Not too long ago, white nationalism was a fringe movement of isolated people. Now, it’s gained a very ugly new relevance. Tiki torches are lit, Twitter feeds are flared, and tempers are hot. Along with this resurgence of ethnonationalism, we also live at a time where it’s never been easier or cheaper to get hold of a genetic ancestry test (GAT).
Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, two sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, set out to investigate the rising trend of white nationalists using these GATs with the aim of reaffirming their imagined or assumed ancestry and identity. Unluckily for them, they are often pretty disappointed by their results.
Donovan and Panofsky presented their work at the annual American Sociological Association in Montréal on August 14 – weirdly appropriate timing considering the events in Charlottesville that weekend. Their paper, “When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic Ancestry Testing Among White Nationalists,” is currently undergoing the peer-review process.
For years they have been sorting through Stormfront, a white nationalist and neo-Nazi online forum set up by a former KKK Grand Wizard, to observe how over 600 people reacted to their GAT results.
As Panofsky explains in an article for Cultural Anthropology, they found many people were pleasantly surprised with their results. One 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 not so chirpy. Another person responded: “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 found “non-white ancestry” as an excuse to kick people 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 nationalists should not be blankly dismissed as sheer ignorance, even though their theories more often prove groundless, that they reflect more than a simple misunderstanding of the science, but 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."