Post-doc Sarah Abel discusses the impact of DNA ancestry testing on White nationalist communities, and explores to what extent genetics can help tackle racism.

Last month, several American news sites ran articles about a new sociological study, conducted by researchers at UCLA, into how white nationalist online communities are reacting to the results of DNA ancestry tests taken by some of their members. One journalist summarised the findings with the headline: “White nationalists are flocking to genetic ancestry tests. Some don’t like what they find”.

So what motivates White nationalists to take DNA ancestry tests, and what do they do with the results? Are genetic data changing these communities’ ideas about race, and challenging their racist political agendas?

The Stormfront logo

Let’s look first at the study that inspired these headlines. The authors, Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, examined seventy message threads from the “Science and Technology” forum of the online white nationalist community Stormfront, in which members had posted messages about their DNA ancestry test results. The researchers analysed comments made by the test-takers about their own results, as well as reactions from other forum members, categorising these remarks according to the type of reaction they elicited (praise, shame, sympathy, etc.) and the arguments used to explain and discuss the genetic data. (Panofsky and Donovan’s article was presented as a conference paper, but a pre-print publication of the study has been posted here).

In brief, Panofsky and Donovan found that test-takers seemed pleased with their DNA results in cases where they felt these confirmed or enhanced their White racial identity. However, whenever the results were deemed not to fit the definition of Whiteness upheld by Stormfront members (roughly speaking, “Non-Jewish people of wholly European descent”), the forum contributors used various strategies to reject or reinterpret this “bad news” about their ancestry.

For instance, some questioned the scientific validity of the results, suggesting that low amounts of non-European ancestry might be due to the statistical error margins of the analysis. Several members blamed the tests’ outcomes on the political biases of mainstream DNA testing companies, suggesting that their analyses were rigged as part of a conspiracy to “spread multiculturalism and make whites think that they are racially mixed” (24).

Another tactic was to come up with alternative historical explanations that could account for “misleading” categorisations of the results – for instance: “if a significant number of Turks had a certain segment resulting from the Greeks who used to live there, a Greek taking the test might come up as part Turk, not because he has Turkish ancestry but because some Turks have Greek ancestry” (25).

Others proposed that DNA tests are not a valid measure of racial identity anyway – after all, what do the results of a genetic test matter if a person “looks White, lives White, and identifies as White” (31)?

Panofsky and Donovan pointed out that these reactions of encouragement and support were much more common than cases where DNA test-takers were told to leave the community because of their results. This trend suggests that – just like most DNA test-takers, who tend to focus on the results they find appealing while downplaying the ones they view as uninteresting or undesirable – Stormfront’s members tend to be flexible in their definitions of Whiteness when they feel their identity is threatened by adverse genetic information.

Nonetheless, the researchers also came across some forum threads that were dedicated to discussing how White nationalists should deal with the increasing availability of fine-scale genetic ancestry data, which might make it more difficult for them in future to uphold their standards of absolute racial “purity” for members.

As Panofsky and Donovan suggested, these discussions indicate that the widespread availability of DNA ancestry information is starting to challenge some of the core racial ideals of White nationalists. However, instead of changing their perspectives, this information appears to be motivating communities like Stormfront to come up with new ways to shore up their racial identity and political ideology.

Whiteness: an ever-moving target

Panofsky and Donovan’s study is important and helpful in highlighting two main observations: 1) DNA ancestry tests are open to diverse uses and interpretations, which can sometimes be contradictory and conflicting; and 2) groups whose collective identities are based on politicised categories such as race (or ethnicity, gender, sexuality and so on) must constantly work to demarcate the boundaries of their community. This can include, if necessary, redefining their ideas of the characteristics that unite them, in order to preserve the integrity of the group.

This is by no means a new development. Going back to a time where the racial views found on Stormfront were held much more widely in the United States – for instance, from the lead up to the abolition of slavery in 1865 until the end of racial segregation during the second half of the twentieth century – American governors, courts, and citizens were engaged in constant efforts, both conscious and unconscious, to discern and draw more clearly the country’s mythical “colour line”.

US racial segregation (credit: Wikimedia commons)

An extract of Gunnar Myrdal’s sociological essay An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944, gives a sense of White Americans’ prevailing beliefs about race and “blood purity” at the time:

Without any doubt there is […] in the white man’s concept of the Negro “race” an irrational element which cannot be grasped in terms of either biological or cultural differences. […] It is invoked by the metaphor “blood” when describing ancestry. The ordinary man means something particular but beyond secular and rational understanding when he refers to “blood”. The one who has got the smallest drop of “Negro blood” is as one who is smitten by a hideous disease. It does not help if he is good and honest, educated and intelligent, a good worker, and excellent citizen and an agreeable fellow. Inside him are hidden some unknown and dangerous potentialities, something which will sooner or later crop up. (100)

Ariela Gross’s book What Blood Won’t Tell (2008) documents legal cases from throughout this historical period, in which individuals were called upon for various reasons to prove their race. In many cases, the underlying concern of these trials was to defend an ideal of Whiteness, by ensuring that no “racially impure” individuals managed to “pass” as White. The perceived difficulty faced by many of the judges who presided over these “race trials” was that American notions of Whiteness were based on the idea of blood purity – and yet, no sure-fire way to test a person’s blood purity had ever been invented.

The methods they used to prove the defendants’ racial status were imaginative in the extreme. For instance, in one case a defendant was asked to remove her stockings so that her feet could be examined by the court. This idea was based on the theory that a person’s race could be detected by their “foot shape”, among other criteria.

The real problem faced by the judges, of course, was that race is not a characteristic that can be tested and discovered by scientific tools and methods. It is an idea that was invented to create social divisions and enforce a social hierarchy, and which has since taken on a life of its own, as both a source of prejudice, and as a basis for collective identities that aim to struggle against this prejudice.

Placing Gross’s historical “race trials” next to the forum threads examined by Panofsky and Donovan, we can see some clear parallels. If genetic ancestry tests had been available in the 1850s – or even the 1950s – they would surely have been seized upon by American judges as a tool for dictating who qualifies legally as White.

And yet, these judges would have run into the same contradictions and inconsistencies as with their other race-measuring theories and devices. They would still have felt forced to constantly rework their definition of Whiteness, according to different characteristics, in search of better rules. Always in the same fruitless effort to make their racial ideologies seem scientific, logical, clear-cut.

Rooting out hate

Just 48 hours before Panofsky and Donovan presented their study findings at the annual American Sociological Conference, White nationalist and supremacist groups held a weekend of organised marches at Charlottesville, Virginia, between 11-13 August. The event was the latest – and the largest so far – in a series of far-right rallies held across the US, and culminated in violent clashes including the killing of Heather Heyer by a suspected neo-Nazi. At the time, some of the organisers stated that the rally was part of a concerted effort to transplant the ideals shared online in communities like Stormfront onto the streets of America, as a show of their growing strength and audacity.

Flowers for Heather Heyer in Charlottesville (credit: Bob Mical, Flickr)

How can we combat the racist ideals propagated by communities like Stormfront? In the conclusions to their study, Panofsky and Donovan were keen to stress that the racism expressed by many of the group’s members was not fuelled by ignorance of modern genetics, which is usually cited as the source of scientific proof that human races do not exist. Instead, many Stormfront users are extremely genetics-literate, and they are skilled at using their scientific knowledge to cherry-pick details that can be used to support (rather than contradict) their racist agenda.

Genetic data alone cannot simply “cure” racism, because racism is not a mental illness. It usually starts as a defence mechanism, which, if given the opportunity, develops into an ideology with an internal logic of its own.

Racial hatred is born of fear: fear of “others” who are taking “our” jobs; raping “our” women; corrupting “our” nation. These fears, sometimes incited by real socio-economic inequalities, are projected onto groups who are viewed as outsiders: migrants; people of other sexual preferences, religious and political beliefs, “racial” and ethnic origins. These groups become scapegoats: they are demonised and depicted as irreconcilably different, inferior, subhuman.

The way to fight this hatred and fear is to show racists that these people are not any of these things: that, in fact, they are not “others”, but fundamentally similar to themselves.

Some DNA ancestry testing companies have employed this idea to make projects that use genetic testing as a basis for challenging national and ethnic stereotypes, bringing people of different origins together by demonstrating the genetic links they have in common.

A well-known example is that of the travel company Momondo, which collaborated with AncestryDNA to create a series of videos that went viral last year. The project gathered together a group of people of different nationalities, all of whom expressed pride in their own national or ethnic identity, and admitted to harbouring prejudices against certain other nationalities. The videos then showed these individuals’ emotive reactions at finding their DNA had been matched to several of the nationalities they claimed to dislike. In one case, two of the participants were informed they were “cousins”: the project’s scientists estimated they had a common ancestor who lived 150-225 years ago, based on their shared DNA.

The Momondo videos aim to give a positive and uplifting idea of how genetic testing can change people’s perceptions of those they regard as “other”. But for extreme cases of racial hatred and ethnic divisions, a more fundamental step is merely giving individuals from opposing groups the opportunity to meet and recognise their mutual similarities.

This is an approach fostered by many individuals and organisations that work towards reconciliation in the context of social divisions caused by violence, prejudice, and hatred, such as Coming to the Table, an association that promotes healing among the descendants of slaves and slaveholders; Serve2Unite, a group that works to build dialogue and forgiveness between the victims and perpetrators of extremist violence; and Life after Hate and Prevent, programmes that offer counselling to individuals who have been involved in far-right and extremist movements.

Genetic testing can certainly serve as a way of connecting people who believe themselves to be irrevocably different. But the real step is getting those who uphold racist ideologies to become familiar with the people they despise. For while it may be easy to reject or reinterpret the results of a scientific test that contradict your ideals, it is much harder to uphold a racist ideology against someone you have come to know as no different from yourself.


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