She had always identified as mixed-race. Her DNA results changed that.
When Shayna Watson decided to get an AncestryDNA test to reveal her ancestry on her 30th birthday, she had a certain idea of what the results would look like.
"I expected to see African, I expected to see a little bit of European, just based on colonization, and I definitely expected to see at least a little Native American," she says.
Watson had grown up with stories of her partial Native American heritage. In fact, her father had proudly shown her photographs of her grandmother on a Pequot reservation.
When Watson was asked, frequently, throughout her childhood and adulthood, "What are you mixed with?" in regards to her distinctive curly hair, she had responded with "Native American" — although she had never known for sure.
Image courtesy of Shayna Watson.
"I get my ancestry results back and there's not even a drop of Native American," she says.
"It was a shock."
Immediately, she took a screenshot of the results and sent them to her mother, followed only by a question mark. Questions initially popped into her head — like "Am I adopted?" "Is my dad really my dad?" But that wasn’t it. She wasn't adopted. And her dad was her dad. There was just more to the story.
Screenshot of AncestryDNA results via Shayna Watson.
"It made everybody kind of stop and recognize that a lot of the oral history that we know in our family may not be true," she explains. "It opened up this conversation of whether my grandma was passing as Native American at the time."
That discovery led Watson to some difficult questions about her family's history. Had her grandmother been told the same stories she had? Or did she have to downplay her African heritage because of anti-black sentiment she faced?
Watson continues, "I think what the DNA test did that was great for me and my family was that it kind of allowed a truth to be told without people having to tell the truth."
Screenshot of AncestryDNA map results via Shayna Watson.
The experience has even inspired Watson's mom to take her own AncestryDNA test, and she is eagerly awaiting the results.
In addition to revealing her family’s past, the AncestryDNA test results helped Watson better understand how her ancestry can inform her identity.
Once the initial shock of not having any Native American heritage died down a little, Watson was able to really process her results, which showed that 73% of her ancestors came from the continent of Africa and 25% came from Europe, mostly Scandinavian regions.
"I was kind of pleasantly surprised with the percentage African-American that was there," she says. "With us black Americans, it's not an easy narrative to come back and see such a large percentage of European because, for a lot of us, we know what that means. We know the tough history behind that."
Seeing such a large African percentage, she felt relief.
Finding out her family history and where they came from, she says, has given her more confidence in her identity as a black woman. Knowing that some of the unique physical characteristics she receives compliments on are, in fact, a result of her African ancestry has become a source of pride for her.
Image courtesy of Shayna Watson.
"There was a lot of times when I was growing up that I kind of clung to this idea that I was mixed with a bunch of things and I used that to set myself apart a little bit," she says.
"Now when people ask if I am mixed with something, I say 'no,'" Watson says.
"Hearing that question again as an adult," she wrote in her article for The Root, "especially now — when I know the legacy of squeezing into spaces in order to exist that has come out in my history — has really shifted the way I view beauty and blackness."
Watson is a writer by career, and while telling her story to others, she found it resonated with a lot of people. So, she decided to write about her experiences of digging into her ancestry in the hopes of inspiring others to do the same.
"I think for those of us that are labelled as minorities in this country, it's a difficult place to find where you fit in," Watson says. "What this allowed me to do was decide for myself — even though the results came back with six different places I was connected to — it allowed me to decide where I wanted to identify."
For her birthday this past year, Watson took a vacation to Africa and spent a lot of time exploring Morocco.
Watson on her trip in Morocco. Image courtesy of Shayna Watson.
"That trip … it definitely felt different, just knowing that such a huge percentage of me was from where I was standing," she says. "And it definitely makes me want to go back and visit Nigeria and Congo and all of the places that showed up on my results that I never knew I had a direct connection to without doing this test."
Watson says that she recommends that other people take the test too even if they think that they know what the test will show.
"There are so many things in your ancestry that your family may never know to tell you ... It lets you get a part of [your past] that you could never get just from talking to people and family members," she says. "Even if you think that you know, and even if every story going back in your family is from a certain place, I would still suggest doing it because we are such a melting pot and it's a beautiful thing."
Did you know? April 25 is DNA Day. Have you celebrated your heritage today?