Genetically Speaking | The Nation


Diary of a Mad Law Professor

Genetically Speaking

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Recently, there was an article in the New York Times titled "DNA Tells Students They Aren't Who They Thought," about a sociology class at Pennsylvania State University. Professor Mark Shriver regularly administers DNA tests to students and has them analyzed for what the article calls "genetic ancestry." Shriver is a partner in DNAPrint Genomics, which has devised a test that "compares DNA with that of four parent populations, western European, west African, east Asian and indigenous American."

About the Author

Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams
Patricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University, was born in Boston in 1951 and holds a BA from...

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That the test could reveal ancestry based on broad migratory patterns over human history is not a surprise. Certain clusterings of genetic mutations over millennia occur more frequently among specific populations. Melanin concentration, for example, can reveal how one's ancestors adapted to more or less sunny climates; evolutionary selection for sickle cell anemia was a response to malarial mosquitoes. But there is no specific genetic marker that distinguishes one race from another. External differences--like hair, skin color and eye shape--are not linked to inner differences, no matter how strong the myths about skull size, extra leg muscles or musical aptitude. I should think that this would all be abundantly clear by this enlightened age, but none of it was laid out in the article in the Times. Rather, there were only three columns discussing the degree to which the Penn State students were revealed to be "white" or "black." "About half of the 100 students tested this semester were white," according to another instructor. "And every one of them said, 'Oh man I hope I'm part black,' because it would upset their parents.... People want to identify with this pop multiracial culture. They don't want to live next to it, but they want to be part of it. It's cool."

It is odd, this insistence that there is no such thing as race even as we wouldn't want it moving in next door. There is, too, a remarkable persistence in re-inscribing race onto the narrative of biological inheritance. This science is always pursued for only the noblest of reasons: in Shriver's instance, "the potential importance of racial or ethnic background to drug trials." I will save for later my concern about the commercial competition for "race-specific" medicines. For now, consider the description of one student who "discovered" she was "58 percent European and 42 percent African." Yet the "parent populations" tested for were described only as "western European" and "west African." The young woman "has always thought of herself as half black and half white because her mother is Irish-Lithuanian and her father West Indian." But Lithuania is generally considered a part of Eastern Europe, and therefore not technically part of the population tested for. And while "West Indian" is clearly used as a cipher for her African ancestry, one can be "white"--like Alexander Hamilton--while being West Indian. And the Irish were not considered white in colonial times.

Similarly, East Asians have gone in and out of being considered white in our history. South Asians, many being the closest descendants of the original "Aryans," are generally not thought of as white in this country. Yet the incoherent use of Aryan is apparent in any dictionary, to wit, Webster's: "1. Indo-European... 2. Nordic... 3. Gentile...."

The degree to which these indivisible habits work despite us, or unintentionally, is perhaps evident in what the Irish-Lithuanian-West Indian student--the one who thought she was half and half--had to say about the test results: "I was surprised at how much European I was, because though my father's family knows there is a great-great-grandfather who was Scottish, no one remembered him.... I knew it was true, because I have dark relatives with blue eyes, but to bring it up a whole 8 percent, that was shocking to me." What is interesting is the flat conception of half and half ancestry--a kind of assumed "purity" of blackness and whiteness. One side had to be entirely African by her measure, one side entirely European. If she's 58 percent European, she assumes the embodied 8 percent must be on the "black" side. The discussion never moves into the more difficult recognition that most West Indians probably have more than 8 percent European ancestry (but that like so many American families, hers might "know" but "not remember" the complicated, often clandestine couplings of the Triangle Trade). It certainly does not seem to occur to anyone that her white parent might also have an African ancestor.

The jumble of who we are, particularly as residents of the New World, with its centuries of rapid, recent migrations, is not explored in the Times article. The single mention of migratory patterns is misleading: The students whose DNA revealed both African and European ancestors were described as "members of the fastest-growing ethnic grouping in the United States...mixed race." But to the extent that a DNA swipe shows "mixing," there is nothing "new" about it; our ancestors have been mixing it up since the first mothers left central Africa--in the long-ago, ancient sense, we are all "African." Moreover, genes show neither race nor the cultural practices we usually refer to as ethnicity. The absurdity is highlighted by one of the Penn State students, a warm-brown-colored young man pictured in cornrows, who says that even though he tested at "48 percent European" he values his blackness, since "both my parents are black." He goes on to muse: "Just because I found out I'm white, I'm not going to act white." The article ends with an observation that "whatever his genes say," the young man will likely always "be seen as black--at least by white Americans." Consider the narratives herein: Genes "speak" race, whiteness is a biological inheritance that can be consciously "acted," blackness is defined by the eye of the white beholder.

If history has shown us anything, it's that race is contradictory and unstable. Yet our linguistically embedded notions of race seem to be on the verge of transposing themselves yet again into a context where genetic percentages act as the ciphers for culture and status, as well as economic and political attributes. In another generation or two, the privileges of whiteness may indeed be extended to those who are "half" this or that. Let us not mistake it for anything like progress. We've been this way before.

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