The Current

White nationalists are using DNA ancestry tests to prove 'purity'

White nationalists are using DNA tests to legitimize their "purity," says sociology researcher Joan Donovan. It's not how the test was intended to be used.
White nationalists use DNA tests 'to create different categories by which we can mark inclusion and exclusion in American citizenship,' says sociology researcher Joan Donovan. It is not how these tests were intended to be used. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

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When Craig Cobb, a well-known white supremacist, agreed to a DNA test on a U.S. daytime TV talk show, he didn't expect the results he was given. 

Cobb found out he was not as racially "pure" — to use his own term — as he believed himself to be. In fact, he was genetically 14 per cent Sub-Saharan African. 

As commercial DNA tests, like the one used to determine Cobb's results, grow more popular, with it comes problematic consequences. There are questions surrounding scientific reliability, not to mention knowing the tests serve as a tool for white supremacists to prove what they call "purity."

Sociologist Joan Donovan researches how white nationalists interpret genetic ancestry tests at the Data and Society Research Institute.

"America to white nationalists is a place of blood and spirit. The place is the soil. The blood is European, and the spirit is one of conquest and empire," she tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

"By proving your lineage through Europe, you also make a claim to America as a place your forefathers have colonized."

Why Donovan uses the term 'white nationalist'

In her research, Donovan explains she uses the term white nationalist in particular because she says the movement is "very much embedded in a politics of America and a politics of place."
White nationalists use DNA ancestry tests to lend legitimacy to their ideas, says Joan Donovan. (Jorge Cabrera/Reuters)

"For my purposes of understanding how the study links to DNA testing, nationalism is an important part of it, because the tests mark you by region."

But she states, "They're all white supremacists in the sense that they have genocidal ideation. They believe that there should be no racial mixture between populations."

Donovan argues white nationalists using DNA tests "to create different categories by which we can mark inclusion and exclusion in American citizenship" is not the way these tests were intended to be used.

"But it is in line with the way the test results make you think about borders and states."

Donovan tells Tremonti many testing companies will return results with a map that includes contemporary borders, linking you to a region. 

"But we know that the DNA itself is older than the border ... so it gives a sense of nationalism and a sense of race to the results of the test because they're marked by contemporary struggles over place and race and ethnicity."

Listen to the full segment near the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Samira Mohyeddin.