Race, Reparations and the Search for Our Molecular Soul

Still from a DNA "reveal" video by YouTube user RyMingTahn.

When scientists first mapped the human genome in 2000, public figures celebrated the milestone in the language of human unity. “In genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race, are more than 99.9% the same,” announced President Bill Clinton at a press conference.

If the rise of commercial genetic testing since then is any indicator, the other 0.1% has appeal, too. Personalized genetic testing services are now a large, and growing, industry. For around $200, these companies will take a dab of your saliva and render a detailed report on your unique genetic fingerprint. They sometimes offer information about health. They also offer information about ancestry. In a sense, they quantify heritage.

In many ways, DNA is a perfect addition to the search for an authentic, unique identity—a search that is both a mode of consumption and of spiritual exploration for many Americans. Unless you have an identical twin, your DNA is one-of-a-kind. It permeates your physical self. It seems to dictate your life in potent ways. It cannot be forged. And it situates you in the past.

When it comes to the search for roots, personal genetic testing is especially helpful for people with few other sources of information about any Old World origins. Not surprisingly, some of the first genetic testing services in the United States specifically marketed their products to African Americans. After the radical dislocation of the Middle Passage and the violence of slavery, deep family history can be hard to come by. Genetics offer one solution.

In her new book, The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson, a professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University, maps the rise of genetic testing among African Americans over the past decade and a half as part of a larger investigation into the ways that genetic technology is crossing over into social and political worlds.

Nelson recently spoke with The Cubit about actor Isaiah Washington’s ancestry test, the authority of DNA, and how YouTube and TV have changed the culture of genetic testing.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lots of written and oral histories describe the Middle Passage and the history of slavery in the United States. So what does DNA evidence add to this? Is it just telling us things that we already know?

I begin with this paradox of the Venture Smith case. We know about Smith [an ex-slave and memoirist] from his own words, from oral history, from archival research. [But] there’s this endeavor to exhume his grave and to do the analysis on his remains.

That paradox led me to think that what we’re asking of DNA is more than just the “truth” of it (and truth in quotes because there are lots of things that are provisional about the technology). What does DNA add? I think it can add a deeper sense of history. If you’re doing genetic ancestry testing—bracketing for a moment the veracity of the test—what these inferences provide can often be long histories.

For people that have no information at all, some African Americans, some adoptees—for those people, the stakes are different, and maybe issues of replicability and reliability matter a little bit less when the alternative is a complete lacuna of information.

What is it about DNA that feels so authoritative?

Oh, you know, it’s science. We live in a moment where data is the coin of the realm. Even progressive social justice organizations have to talk about the work that they do through a discourse of data. There is a culture of making evidentiary claims in this moment, and then you add to that science, and then you add to that DNA, which has been called things like the code of codes, the holy grail. We give it this kind of supernatural significance.

So, I think it’s a combination of being a society that values data, being a society that equates progress with scientific development, and being a society that thinks that genetics—in part because DNA comes from you, from us, from we—is the ultimate information, the ultimate data.

It’s like this data self emerges.

There’s a phrase, the quantified self.

Like your molecular soul.

That rings true as well.

As these technologies get more popular, do you think they’ll change how people conceive of identity?

DNA in particular, or the issue of the quantified self?

The self as quantified through DNA—or the ability to quantify ancestry through these tools.

In the larger sort of scheme of things I think it remains to be seen. It’s a young social phenomenon. Even anecdotal things that we see on television—or things that you see on reality television shows about genetic genealogy—do show how these different ways of thinking about identity and self [through genetics] become part of a larger mix of the way that we think about ourselves.

I initially came to this project with skepticism about technology, and concern that the genetic ancestry testing was going to make people start to think about their identities—including racial and ethnic identities—in a very essentialist way. That does happen with some people, sure, but it’s also the case that people enter into these fascinating negotiations. They think, Okay, well, I already thought this, or my family has also said this, and now I also have this [genetic evidence]. Which of these are true? Are they both true? I’m going to make room for both of them.

There are cases of people getting citizenship in an African country based on a DNA test. Genetic identity can feed into a political or national identity.

There’s the Leon Sullivan Foundation’s effort to encourage African Americans to get genetic ancestry testing. [They hope] to foster special development affiliations based on that, but also to think about forms of diaspora status. Maybe citizenship or a different kind of not-quite-citizenship role in an African country.

The proposal expressed doubts about whether or not African nation states should and would take genetic evidence as proof. One of the people I write about says, Well, DNA doesn’t make you African. You have on the one hand people trying to use this as a tool to make their way in different social worlds, but then you have different norms and ideas about what identities mean in other spaces. Those two things might be incommensurable.

And then you have this case of Isaiah Washington, who has dual citizenship in Sierra Leone. We can say, yeah, he got dual citizenship because of this DNA testing. But he might have also been able to get dual citizenship because he’s a celebrity. W.E.B. DuBois had dual citizenship in Ghana. Certainly DuBois didn’t have genetic ancestry testing.

Something you talk about in the book is the ritual of the reveal. There’s this whole pattern that’s emerged about how people publicly unseal their test results, and discover this information about their ancestries. What’s going on here?

When I first started doing the research [in 2003], I was looking for early adopters. I was going to conventional genealogy clubs, societies, and meetings. The companies—Family Tree DNA, African Ancestry, the early companies in the US—were giving presentations here trying to compel people who are already interested in genealogy about genetic ancestry testing.

Then we get the shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” and “Finding Oprah’s Roots.” Shows in which you have prominent people—often actors—and who are expert at the performance of affect. Particularly for people who are not already genealogists, that becomes part of what it means to participate in the social practice.

To watch that ritual experience become part of an emergent social practice has been one of the more fascinating things. I felt like I must write about it, particularly when I discovered a whole group of genealogical videos that genealogists produced to produce their own reveal on YouTube.

It’s an entire genre!

There are people doing genetic ancestry testing who feel like they need an audience and a reveal to make the practice complete. Some people will use genetic ancestry testing at big occasions—like someone senior in the family, they will test them and do the reveal at a family event, a birthday, a family reunion, these sorts of things.

Results of tests can point to fraught histories, though. I’m thinking in particular about how many African-American men have Y chromosomes that trace back to Europe, which often seems to be a genetic artifact of white men raping enslaved women.

There have been scientific papers that have hypothesized that something like high 20s to 30% of African-American men have this Y chromosome from Europe. It kind of refutes—and I’m gonna put this in big air-quotes—the “post-racial” or “color blind” paradigm that would say, Oh, this happened so long ago, there’s nobody around who this affects anymore; my family didn’t own slaves, you certainly weren’t enslaved, why are we still talking about this?

To have something as personal and interior and intimate as a genetic marker suggests this historical legacy in your very being. Even if people know it to be true, through oral history or other ways, it really shines a light on it in a different sort of way. It allows people in the present, using a very high-tech means, to say something about the past, and to just sort of give a lie to claims that slavery was long, long ago; [that] it has nothing to do with you or me.

And, for some of the people that I write about, that claim about the past being also in the present is elaborated on in these various reconciliation projects that I write about. They include the intent to have a new conception of diasporas; the use of genetic ancestry testing in a slavery reparations case about a decade ago; and efforts like this ceremony of remembrance that I write about, in which people are trying to come to terms with what happened with their ancestors through a kind of—I don’t know, can something be secular-slash-religious?—ceremony. They’re trying to remember and give rest to the souls of their ancestors who were trafficked in the Middle Passage.

You can also use genetic ancestry as a way to kind of deny race, or specific racially inflected histories. One narrative of the Human Genome Project has been the denial of differences. Hey, we’re all alike.

Yeah, that’s right. What the Human Genome Project did, in part, was double down on the claim that humans are really 99.9% alike. But this moment also allows for new techniques for parsing the 0.1%. Is it that 0.1% of difference that makes the difference that might matter for people’s lives?

Do you see ways in which personal genetic testing, or in which these new narratives about genes, will become tools for bigotry?

Sure, there’s a potential for that. I was at a conference in Geneva last summer in June, and there was a French scholar who was talking about genetic ancestry testing in Europe, and how some people were trying to make white supremacy claims about different European groups. So who has more Celtic ancestry? Are the Greeks, are the Mediterraneans, are they really Mediterranean, are they Anglo-Saxon? Those kind of questions.

These tests can certainly be used for national ethnic chauvinism as well. But I think that’s true of anything that’s about identity and community—any of these things can be turned on their head.

I’m Jewish, and there’s something about the attempts to quantify heritage that I find very creepy. There’s a fraught history, here. I imagine that many African Americans have a similar reaction. How does someone overcome that queasiness?

People I’ve spoken to were generally upper-middle-class African Americans. They were well educated; they were engineers; they had been school principals and college educators and these sorts of things. These are people who are not naive about the history, and the troubled and often exploitative relationship between black communities and medical experimentation. And yet they found something appealing in this. Part of the appeal is Rick Kittles, who’s this African-American geneticist, who many of them told me explicitly that they trust. So, that’s part of it. I think part of it is that they’re weighing the stakes.

The forms of technology that we are dealing with in the 21st century are quite double-edged. I think that we’re at a moment where big data can be used to discriminate, or it can be used to show discrimination. Video cameras and television cameras can be used for surveillance of communities, or they can be turned on police authorities to show the horror of police brutality.

I was sort of being weaned as a graduate student on the history of scientific racism, and the histories of eugenics and things like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and so when I started spending time with people, and seeing that they were finding something meaningful in these technologies despite that history, initially the explanation I was left with was false consciousness—like they just don’t know any better.

But then I spent more time with people, and they had thought about it. And that was not a satisfactory answer for me anymore. I had to think about what might they think they’re getting out of it. And this is where I started to think about genetic ancestry testing as a social practice. It’s about African Americans and the kind of racist imperial history that creates a lacuna of information about black people’s pasts.

You took an African Ancestry test as part of your research.

Yes, it was never part of the plan, so it was—not exactly grudging—but I took the test hesitantly.

I think I just reconciled myself that I would be interested in Africa and in African communities and societies and histories, and that if I couldn’t know [specifics of my ancestry], that’s okay. But for a lot of people that’s not okay. They are seekers and searchers of this information.

A lot of people I talked to, other scholars and also people I was interviewing in the course of doing the work, really wanted to know, “have you had the experience?”

I did go and have a genetic ancestry test. At this point I really knew that I had to write about the reveal as a phenomenon, and so I wanted to include my own reveal. I wanted to have the experience of the reveal. I had a plan to attend the Leon Sullivan Summit, and the summit turns out to be cancelled, and instead a few months later they hold this Global Africa Policy Forum, and I get my results there. Unbeknownst to me, the sons of Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King, Jr. were also getting their reveals that night.

Your test traced your ancestry back to Cameroon. Has getting the ancestry results been meaningful for you? Has it changed the way you think about things?

Being a bit flip, do I feel like I have Cameroonian blood coursing through my veins? No. I don’t. But it has made me more interested in Cameroon.

My siblings were just vaguely interested. My father was like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” and then went back to reading his newspaper. My mother thought it was very, very interesting. And my mother has struck up a friendship with a Cameroonian community in Northern Virginia where my parents live. This family comes to my parents’ home and has meals with us. They were with us this past Thanksgiving, a few months ago.

So you’re participating in the sort of experiences you were looking at as an ethnographer.

Yes, but not by choice. The avenue of participation has been as a dutiful daughter.

Well, ancestry is a family affair, right?

There you go.

Going back to this event in Atlanta, how did people seem to react to the reveal of Martin Luther King III’s ancestry? Was there any discussion afterward?

Well, I don’t think so. I’m not sure that it went anywhere. King III gets a Y chromosome result in Europe. I think if I’m recalling correctly, there weren’t gasps or anything, but there was some sort of sigh or “oh”—those kinds of responses. But I think people were generally just elated by the whole thing.

The long-standing joke or barb is like, oh, everyone is related to an African king or queen or warrior or something like that. And it’s true also of those who are of European descent. You are trying to look for some royalty. What I did think was interesting about that evening is that this was a different kind of royalty. It’s not an African King. These are African-American kings. The Leon Sullivan Foundation sort of positioned King III as African-American royalty, kind of a civil rights royalty. I thought it was another way of thinking about genealogy as getting us to royalty.

There’s always something aspirational about genealogy.

Yes, of course. You get to choose your story. You’re making choices about which of [your many ancestors] you’re going to follow. And some of those people are more interesting than others.

There was that controversy about Ben Affleck wanting to suppress the information about having slaveholders in his family. People were very outraged. I actually didn’t think it was that big of deal. Not because you should want to suppress new information, but because all of genealogy is about making these kinds of choices. He could have chosen another ancestor to follow.

It’s very much an aspirational social practice.

Also on The Cubit: The future of the past