Lisa Swyer


In late 2014 I ordered a home DNA kit from Ancestry because I was interested in learning about where my ancestors came from. My father always told us growing up his family came from Ireland. I thought it would be fun to do his family tree and present my findings as a Christmas gift.

A couple of weeks before Christmas I gathered a box of old pictures at my parent’s house. I asked my mother if she would help me sort through the pictures. She turned to me and asked,“Why are you doing this?” I replied, “I want to know who we are and where we came from.” My mother then said, “You will never know who you are and where you came from, but I am not going to talk about it while he is still living,” referring to my father.

I suddenly went in shock and my entire life flashed before my eyes. I do not know why but I immediately knew deep down inside what she meant. Out of the shock and what I can only explain as possible denial and uncertainty, I said, “Did you steal me from the hospital?” “No,” my mother said. “You are my daughter.” And again she repeated, “but I’m not going to talk about it while he’s still living.” After that, nothing else was said and I gathered myself together and left the room where I completely broke down in tears.

The next day my family and I headed home where the DNA test was waiting in the mailbox. I dropped my bags, ripped opened the kit, read the instructions, spat in the tube, and sent it back to Ancestry. Six weeks later I was sitting on the couch with my husband when I received an email saying my test results were in. I took a deep breath, opened the email, and looked at the ethnicity results. The first word I saw was in big bold letters and read “Africa.” About 38% African ethnicity to be exact. I looked at my husband with a feeling of relief, chuckled a little, and said “Well, did you know that you are married to a black woman?”

I was relieved because I had spent my entire life defending who I thought I was, a white woman of Irish descent. Never mind that my skin tone was darker than the rest of my family, my hair was extremely frizzy and curly, and my hips were curvier than most of the women in my family. These results not only confirmed that I was not who I thought I was, but also confirmed my worst fear—that my father was not my biological father. I was absolutely devastated. Who was my biological father?

I gathered enough courage to confront my mother about my DNA results. When I told her I was black, her first response was “that can’t be right.” She spent the next several minutes denying the truth. I tried asking open-ended questions but she would not tell me the truth. My entire life was a lie and the only person who could give me the answers was not willing to talk. At the end of the conversation, she began to cry and shut down stating that if my father found out the truth he would kill her and it would destroy the family.

I remained silent for four years. With little success in finding my biological father on my own, I mustered enough courage to confront my mom again. To my surprise, she finally agreed to tell me the truth but stipulated we had to meet in person and away from my father who had been battling cancer for many years.

When I arrived at her house, she led me to her bedroom, closed the door, and said, “What do you want to know?” I said, “I want to know everything, who he is and what he looks like.” She told me she had an affair she had with a man she met while working in a small neighborhood drug store. She had been married for almost 10 years at the time. My biological father would drop by the store on his lunch break and he and my mother began a friendship that led to an affair. He was also married and had two small children. My mother was smitten by his charm and he treated her like a lady which is more than she could say about my father, who was sleeping around and verbally abusive.

When my mother found out she was pregnant she was excited because she and my father had tried to have children for many years. However, knowing she was having an affair put a little doubt in her mind of who my biological father actually was. It was not until I was born that she knew the truth but instead of leaving the man she was married to, who was abusive, she decided to pass me off as his daughter. Her mother knew about the affair and advised my mother that no matter what I was her daughter. The same words my mother said to me the day she let out her secret in the home I grew up in.

From that day on, I knew I grew up with a father and family that I was not biologically related to. A man who I did not resemble and who was not even the same race as my biological father. I was my mother’s daughter and it’s her identity she presented me as to the world. She completely ignored all of the stares I received from friends and family, the comments made about how I didn’t look like my siblings, and the constant questions I received; my favorite being “What are you?”

After my mother told me the truth, I sent my biological father a letter and two weeks later I received a phone call that changed my life forever. Apparently, just a few weeks prior to receiving my letter he said a prayer that if he had other children out there God would send him a sign. Once he received my letter, he knew his prayer had been answered. I was speechless and in disbelief that this man wanted to get to know me and embrace me. After speaking with him on the phone several times a week for about two months he finally introduced me to my siblings and one by one we spoke on the phone for hours getting to know each other. My family and I met my biological father and siblings less than three months after that initial conversation. They embraced me and made me an instant part of their family.

In the beginning after discovering the truth, I was grappling with not only the grief of losing half my identity but also processing what it meant to be a person of color. I began talking about the feelings I was processing and found others who also discovered they were a different ethnicity. I researched my new identity and found articles and met others who were willing to share their experiences of being a person of color in America. The more I learned, the more I started to accept and feel confident in my new identity. I’ve experienced racism in various forms without understanding or processing because I didn’t know my identity. Processing racism is difficult emotionally because I was not raised in a home to prepare me for such experiences. Today I can confidently say I have fully embraced my ethnicity and identify as a person of color regardless of my upbringing. Embracing my true culture comes with a lot of joy but is not absent of challenges, especially in the current state of our country. I continue to educate myself and others on the injustices plaguing our society and hope one day we can get past our differences and embrace each other.