Tag Archives: ethnicity

My Journey with AncestryDNA, Part 1: Why I’m Taking the Test

AncestryDNA/screengrab
AncestryDNA/screengrab

“Are you Indian?” “Are you French?” “Are you Filipina?” “Are you from the islands? You’re from the islands, right?” How many of you out there have come up against questions like these? I have, and it’s annoying. However, this aggravation is also the start of a journey that I have wanted to take for years. I’m getting the AncestryDNA test.

Why am I doing the test? Well, I’m tired of not knowing my history. More importantly, I’m tired of carrying around the baggage of being seen as an “exotic” object, something that’s affected me since childhood. I want to officially arm myself with the knowledge of my cultural heritage so I can feel a lot more confident in my own identity.

I’ve already talked about my personal difficulties coming to terms with identity, which you can hear on the No, Totally podcast. But just to be brief: I have often been made to feel like I’m in the middle of blackness and…something else.   Dealing with that is tiring, especially when you don’t have knowledge of your own background apart from what your skin can tell you. In short, I’ve let other people control my identity; because I’ve practiced not being in total control of knowing my own identity, I’ve basically become a mystery to myself. That’s a problem, and it’s a problem I intend to fix.

Keep in mind: none of this is about escaping blackness. As I’ve said in my podcast episode, I love being black, and I strongly identify with my blackness. With that said, it would be nice to have some closure about my complete identity. Throughout my childhood, especially when I was wearing chemically relaxed hair, people would always assume I was something else other than a black girl from the south, which is what I have always been. However, I don’t want to have my identity decided for me by some random people who feel like I can’t be black just because I don’t look like how they think blackness should look. On the flip side, I don’t want to deny myself the opportunity to learn more about myself, including what’s in my bloodline.  It’d be nice to be able to feel in control of my own identity, regardless of what that identity entails. I want to be able to celebrate all of me and defend all of me from persecution and ignorant “exotic” comments. If I have a varied ancestral background, I want to feel whole in that knowledge and honor all of those parts of myself. That’s what’s really at the root of this: this is a getting-to-know-me process on my own terms, not terms set by other people. I no longer want to carry shame for looking some way that others view as “acceptable blackness” or “exoticized blackness”. I want to be proud of myself and the group (or groups) I represent.

Regardless of that issue, though, I’ve often personally been curious about tracing my ancestry, and I feel a DNA test is the start of that, since I’ll know what ballpark I should be looking in for my ancestors. Tracing my ancestry has been a project that I’ve never fully had the time or money to engage in. I have always imagined myself to one day be like Alex Haley, having full knowledge of my lineage and the people who have shaped my history. I’ve always wanted to know how my experiences reflect those whose blood run through my veins. Knowing my personal history is something I’ve always felt needed to be done.

As a late birthday present to myself, I decided it was time to take the first step towards tracking my ancestry and ordered the AncestryDNA kit. The kit itself is simple; according to the instructions, you just provide a saliva sample and send it back. In six to eight weeks, you are sent an email linking you to your results page. Also, it’s $99, which is far cheaper than my first choice 23andMe. It also doesn’t check for stuff you don’t want, unlike 23andMe, which provides you with information on what health factors and health risks you could have. That information is useful in another setting, but it’s not particularly useful to me, who just wants to know what ethnic makeup is in my DNA.

The thing that sold me on AncestryDNA was this testimony from their site:

ancestrydna-who are you

Look, this is not a sponsored article for AncestryDNA, so I have full rights to say that I don’t know if this woman is a real case study and if her testimony wasn’t just something made up by Ancestry’s PR to attract people like me, who are tired of being told they look like “something.” But regardless, it worked. I saw myself in that woman, and thought to myself that if she could find some answers, I sure could too.

For now, this post will act as the first in a series of posts about my identity journey. We’ll see what I find together! If you’ve been thinking about taking the AncestryDNA test or some other heritage DNA test, discuss in the comments section. If you’ve felt like you’ve been labeled “exotic” by others and are sick of that title, talk about that too. I’d like to read what you have to say about your own experiences with identity, identity questions, etc.

Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn Wants Navid Negahban as Rumi

Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is tired of white Hollywood casting white actors as non-white characters. In particular, she doesn’t want Leonardo DiCaprio playing 13th century Sufi mystic and poet Rumi in the biopic that’s currently in development. She has another suggestion for the role: actor Navid Negahban.

JUST ADD COLOR has been clearly against Rumi being played by someone other than a Middle Eastern actor. The site has covered the Rumi film controversy (in which the film’s screenwriter stated he wanted someone like Leonardo DiCaprio to play the historic figure) with our roundtable featuring Twitter user Mihrimah Irena, poetry writer, freelance editor and blogger Rana Tahir, film and media critic, filmmaker, speaker and consultant Imran Siddiquee, music festival organizer and co-founder of global arts and culture collaborative network #CultureFix Nora Rahimian, and writer and Citrine Magazine founder/editor Evadney Petgrave. Now, Littlejohn has also given her point of view in a post for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Littlejohn is the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, a senior editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books, and co-screenwriter of independent film Lovers in Their Right Mind, a film about the burgeoning relationship between an Iranian immigrant and an African-American woman. She has also been interviewed on JUST ADD COLOR. Her piece for Los Angeles Review of Books’ site, called “Dear Hollywood (White) People: Let Rumi Be Brown,” argues for the film to cast Middle Eastern actors in the film, especially in the title role.

“The #RumiWasntWhite uproar is yet another post-#OscarsSoWhite call-to-action for Hollywood studios, producers, casting directors, writers, et al.,” she wrote. “Misappropriating the identity of an iconic character lke Rumi does not challenge sterotypes, it reinforces them. It is not even good “color blind” casting. It is once again denying audiences an accurate representation of culture and history.”

Littlejohn throws Negahban’s hat into the ring for possibly playing Rumi. “Negahban, whom GQ recently described as ‘very dashing, with an old-fashioned matinee-idol air to him […] the closest thing we have to the late Omar Sharif’ —and who counts former Israeli President Shimon Peres and US President Barack Obama among his fans —has been featured in two Oscar-nominated projects in the past two years: Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper in 2015 and the 2016 dramatic short, Day One,” wrote Littlejohn. “If there was anyone who could take on the role of Rumi, it is Navid Negahban: he’s Persian, he’s Muslim, and he can grow his own Rumi-esque beard in a matter of days.”

Negahban is also in Littlejohn’s Lovers in Their Right Mind, and she wrote about the hypocrisy of Hollywood possibly casting a white actor as a Middle Eastern character, but still consider a Middle Eastern actor as a risky business choice. “For more than three years, my screenwriting partner and I have been developing an independent feature film that predominately features African-American and Persian characters,” she wrote. “Despite having actor Navid Negahban — best known for his role as Abu Nazir, the enigmatic al-Qaeda leader he played for two seasons on Showtime’s Emmy-winning original series Homeland —attached as a producer and star of the project, ours is still considered a risky property.”

Negahban isn’t the only suggestion Littlejohn has for playing Rumi, though. She also offers the names of Shaun Toub (Homeland), David Diann (Homeland and Baba Joon with Negahban), Ali Saam (Argo), Amir Khalighi (Drones, Almost Broadway, Rumination—which is actually based on the works of Rumi), Bobby Naderi (Argo), Nicholas Guilak (Saving Jessica Lynch), and Dominic Rains (The Fixer). In short, the point is that Hollywood has a ton of talent they could be pulling from, but they deny the talent the chance. Instead, Hollywood still relies on white supremacist ideology.

Hopefully Hollywood had heard the anger from the populace who understand that representation is important. Representation shapes how we see and relate to each other and ourselves. Hopefully, Hollywood does what’s right and actually does cast a Middle Eastern actor to play this venerable figure.

Read Littlejohn’s article in its entirety at the Los Angeles Review of Books.