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When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic Ancestry Testing among White Nationalists

Mon, August 14, 10:30am to 12:10pm, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 515A


In Trump’s America, once marginal right wing groups and ideas are gaining public salience and political relevance and must be better understood. Using a novel dataset drawn from the white nationalist online bulletin board, Stormfront, we investigate discussions of racial ancestry and personal identity stimulated by users’ posts about their genetic ancestry test (GAT) results. How do white nationalists interpret GAT viz. individual identities and the boundaries of the group? Though GAT discussions occasionally use results to expel posters revealing “non-white” ancestry from the community, more often discussions focus on repairing “bad news”. Repair practices include rejecting GAT as a Jewish, multicultural conspiracy, or elevating traditional genealogy and racial consciousness as better knowledge. Posters also criticize results scientifically in terms of error rates, causal inference, and alternative histories. Furthermore we find that the kinds of ancestry made visible by GAT are shaping how white nationalists conceive of the boundaries of legitimate belonging. Discussions concern looking for genetic markers of whiteness made visible by GAT, models by which white nationalists might incorporate fractional non-white ancestry into a group conceived in terms of absolute purity, and better and worse forms of racial impurity structured by recombining and non-recombining types of DNA. White nationalists’ responses to GAT thus exhibit a version of Nelson’s “affiliative self fashioning.” They are bricoleurs with genetic knowledge, interpreting it in ways that start from different premises than canonical genetic science but cannot be dismissed simply as ignorant.