests to satisfy curiosity about their ancestry, what happens when they receive results they are not expecting? Even if you think you know what your heritage is, a DNA test can appear to offer a window into the particular countries and regions where your ancestors lived. This information can educate, but also challenge people’s assumptions of who they are, and where they’re from. There’s a growing academic movement that seeks to learn more about our relationship with ancestry, ethnicity, and diversity. There’s also a blow back from people like me who question the validity of ancestry testing in general.

The DNA Discussion Project

One research lab that’s delving deeper into this discussion is the DNA Discussion Project at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Headed up by Dr. Anita Foeman, this ongoing project seeks to “encourage greater understanding of the science of genetics, the construction of race, and the perception of ethnicity.” Their method involves providing subjects with DNA tests, and interviewing them both before and after their results come in.

Dr. Foeman was actually the researcher who connected Sigrid Johnson with her first DNA test. Although Sigrid’s experience seems unbelievable, there are many more subjects from this study who have had similar experiences. We’re beginning to realize that concepts like race, ethnicity, and heritage are much more complex than we initially thought.

Received an Unexpected DNA Result?

If you’ve recently received an unexpected DNA test result, you’re not alone. Your DNA is part of who you are, but it isn’t the whole picture.

In Sigrid Johnson’s case, her varied DNA results were disorienting, but ultimately didn’t shake her sense of self. She moved forward with her life, along with the brand-new family members she discovered through the test. Although the tests complicated her identity, she didn’t allow it to change her fundamental individuality.

Citations

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Padawer, Ruth. “Sigrid Johnson Was Black. A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t.” 19 November 2018, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/magazine/dna-test-black-family.html
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“DNA Discussion Project: Personal Stories.” West Chester University, https://www.wcupa.edu/dnaDiscussion/stories.aspx
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“DNA Discussion Project: About.” West Chester University, https://www.wcupa.edu/dnaDiscussion/about.aspx
WRITTEN BY

Jared is the Founder of Health Street, the creator of the Who's Your Daddy DNA truck, and the host of VH1's Swab Stories.

WRITTEN BY

Jared is the Founder of Health Street, the creator of the Who's Your Daddy DNA truck, and the host of VH1's Swab Stories.

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DNA Testing

Read Health Street's dramatic and informative DNA testing stories.

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DNA Testing

Read Health Street's dramatic and informative DNA testing stories.