0%: Genetic ancestry testing and the search for racial purity

— Joan Donovan, Aaron Panofsky, Christopher Kelty, Elodie Grossi, Pamela Lim, Sarah Meskal, Irene Pasquetto, Jennifer Pierre, Ravneet Purewal, Antoine Rajovic, and Michael Scheipe —

In the wake of a swelling white nationalist movement, the US is having a public conversation about biology, race, culture and heritage. White nationalists rely on a tripartite conception of nation, where blood is European, soil is American, and claims to property rights are based on conquest.

Formed in 1996, the white nationalist message board Stormfront is the oldest website dedicated to white supremacy. The Participation Lab at UCLA has collected and analyzed discussions of genetics and race from the board. Focussing on threads about genetic ancestry testing, we examined both members’ reactions to commercialized genetic ancestry tests and a corresponding shift in their definition of whiteness. Our research group created a database of over three thousand posts from 2004 to 2016, seeking to understand how white nationalists’ racial identity has changed after the popularization of genetic ancestry tests.[1]  What were Stormfront posters’ reactions to test results?

The appearance of non-European admixture triggered shock among many and a crisis in defining white identity. Some posters became strong advocates of traditional genealogy, others adopted cultural and phenotypical constructions of whiteness, and still others sought to rethink whiteness in terms of the statistical and genetic factors that the tests make visible.

[My] father and I both show ~0.4% (.3 for me) “sub-saharan African”. … However, I read some posts on here about interracial marriages adding one drop is considered destroying heritage and such, so am I considered non-white? It’s minute, but it’s there … so looking for feedback/support. How much does DNA mean in the end to identifying with race?

We developed a decision tree that summarizes the typical responses of white nationalists to test results.

Here, there are multiple and often contradictory definitions of whiteness, some placing more emphasis on phenotypical features, others seeking more complicated ways of legitimating their claims to white identity.

Most users mix different definitions of whiteness in order to sustain membership within the white nationalist community:

In order to control for stigma, User A insists she is culturally, phenotypically, and bureaucratically white. Like many Stormfront users, she struggles to adhere to the ‘one-drop rule’ after test results undermine bureaucratic records.

In her well-known research on genetic ancestry test use among African Americans, Alondra Nelson describes a process of ‘genealogical disorientation’ when test-takers are troubled by unexpected results. When appeals to genotypic whiteness proved unsatisfactory for members of Stormfront, they resorted to using cultural, bureaucratic and phenotypic definitions of whiteness, and many insisted that those who doubt their whiteness should ‘just look in the mirror’. White nationalists choose to incorporate definitions of whiteness that fit their personal histories. And if test results cannot be reconciled with past beliefs, nationalists sometimes dismiss them as a ‘multicultural conspiracy’. Thus User A wonders, ‘How much does DNA mean in the end to identifying with race?’

 

[1] We analyzed seventy Stormfront messageboard threads containing 3,070 posts, selecting threads that contained messageboard members’ DNA ancestry test results. Posts were coded using emic and etic categories ranging from the original poster’s response to their test results, community discussions on the meaning of DNA and tests, their beliefs about scientific integrity of genetics, and how DNA testing relates to white identity. We found 153 instances where members posted test results and 486 other posts where members alluded to their test results. In total, our lab applied 14,267 codes across the database.