To bring a divided country together, start with a little spit
By Susan Svrluga
Dec 24 2016
Anita Foeman’s students had just gotten the results from their genetic tests, and they couldn’t wait to talk.
One said her dad cheered when she told him she has Zulu roots. A girl with curly red hair said her family always gathers around a Nativity scene on Christmas Eve and sings carols over the baby Jesus, and this year, after learning that she’s 1 percent Jewish, she said: “We’re going to sing the dreidel song!”
When a white student said that 1 percent of his ancestry was African, two black students sitting next to him gave him a fist bump and said: “Yes! Brother.”
“Some people have never had a happy conversation about race,” Foeman said. But in her class at West Chester University, there’s laughter. Eagerness. And easy connections where there might have been chasms. “Our differences are fascinating,” she said.
At a time when tensions over race and politics are so raw, the stakes, Foeman said, seem particularly high. Her students have been talking all fall about riots, building walls, terrorist attacks, immigration, the election. “You can feel it buzzing around the halls like electricity,” Foeman said.
Asking people to take DNA tests — an idea that has spread to a campuswide effort at this public university — grew out of consulting work Foeman does in race mediation. Instead of a confrontational approach, trying to provoke people into recognizing their own biases, she wanted something that would pull people together, or at least give them a neutral place from which to start to talk. And with racial divides so stark, she wanted to add some nuance and depth.
She wondered: What if people started finding out things they didn’t know about themselves?
So she begins with a short survey asking people their race and what they know about their ancestry. They spit into a vial. Several weeks later, they get an email with an estimate of their ethnic makeup, a color-coded map of their past.
That leads to questions, stories and curiosity. It is a welcome reset from awkwardness, defensiveness, suspicion. Now that the DNA tests are cheaper, Foeman is able to ask all the students in her honors class — almost all of them freshmen just getting to know or redefine themselves — to take the test.
There’s a broad range of people at this state school in Pennsylvania: There are students whose parents are college professors and those who are coal miners. There are students from abroad, from inner cities, and from parts of the state so rural that hunting helps put dinner on the table. There are transgender students, students who reject gender entirely, Bernie Sanders voters, Donald Trump voters, black people who have heard racial slurs, a biracial student who was told by a stranger last month to “go back to Mexico” and one who, growing up in a neighborhood where most people are black, was bullied because he is white. (“Who advocates for him?” Foeman asked. “The election and the protests have pushed that conversation forward.”)
Foeman, who is African American — and genetically more than one-quarter European, as she now knows — would like to test as many people as she can. It’s a way to study everything from medicine to history. Most of all, she’d like to get everyone talking.
She has found people willing, even eager, to take part, with more than 1,500 on campus volunteering.