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DNA, “Race” and Fears of Racism

Posted Nov 19 2009 10:02pm

You see a UPI release like this one, and you think, “DNA advances fuel racism fears…or is it the media fanning those flames?”

Here’s my take: We’re talking genetic exceptionalism, again. The concept of “race” has always been a social construct, with a visual shorthand and local-history definition. Put simply, who did you look like and who was your family? Through social criticism and liberation theory, we’ve developed the vocabulary to appreciate race as cultural and historical identity. Our growing scientific understanding of biological differences don’t fit neatly into this paradigm.

If we consider the current scientific work in genomics — which is that DNA is just one piece of the -omics puzzle that is each individual person that includes the proteome, the methylome, the epigenome, and so forth — then, how can it be as simple as “You (and your race) are defined by your DNA.” Science has never been that simple, although rogue factions are always trying to make it so.

Racism is racism: inevitably, some faction will play that card with whatever deck we’re dealing with. In the past, it’s been played with skin color and surname. DNA is no different: it’s just another data point that can be misused, in the same way skin color and surname have been. All three are imprecise representations that have their genesis in an individual’s ancestral history, which usually plays a minor role in the more recent internal and external forces (biological to historical to environmental) that shape that individual’s life.

At the end of the day, isn’t the sum of the individual always greater than the individual parts?

Talk with Dr. Spencer Wells and the folks at the Genographic Project and learn about how the details of our one, global ancestral family tree are being mapped by thousands of participants like you and me. (After all, we’ve 99% of our DNA in common, right?) This is the promise of genomics.

But as with so many things, you get what you go looking for, if you’re thinking in black and white. Writes Amy Harmon in the NY Times,

“Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State Universitygenetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

For a current reflection on the complicated, fluid, and very real ways in which people understand and wrestle with identity, ethnicity and the legacy of racism, I recommend reading Bliss Broyard, a gifted writer and daughter of famed critic Anatole Broyard. Her new memoire is “ One Drop: my Father’s Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets ” ( first pages here )

In Colorlines, Ziba Kashef writes about “ Genetic Drift: The True Nature of Race ” probing the state of the science and current applications of DNA testing to understand how different interests are tackling race, ancestry, ethnicity and genetics.

Technorati Tags: dna, face, racism, genetics, genomics, genetic drift, genographic project, bliss broyard, anatole broyard, identity, ethnicity, discrimination

This entry was posted on Monday, November 12th, 2007 at 2:17 pm and is filed under What We're Talking About. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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