What are the social justice implications of
spitting into a test tube?
More than 20 years ago, my mother
and aunt started a process of finding these answers. My mother then was excited
to tell me about a man named Cupid, a not-so-distant relative.
The Rev. Cupid Aleyus Whitfield
was born in 1868 to Cato and Amanda Whitfield, former slaves of Gen. William
Gilchrist of Gadsden County, Florida. When he was about 16 years old, Cupid
began teaching at a primary school and became known as one of the leading
“colored” teachers in Gadsden County. He married Rebecca Zellene Goodson in
1889, and they had either nine or 14 children, depending on the source
My mother and aunt learned their
father, Charlie Whitfield—my grandfather—was one of Cupid’s grandsons. This is
all that I know of my maternal grandfather’s lineage. Of my maternal
grandmother’s, I know even less.
Of my paternal family, I knew
only my father’s name, and even after I met him in the late 1980s, that was
still all that I knew. I never met his mother, father, or his siblings, and did
not know their names. He passed away in April 2006, and I didn’t learn about
his death until months later. But I still wanted to know more about him. And so
I began my search.
Unlike my mother and aunt’s experience of uncovering information
to fill in the many blanks in our family tree, I have the privilege of Google,
ancestry websites, and DNA testing companies that emerged in the early 2000s.
This new technology is revolutionary for folks like me, who want to know not
only where they come from but also from whom—genealogical researchers, adoptees
searching for family members, and folks tracing family trees, particularly
African American families that had been displaced by slavery.
In her decade-long fieldwork to
learn how the new technology impacts the way people self-identify, Alondra
Nelson, Columbia University professor of sociology, says she found so much
more. Her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and
Reconciliation After the Genome, explores the way in which DNA is being used as
a tool for racial reconciliation.
I spoke with Nelson about what
DNA science might offer social change.
Zenobia Jeffries: You open your book with the story of the Grandmothers
of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization that helps find children
who were stolen and illegally adopted after their mothers were killed during
the Argentine Dirty War. You later tell how DNA was unsuccessfully used in a reparations
case here in the United States. How can science help answer fundamental
questions about social justice and equality?
Alondra Nelson: The Argentina story shows us that science can help. In
that case you’re talking about grandparents and grandchildren. When you’re
doing a match, that sort of genetic line is actually pretty close. When you’re
talking about the experience of people of African descent, there’s a gap of
hundreds of years; you have a bigger mystery and a technical hurdle because
you’re dealing with the history of the slave trade. In post-apartheid Africa,
you have families who have not been able to do burial rites for members of
their [families] who died in the apartheid struggle. I think to be able to
identify the remains of a specific loved one, and to be able to commemorate,
bury, and memorialize that person is really powerful. Science can help with
that identification, but we need to have some complicated conversations.
Science can’t be our moral compass.
Jeffries: What implication does DNA testing have for
understanding racial and ethnic identity?
Nelson: It’s complicated. The tests are far from definitive.
The companies use different databases and make different kinds of mathematical
and statistical assumptions. Those formulas and algorithms are their trade
secrets, so they’re under no obligation to share them with other countries. So,
what we think about in an academic setting, when you think about something
being scientifically valid, it means that you can replicate it, you can verify
it; [if] someone else does the same experiment or uses the same genetic sample
from you and puts it in their database, they’ll get the same results. With
these companies, we don’t have any of those kind of gold standards of what we
might consider academic research science.
That said, for communities like
African Americans, they are in many cases left without any other way to think
about that. Though we have some communities who’ve been able to use food and
linguistic ties, like the Gullah/Geechee communities, who link to contemporary
Sierra Leone through linguistic ties. But those cases are less common.
And so you have a large swath of
people who want to know and who are willing to try different ways of knowing.
It can help to the extent that, regardless of whether you’re of African
descent, you’ve seen the reality television shows—people get a test, and it
gives them sometimes new information, sometimes surprising information, or
sometimes it just confirms or underscores what they already thought they knew.
Jeffries: Some tests break down one’s percentage of ethnicity.
But does knowing that bring us closer or divide us further when you talk about
the struggle toward racial justice?
Nelson: A test that says you’re this percent of this or this
percent of that is making not a historical or factual assumption; it’s making a
statistical and probabilistic assumption. So, what does it mean if a test says
you’re either 100 percent or 30 percent Nigerian? That means they’ve created
some algorithm that they assume is 100 percent Nigerian. But what in the world
would that be? The history of human history is one of intermixing,
I use the phrase “genealogical
aspirations” because the questions that people have in agreeing to the testing
experience sort of shape what it can mean for them. If it’s important for you
to know what part Norwegian you are versus what part Russian, then you’re going
to be interested in how you slice those things up. But if you’re more
interested in whether you’re more European or more bio-geographically mixed,
then you have a different read of what the tests are.
For me, what’s important is not
so much that these types of tests give you the truth of who you are, your
identity, but that they suggest how we have come to think about putting human
beings in buckets. None of these categories means anything outside of culture
Jeffries: You say DNA can be used as a tool in the struggle for
racial justice. Is using it for genealogical research part of that struggle?
Nelson: Sure. For people of African descent who feel incomplete
without having that information about their African ancestry, it becomes very
Whether we’re talking about
genetics or identity, we know that social movements and social activism come
out of a sense of empowerment and agency. And like-minded people who feel
empowered and outraged about the way things are can change things. That
empowerment comes to some through the use of these tests is part of what
mobilizes them for social justice issues.
Jeffries: For the companies that own these databases, is there
something to be said about the politics of privacy and the ethics of who keeps
Nelson: Different companies do different things. Often the
consent forms you sign when you do one of these tests look like the consent
that you sign when you’re uploading a new operating system—there’s a lot of
small words and people don’t really read it. We know, for example, that some
companies keep all of your data, because when you’re dealing with millions of
genetic markers, the bigger your databases are, the more reliable statistically
speaking your findings can be.
And now that some companies are
interested, not only in genetic ancestry testing but also in pharmaceutical
developments, this data becomes really important. They’re using people’s
genetic samples to try to do investigations and for the development of
personalized medicine and protocols.
But then you have the new genetic
genealogy 2.0 that’s been happening: the ability for people to upload their
markers online, to make them available to other geneticists.
On one website you can fill out
as much as you can of your family tree and also upload your genetic genealogy
results so that other people can see them or people can contact you. On the one
hand, there’s two different competing interests here: One is people wanting to
know more about their genealogy and their genetic genealogy, which might cause
them to reveal information to other people. But then there’s also this real
necessary interest in privacy and the desire for privacy.
Someone might think, “Well, I’m
just using this to do my genealogy.” But that same data could be used to reveal
things about your medical profile or could be used potentially to implicate
people in the criminal justice system.
The thing about DNA that’s
different from other kinds of data is that it can be useful in all of these
different social and political sites—the exact same data, the exact same
samples, potentially. That’s where the portability and transitive nature of DNA
technology is the concern.
I’m not trying to paint a
dystopic future, but I think it’s something to worry about. Genetic data
carries a lot of information that can be used simultaneously in a lot of
different places for purposes for which people intend it to be used, and
purposes that they do not.
This article first appeared in YES!