Anita Foeman, PhD (with Bessie Lawton, PhD)
West Chester University of Pennsylvania
A little more than a year ago, our Public Relations Director pitched a story to the Washington Post about a project that had been underway for more than a decade at West Chester University. In a time of toxic race relations, my classes were using ancestry DNA to appreciate the magnificent diversity that makes us human. After a preliminary conversation, the Posts’ reporter was interested and wanted to come to my class on a day that new ancestry DNA results would be shared. Class protocol was to send ancestry results to students the night before class so that they could come to class with results and short reaction statements to their DNA profiles. Our luck, that day was the day after the 2016 Presidential election.
The mood on campus was charged and there had been unpleasant events in classes and in the community. In this context, my class of diverse students gathered to share their ancestry DNA profiles and talk about their experience of race. The reporter was very attentive. Prior to class, I explained to the reporter that at our regional state university, it is very likely that about half of the students in my class voted for Donald Trump and about half for Hillary Clinton; a smattering of students did not vote or voted for third party candidates. As students openly revealed their results, some were shocked by unexpected profiles—White students with African or Middle Eastern ancestry, African American students learning for the first time the regions of the continent from which they came. Others were disappointed that they had no Native American ancestry. There were also numerous confirmations of aspects of family narratives. We spent the next 70 minutes talking about challenging narratives of race, how it feels to talk about race at this time in history and what it means to know more about the ambiguity of one’s own race and the construct in general. People questioned one another, challenged perspectives, had awkward moments (as when two African American students tried to high five a White student who discovered his 2 or 3% African ancestry), and laughter. In a post-class conversation with the reporter, the most touching remark she made was that she was surprised to see the joy in our classroom, given the sensitivity of such discussion.
The reporter spoke with students for weeks after the event and spent significant time reading our related research. She wrote a thoughtful, important piece that came out on Christmas Eve (Svrluga, 2016). Life for us has not been the same since. A whirlwind of exciting and instructive media activity has allowed me to share our project at NPR (WBUR, Radio Times, NPR One), The New York Times, BBC, CNN.com, Voice of America, Philadelphia CBS Local (2013, 2017), National Geographic, and other media outlets. All this was new to me.
Some aspects of this novel experience and opportunity impressed me, and some I wished I had thought in advance. What surprised me was the personal interest that a reporter can take in a project. The reporters and producers with whom I spoke demonstrated a sincere curiosity to hear about the project and what I was doing and learning, and they spoke with me for many hours in multiple conversations. They also spoke with research participants and conducted their own research on the topic and sometimes challenged me on such assertions as “White males are least likely to change their narratives even in the face of new DNA evidence because they have the most to lose by watering down their racial status.” Media outlets also had to subject their own work and thinking through layers of checks and balances. It gave me great respect for professional journalism and brought into sharp contrast the distinction between professional journalism and public editorials independently posted online—although I see the value in both.
What I learned was the need to determine how to articulate succinctly the core theme of my work and the data driven message I have to add to the existing dialogue on race. This is not a small challenge because the traditional narrative of race is so powerful. For example, the narrative on how changing demographics has already altered conceptions of race can get lost when “the story” of race in American is seen as Black and White. I believe it is my responsibility to articulate a novel view in a way that places it in the public domain and helps us reimagine our view of race. The reading or viewing public has to be engaged or a story will not be covered, so the narrative needs to be sharp and clear, but nuance also needs to be a part of the message. I needed to practice concise ways to tell the story rather than thinking that I should just “be spontaneous.” I also needed to think about questions that may be asked and answered to help interested parties learn the most from my work.
For those who are interested in changing the known narratives and using new information to facilitate mental health, social evolution, and data driven approaches that can be shared with a larger audience, it is their responsibility to take every opportunity to share the big story as well as some of the subtleties. It is also our task to prepare and continually update thinking based on data as it is revealed.
The opportunity to share what has been so important to me has been wonderful. The news about race is that while the major stories are about conflicts, the new insights from DNA analyses are just as exciting and offer a way out of our racial conundrum. I am grateful for the time to share my professional passion and a worldview that I believe can make life better. My word of advice is to be ready for the moment.
(Author’s Note: This article is based on my ongoing research and perspectives. Dr. Lawton was helpful in reflecting on the issues that came up while working with media and contributed ideas. Those interested in a reading list and media reports on the project, please see the website or contact Anita Foeman.)