Wayne Joseph, the principal of a big suburban high school in southern California, had an unequivocal sense of his black heritage, having written extensively about race in America.
But after seeing a TV story last April about a Florida company, DNA Print Genomics, which marketed an ancestry-by-DNA test, he began to wonder exactly how much of him was African, how much wasn't, and what else there might be in his genes.
"I sent away for their kit and received the kit, happened to swab both sides of my cheek and sent the swabs in," Joseph said.
A few weeks later, the results arrived at his comfortable Claremont, Calif., home.
"I just glanced at it, just a cursory glance initially — didn't really notice it much," Joseph said. "Then, I went back to it, because all of a sudden it hit me exactly what I had read. And it read, 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian and 0 percent African.
After a lifetime as a black man, Wayne Joseph discovered he probably isn't black at all.
"I kiddingly say, if I was 21 instead of 50, I'd be in therapy," Joseph said, "because when you define yourself one way and then at 50, there are results that say you're something else, it does rock your whole world.
It also rocked the world of Martin and Kenya, his kids from his first marriage — to a black woman.
"Honestly, I didn't know what to say," Kenya said. "I was in complete shock."
Joseph asked his mother, Betty, if he was adopted.
"He is not adopted," she said. "Mother doesn't forget when she has a baby. And I had three babies. And he was one of them."
On both sides, the Joseph family is of Creole stock, which does not necessarily mean African ancestry. Yet, before DNA tests, in the segregated parishes of Louisiana they'd always defined themselves as black, or "colored" in the old-fashioned parlance, despite their light complexions.
Betty Joseph said at age 76, DNA results will not alter the way she's identified herself all her life. She is a black woman. Or so she insists.
"It's hard to break old habits at my age," Betty Joseph said.
But Wayne's kids seem to be doing a bit more identity searching.
"That really makes myself and my sister sit back and say, 'OK, what are we comprised of?'" Martin said.
"I think this opens up a lot of doors," Kenya said, "and forces people to look at things differently about how we classify people with regard to race."
Room for Doubt?
The DNA test is very sophisticated, but it is not accurate to the tiniest fraction of ancestral genes — which means in this case, maybe there's room for doubt.
"There are some people who have said to me, 'Oh, Wayne, you know, [you've] got to get retested. I mean, it can't be right,'" Joseph said. "And so my response to them is, 'OK, let's say I get retested, I come back 9 percent African, 10 percent African, so I'm back in the club now?'"
Instead, Joseph is focusing on one of the old South's most enduring legacies. The so-called "one drop" rule, "says that anyone who has one black ancestor or any black blood at all is considered black in this country," Joseph said.
"The interesting thing about it is the one-drop rule is a rule that was imposed by slave owners who did not want the white purity in some way blemished by black blood," Joseph added. "And we still, black people and white people in this country, still hold to that rule."