Upending a Sense of Placelessness

“The greatest story ever written is the one you carry in your DNA.” – Spencer Wells

I’m back in Texas and have been arguing with some other graduate students about why ancestral DNA tests are important for people since it seems to be something that white Americans in particular are exclusively interested in. I don’t know if this is true, but their questions and criticisms highlight a number of concerns about DNA testing. One student said there is a racist aspect in it, a desire to be known as European (which I think is silly because if your desire was to be European, you would probably rather not look at a DNA test which might tell you otherwise). Another said that we shouldn’t be focusing on race and heritage in the United States to begin with so that we can focus on forming more organic groups (that will never happen with the current state of racial affairs in America and obvious issues with a human tendency towards visibility). I disagree with both of these statements, and strongly believe that ancestral DNA testing is an important component in fighting, rather than producing, prejudice.

As an anthropologist, to me one of the most unfortunate aspects of globalization, aside from the destruction of local cultures, is the very real issue that many people have a sense of placelessness. Make no mistake, this isn’t exclusively an American phenomenon concentrated which are the result of fake cities like Orlando, Florida which didn’t exist before Disney World. A prime example of placelessness on an international level is found in ISIS. Some have argued that ISIS is a relatively secular movement focused on cultural identity in a fragile Middle East, rather than a fanatic religious movement; and while religion certainly helps, I think the evidence that so many of ISIS’ members are second-generation immigrants to countries outside the Middle East and that other homegrown terroristslikewise tend to be second-generation highlights the connection between placelessness and identity.

In America this placelessness manifests in bizarre ways. People focus on their “fandoms” rather than their neighborhoods; black Hewbrew Israelites create complete fictions about the origins of Africans; and white people cling to the color of their skin as a commonality between one another in an attempt to find something identitarian to grasp onto (the idea of white nationalism outside of America, rather than say Basque nationalism or Greek nationalism, in Europe, is less common than you would think). The idea that genetic heritage is dangerous is silly when you consider all the “organically arising” dangerous identities which arise anyway from a sense of not having any identity at all.


I don’t want to be overtly optimistic about it, but I can really only see genetic ancestry testing in Americans going one way since we are already such a non-homogeneous population and things are a lot more nuanced since the days of “colored” and “white”. Even the “whitest” people (like me) aren’t purely West European or purely Scandinavian. If we were to redo the Great American Segregation Experiment, then we would need a lot more fountains. As evidenced in David Reich’s recent book Who We Are and How We Got Here on the current (as of March, 2018) state of ancient DNA studies, the histories of what were perceptibly homogenous populations are more muddy, more mixed, and more recent than we think.

I think that companies which concentrate on educating you about your origins from the perspective of deep history help send such a message and make it personal. Claims about genetic superiority of races can be dismissed through the obvious historical disparages Anglo-Americans leveraged against the Irish, Germans, and Italians who come to this country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; and it often turns out that ones’ own story of inherent white purity is different from what your genes tell you. One example of this is seen in European nationalist Varg Vikernes’ pure rage at David Reich upon hearing that there are no populations in Europe which are purely derived from Europe’s original hunter gatherer populations.

The reason why Americans want to do genetic testing is because unlike our European friends over the pond who have been sitting in the same place since the year 476, we are basically orphans. Our story is short, complex, and not the story of any single group. I don’t think this urge to know our past is purely Eurocentric, either. One can imagine that the descendants of the millions of Africans brought from the Old World to the New similarly have a sense of desire to know about their past (most ancestry companies absolutely suck at providing such a history, but I will note that Insitome’s deep history approach to Africa is similar to their approach to Europe). The bottom line is that if your idea is that people are going to organically cling to an identity to begin with, then one based on the evidence that placelessness is just as dangerous a concept as race-based identity and that racial purity in America is an near-impossibility. Choosing one based on nuanced heredity is less dangerous precisely because there is no purity in white Americans and our DNA tests show that without you taking them away from people.

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