Who gets the last laugh, again?
Jessica Blatt | November 18th, 2013


I enjoy seeing a smug, bearded white supremacist get his comeuppance as much as the next guy. (Though the joy of the exuberant lady sitting next to this one is hard to match. And reason enough to watch this video more than once.) In any event, I get why this video of Craig Cobb, the would-be founder of an all-white town in North Dakota, finding out on a TV show that a DNA test indicates that he is “14% sub-Saharan African” has gone viral.

At the same time, the talk-showification of molecular biology is really never a good thing, especially when that molecular biology is supposed to tell us things about “race.” (And let’s face it, “race” is pretty much the only way molecular biologists get any pop-culture shine.) Problem is, the idea that Cobb is 14% African rests on the assumption that there is such a thing as 100% “African,” or 100% “European.”

As NYU’s Troy Duster explains, the reference point that the ancestry testing industry uses for this imagined purity is the frequency of certain genetic markers in small samples of contemporary populations from various regions. That is, the companies that market these ancestry tests go looking for something called African-ness, or European-ness, or Asian-ness, which they assume can be found in the samples they collect. And because populations that live nearer to one another are, on average, more genetically similar than populations that are more distant, the researchers find differences between the samples—differences that are then magically translated into African-ness, European-ness, or Asian-ness, or some other category. The degree to which you share certain genetic markers with those sample populations becomes the degree to which you are European, African, Asian, etc. Your “race,” a folk category neatly translated into hard, cold numbers. (For more, read Jonathan Marks and Duana Fulwilley.)

This reification—the idea that there is something out there that we can identify as “really” European (read, “white”) or “really” African (read, “black”)—is essentially what the ancestry testing industry is selling. And business is good. Think of companies like African Ancestry who have gotten publicity from “revealing” the “country of origin” and “ancestral tribe” of various American musicians and actors.

So yes, the numbers they produce can be affirming for people, or good for talk-show laughs. But the fantasy of racial purity has never been benign, and it’s at the heart of both the affirmation and the joke. That fantasy, along with the one in which our genes can tell us something meaningful about our identities, is the bread and butter of the ancestry testing industry. They are also the bread and butter of white supremacy.

Who gets the last laugh, again?

Aidan Hartley's Africa
'Tribal' Reality Television 2.0
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Jessica Blatt

Teaches politics at Marymount Manhattan College and writes about race, science and the political imagination. She is also on Twitter: @Jessblatt2

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7 thoughts on “Who gets the last laugh, again?

  1. Au contraire. the insights offered by modern genetics, showing how minute the differences are between black and white, and even between us and some other species is a humbling insight into the futility of racism. If some make money out of it, that was expected.

    It is way over due to get rid of the ‘one drop’ rule.
    I remember some moments. Like, Ali Farka Touré telling a young troubled african-american blues guy that coming to Mali, he had come ‘home’. I thought, hmm. Ali Farka doesn’t recognize that this bloke is a mix of many things. Ali Farka saw him as all black. Same as some supremacists back home, then.

    Simple minds who can’t handle the complexity of identity. Black, or white, when we are all grey. Or, perhaps, brown?

  2. I can’t say I agree with priffe’s comment at all. Thank you for this post, I think your point about the testing products legitimizing an essentialist fiction of racial purity is well taken. Many thanks, too, for the link to the Duster article – though there is an errant “)” at the end of the link that prevents it from working. Keep up the excellent work. AIAC is an invaluable resource for dismantling racism. Cheers, MB

  3. But the point the author of this article is making about racial “purity” is rather, uh, the point. A creature like this Cobb believes that there _is_ such a thing as racial purity. A test such as the one discussed here–which I don’t think for a minute will make a bit of difference to someone like Cobb, who is not driven by logic–helps undercut notions of racial purity. For the rest of it, I’m quite content to find interesting degrees of “African-ness” or what-have-you in my own background; I don’t really care if the principle behind them makes the author of this article, or anyone else, anxious. But the argument being presented here doesn’t really intersect with the Craig Cobbs of this world.

  4. Anna, Sure. I think that is many people’s reaction. But these technologies don’t just make people “anxious.” They have quite consequential uses. There have been attempts by some Native American groups to exclude members who do not possess the requisite “blood quantum.” (The Black Seminoles, for example.) And with the rise of racialized medicine, being classified as this or that, on however flimsy a basis, can affect medical decisions and treatment. (See )
    These are just a couple of examples. But I stand by the more general argument as well. It doesn’t help to point out that so-and-so isn’t as pure as he thinks he is, if we continually reinscribe the idea that someone is, that these are useful categories, or that “science” can tell us who we are.

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