‘What Are You?’ Woman Raised As a ‘Southern White Girl’ Later Learns of Her African Ancestry

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Thanks to companies like 23andMe and Ancestry DNA, an increasing number of Americans are taking advantage of DNA testing to gain a better understanding of their genetic make-up and ancestral heritage.

The results are sometimes surprising, however, revealing old family secrets and possibly altering one’s cultural identity. Such was the case for Florida woman Nicole Persley, who, through genetic testing, found out she had African heritage, according to The Washington Post.

Persley, who grew up in Virginia in the 1970’s and ’80s, said her childhood couldn’t have been whiter. She went to school with farmers’ kids in her rural home town, who she said jammed out to country music and sometimes made racially offensive jokes. In a nutshell, she was “basically raised a Southern white girl.”

It wasn’t until she attended college at the University of Michigan that she realized she might not be who she thought she was.

“My roommate was Black. My friends were Black,” she told the newspaper, noting how they would point out her racially ambiguous features and hair. ” … I was constantly being asked, ‘What are you? What’s your ethnic background?’ ”

Like many white Americans, Persley had grown up believing her family was fully European. However, a 2014 analysis of 23andMe customers revealed that roughly 5,200 (3.5 percent) of 148,789 self-identified white Americans had 1 percent or more of African ancestry, indicating a probable Black ancestor going back six generations or less.

For Persley, the “bombshell revelation” elicited a joyous response. However, she said the same might not have been true for her father if he were alive to know.

“My father had already passed away, so I could not ask him,” she told the Washington Post. “It would’ve been, I think, a very difficult conversation to have with him, and I do not think he would have been pleased. I’m absolutely proud of my genealogy and my heritage, but I think my father would’ve thought I was dishonoring his father, because it was a secret and I dug it up.”

Yes, it was her grandfather who was Black. Persley, 46, said he moved away from his home in Georgia, and began a new life passing as a white man in Michigan. He would later marry a white woman, who bore Persley’s father. That’s not all she discovered, however.

Through genealogical research after college, Persley found out that her granddad’s brother, her great-uncle, had continued identifying as Black back in Georgia and went on to become a celebrated architect. A recent DNA test revealed that Persley had not 1, but 8 percent, African ancestry. Her mother was equally shocked by the news.

“Her jaw dropped,” Persley said, “and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, I was married to a Black man and I didn’t even know it!’ ”

Now, Persley said it’s become hard to stand idly by while fellow whites sit around and make racist jokes or throw around the n-word.

“I felt kind of like a spy,” she told the Washington Post. ” … I became kind of an activist. I’d say, ‘Don’t talk like that around me. It offends me — stop.’ ”

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