The Abominable White DNA Snowman

Judith Shapiro reflects on the upsides and downsides of the current vogue of looking up one's DNA to find out who one "really is."

March 5, 2018
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The heat is on again in Texas, as a special State Senate panel recently held a hearing on the issue of campus free speech. The news of that event reminded me of the Texas State University student who wrote a piece for his campus newspaper entitled “Your White DNA Is an Abomination.” An earlier article included a response from the editor in chief of the student paper that deserves even more attention: “The original intent of the column was to comment on the idea of race and racial identities. We acknowledge that the column could have been clearer in its message and that it has caused hurt within our campus community.”

Now, let us consider the essential mission of an institution of higher education: to educate. Shouldn’t more attention be given, particularly by faculty members and academic administrators, to the fact that the abominable DNA piece was like a time-travel experience back to the excesses of eugenics, albeit in reverse gear?

We have been invited mainly to wonder whether we should view the student as hurt or as hateful. Instead, we should regard this student as apparently undereducated -- a state of affairs that is best addressed by education, certainly including higher education.

It is interesting, in this context, to consider the current vogue of having one’s DNA tested to find out who one “really” is. That has a positive side, leading us to see how we are, biologically speaking, made up of many groups that we have considered ethnically distinct and helping us to stop thinking about what we call “races” as if they were biologically homogeneous and separate groups. Thus, for example: “All along I thought I was just Irish, and it turns out my genes are 21 percent Eastern European Jewish and 7 percent Ghanaian!” Some results might have an entertaining side: “So, it turns out that my husband is literally part Neanderthal?”

In terms of more serious inquiries, Henry Louis Gates Jr. surely intends his Finding Your Roots program to underline that the diversity we human beings are heir to includes some very famous figures in American history. Current DNA research is also helping to bring archaeological and linguistic evidence together to map the historic movement of human populations.

It is, however, important to consider the downside of this DNA vogue as well. For example, a television advertisement shows a woman who has just discovered, through a commercial DNA service, that she is part Native American. We see her posed beside items of beautiful Southwestern pottery, as if they actually had something to do with her own life experience.

In another ad, a man is talking about how he always thought he was of German ancestry but found out that, according to his DNA, he is more Scots-Irish instead. He says he is going to trade his lederhosen in for a kilt. Not that anyone in his neighborhood actually dresses like that.

I propose we suggest to these people, if you wish to feel a connection to Native Americans, see if you can persuade some of them to let you spend quality time in their company. If you want to experience a closeness to Scotland, why not tell us about plans for an extended visit, as opposed to the quaint sartorial desires that the ads depict? Needless to say, we expect that you are both spending a lot of time reading about these people to whom you assert a link.

As for the student who writes about “white DNA”: How about clearly separating yourself from the kind of racist reductionism and ignorance that have victimized so many people like yourself in the past? Take advantage of the fact that you are in college. Get an education.


Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president emerita of Barnard College.


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