“Imagine growing up thinking your heritage started with enslavement in the United States.” This was the inspiration that encouraged Dr. Rick Kittles to pursue a career in genetics and give the presentation “Finding our Roots” in Otto Budig Theater on Feb. 19.
Kittles is the co-founder and scientific director of African Ancestry Inc., which has performed tests for the Judge Hatchett show as well as for Oprah. The company also sells genetic testing kits that people can purchase from the Web site (www.ancestoryinc.com). They then send their genetic samples for testing. Following the presentation, one of these genetic testing kits was raffled off.
Kittles’ presentation went into the mechanics of genetic testing as well as the services provided by African Ancestry Inc. The testing surveys the subject’s genetics to determine what African ancestry, if any, that subject has. There has been a high demand for this test by African-Americans, according to Kittles.
The issue of genetic testing can be a touchy one because many blacks in America see their heritage as more than just a genetic factor, but as a socio-political issue as well.
“If Halle Berry sat down beside you right now, would you tell her she wasn’t African-American? I wouldn’t either,” Kittles said. “But at least 50 percent of her heritage is European.”
Despite the gray area surrounding the genetic origin of a person’s heritage, Kittles realizes that being African American (or Mexican American or any other race) is a personal issue that science doesn’t determine for a person. Despite the fact that he has some European heritage, Kittles identifies himself as African-American.
“I was raised that way in New York. I was treated that way, so it doesn’t matter what my Y chromosome is,” Kittles said.
The testing process looks at a small portion of a person’s DNA, focused on just the generations before slavery. Even in such a small sample of DNA, the average person has 16,384 ancestors.
“For African Americans, knowing that small piece is worth it because we don’t have anything,” Kittles said.
Nakesha Whitlock, a junior psychology major, won the raffle for a African Ancestry Inc. test kit.
“I’m excited. Especially being that I’m an African- American Studies minor. I really have pride in being African American. This puts the icing on the cake” later adding, “I think I’m about to cry.”
The “Finding Our Roots” presentation, which was organized by the Department of Biology, Department of Sociology, Latino Student Affairs and Organizational Leadership.
“It was one of the best programs they have put on,” Hill said.