Tobias Haeusermann is an affiliated researcher and student supervisor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, where he received his PhD in 2016. At Cambridge he teaches and instructs undergraduate students for the HSPS Tripos “Introduction to Sociology: Modern Societies I” and the paper “Social Context of Health and Illness” within the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos. He previously was a post-doctoral fellow at the Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Prevention Institute (EBPI) at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He was also our Caroline Miles visiting scholar in February 2018.
In the wake of ever decreasing costs for analysing genetic information, companies such as 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and Ancestry.com now provide customers easy and affordable access to their genetic data. In particular, tracing one’s ancestry is steadily gaining popularity, above all in nations with a rich history of immigration. When used to find lost family members and ties or to seek connection to other people and places, such tests can be of great value. Yet even then, one runs the risk of altering their self-perception, which, as a result, can lead to profound psychological distress for individuals and their families alike. We should therefore tread carefully when digging up family roots, as we may unearth some uncomfortable truths about the present.
The subject becomes even more problematic, however, when consumers use genetic ancestry testing to confirm their ethnic background. In the words of Anita Foeman, founder of the DNA Discussion Project, “the conversation is complicated and jagged, and it mercifully undermines neat, simplistic stories.” For more than a decade, Foeman has explored people’s feelings about the disparities between how they define themselves in terms of their ethnicity and what the ancestry DNA tests reveal. As a point in case, a study presented at last year’s Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association brought to light an unholy trinity of racism, hypocrisy and double standards. Titled “When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists”, it revealed several tactics test takers employed to reject their test results if the outcomes did not reflect the level of racial purity they anticipated. They stressed their superior knowledge of their own ancestry and racial identity or emphasised that ethnicity needs to be directly visible to count. Furthermore, the authors observed that the test takers often saw themselves as victims of the testing companies’ anti-white bias and therefore called for self-empowerment over the elites’ grip on knowledge production.
I was recently reminded of the above study in my own research, for which I interviewed individuals to find out why they decided to publicly share their genetic information. One interviewee told me that she had waited for her parents to die before she purchased a test through 23andme. The thought that the tests would reveal any Afro-American heritage would have been too painful for them to bear, she remarked. Another participant, who had been thrilled to learn that she allegedly shared genetic ties with Beyoncé, told me that her brother, in her own words a blatant “racist”, was infuriated by the news and from then on kept expressing his indignation at any DNA test results.
Of course, science can and ideally should be challenged. That’s how science operates: answers lead to more questions and the cycle perpetuates itself. Yet, when it comes to race or ethnicity, genetic tests lose in power what they lack in scientific merit: Because of the inherent admixture of different genetic markers that define ancestry, establishing racial purity is scientifically untenable as much as grouping humans under the umbrella of race lacks a firm basis in biology. It predominantly serves to maintain a pre-existing social hierarchy. And eventually, DTC genetic ancestry testing, in somewhat distorted form, is being thrust into the political arena, as seen with the Hungarian MP who used it to prove that he carries no Roma or Jewish genes.
These developments once again remind us of our societies’ festering racial biases, as nativist ideas about race and immigration continue to resurface in political debates. Last year, Germany’s far right AFD party became the third largest in the country, winning seats in parliament for the first time in their history. Meanwhile, populists harbouring extremist ideologies hold office in Poland, Hungary, and Austria. Their success is partly rooted in the resurgence of anti-immigration sentiments, with some of their supporters committed to the idea of ethnic purity. We have of course seen a similar situation in the case of white supremacists in the United States. Indeed, UN human rights experts not long ago entreated the United States and its leadership to “unequivocally and unconditionally” condemn racist speech and raced-related hate crimes.
While some are turning to science for salvation, however, it is important to remember that most scientific knowledge is not neutral and certainly not pure. It exists within a structure created and maintained by people. And in some measure – consciously or otherwise – people hold preconceived ideas, subjective opinions, and value judgments that affect how they conduct experiments, interpret data, form concepts and advance theories. In other words, science helps weaving the fabric of society yet is at once woven tightly into it.
In public consciousness, genetic tests seem raw and uncompromising. And ideally, genetics would help us see how the human family tree is made of ties that bind us all. Unfortunately, however, science often deprives us of cosy resolutions and epiphanies. It can furnish us with the data, but it is us people who need to interpret and make use of them. And racism is too entrenched in our society to be solved away with easy genetic answers. We must be wary whenever genetic narratives are invoked and presented without complexity. It is therefore high time to halt the perpetuation of racial stereotyping and scientists, including direct-to-consumer testing companies, have to speak up and take responsibility. For many it is important to know their roots, but we shouldn’t forget that roots never bear leaves or flowers or fruits. This is up to us.