White supremacists are increasingly using genetic ancestry tests (GAT) to confirm their assumed ancestry and identity. However, they are not always happy about the results.
Not too long ago, white supremacism was a fringe movement of isolated people. Lately, however, it’s been gaining some very ugly new relevance. Whichever social platform you go to, you will find heated discussions and, generally, a misled reinterpretation of supposed “identity politics.” At the same time, it’s never been easier or cheaper to get hold of a genetic ancestry test (GAT). The two things had to meet at one point, and they did.
Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, two sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to investigate the rising trend of white supremacists using GATs with the aim of reaffirming their imagined or assumed ancestry and identity. It turns out that, unluckily for them, they are often pretty disappointed by the results.
A rather well-known example is from 2013, when gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb learned during a TV show that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered.
At the show Cobb waved it all off by calling the results as “statistcial” noise, and then later took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute them. That’s not uncommon: with the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white supremacists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results. But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped.
In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to investigate the rising trend of white nationalists using these GATs with the aim of reaffirming their imagined or assumed ancestry and identity, and to to see how they dealt with the news, when they didn’t find them too “favorable”.
The researchers found that although some people were pleasantly surprised with thee results (like the one who posted: “I was surprised there wasn’t more German. Evidently, the Y DNA said ‘Nordic’ and traces back to the Cimbri tribe, which settled in Denmark.)”, others were far less thrilled.
Take this response, for example: “See, THIS is why I don’t recommend these tests to people. Did they bother to tell you that there were Whites in what is now Senegal all that time ago? No? So they led you to believe that you’re mixed even though in all probability, you are simply related to some White fool who left some of his DNA with the locals in what is now Senegal.”
Forum users occasionally attempted to use people’s newly dsicovered “non-white ancestry” as an excuse to kick them out of the online community. After one person revealed they were “61 percent European,” another poster replied: “I’ve prepared you a drink. It’s 61 percent pure water. The rest is potassium cyanide… Cyanide isn’t water, and YOU are not White.”
Another common response was rejecting the legitimacy of the tests, suggesting they are a misleading Jewish multi-cultural conspiracy.
The researchers note that this response by white supremacists should not be blankly dismissed as sheer ignorance, even though their theories more often prove groundless. In fact, they reflect more than a simple misunderstanding of the science: rather a purposeful misuse of it.
“Most population geneticists would be appalled at the use of their variation-based research to build typological theories of human classification. But these scientists have produced tools open to such interpretations,” Panofsky concludes in the article.
“GAT rests on an infrastructure presumed to be good and evil in conventional ways: that is, good for citizens to learn about themselves, bad because of privacy threats and undisclosed, open-ended data mining. But what GAT also does is set up a whole new infrastructure for racists to endow their groundless theories with a high-tech scientific imprimatur and to convince each other of the myths that mobilize them as a social group in the first place.”
Despite of that, it’s quite striking that white supremacists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”
But then consider this. On that day in 2013, talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb, “Sweetheart, you have a little black in you.” However, that didn’t stop Cobb from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview.
Yet, it was a strange moment of triumph against racism.
Indeed, the question is, now: will those GAT tests further spark racism, or on the contrary, shut up the mouths of those who think they are racially supreme?
What is your take?