Cathryn Virginia

23andUs

Need a little tech in your racism?

Cathryn Virginia
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Recently I’ve been stalked, in the way we’ve all had to get used to in recent years, by a certain ad campaign. The opaque alchemy of digital surveillance and analytics has determined that I need to see ads for the genetic testing service 23andMe on my various feeds and streams. Perhaps some algorithm mistook me for someone with disposable income, or a fondness for sending saliva samples through the mail. Either way, I’m besieged with invitations to discover my true lineage.

Advertising colonizes public and private space with corporate messaging. Digital advertising is increasingly personalized; a worldview is curated and imposed upon you. But it’s also meant to flatter, to both reflect and shape your particular tastes. Lately, 23andMe’s ads have seemed to focus on travel campaigns based on rediscovering one’s genetic—and by extension, ancestral—roots. 23andMe is one of many companies now offering ancestry-based travel services, but there’s a particular sheen and slickness to its operation, especially because the company is the most prominent genetic testing service. What is 23andMe trying to say, and why are its ad campaigns, with their soft colors and eugenicist overtones, so relentlessly creepy?

Twelve percent Middle Eastern? This way to your hamam.

Over the summer, 23andMe announced what it called The Golden 23 Sweepstakes, offering twenty-three free DNA tests followed by round-the-world trips based on winners’ DNA results. If your DNA reads as 2 percent Scandinavian, congratulations, you’ll soon be sitting in a Swedish hot spring. Twelve percent Middle Eastern? This way to your hamam.

These and other genetically determined adventures await Nicole, the fabulously multiethnic star of a recent 23andMe commercial. “Follow your DNA around the world,” the commercial instructs, over a shot of Nicole riding a scooter on a bridge somewhere in Southeast Asia. (Peculiarly, 23andMe’s campaigns never seem to name the actual countries their customers travel to, only broad regions.) The commercial goes on to chart Nicole’s worldly peregrinations while listing the percentage of her DNA that comes from each destination. At the end, the video resolves into a message of vague humanitarian empowerment: no matter where she comes from or where she goes, she’s 100 percent Nicole.

The Nicole commercial represents a kind of deracinated cosmopolitan wonder. We’re all just people roadtripping through life, tapping our genetic code for touristic pleasures. Connections aren’t made through culture, communication, or collaboration but by showing up at a hostel and announcing, “I’m 43 percent European.” At once superficial and deeply primal—this is DNA, after all, life’s building blocks—these commercials manage an effect that might be called eugenics lite. Your genetic history is essential to knowing who you are, but at the same time it yields only a series of traveler’s diversions, all brought to you by the benevolent hands at 23andMe.

One white supremacist found out that his DNA registered as 14 percent sub-Sarahan African.

One’s genetic inheritance might be a matter of gentle amusement for 23andMe and their brand of soft-focus corporate liberalism, but it’s taken far more seriously on the political right. Over the last year, various news outlets have chronicled the stories of right-wing figures, particularly from the overtly racist “alt-right” contingent, taking DNA tests. The nominal objective is to prove their white European ancestry, but occasionally the results shock, as when one white supremacist found out that his DNA registered as 14 percent sub-Sarahan African.

This sort of unexpected reckoning has caused some on the right to become averse to DNA or ancestry tests altogether. At altright.com, Vincent Law wrote a call-to-arms against 23andMe, telling his audience that the tests were unnecessary. “If the people present as White, are culturally White, and fight for White causes they are absolutely 100 percent White,” Law proclaimed. “We in the Alt-Right need to have a big tent approach to Whiteness.”

Law’s call for a “big tent approach to Whiteness” is steeped in a self-evidently absurd brand of irony. White supremacists, he seems to say, should show more tolerance—but only toward one another. He goes on to acknowledge that not all white people are good, but as an oppressed people, they should be forgiving of one another’s mistakes.

DNA tells us a little bit about where we came from and nothing about who we are.

As if this poor-whitey love-in weren’t bad enough, next comes a bizarre turn. Law reveals that he did a 23andMe test, revealing his ancestry as 99 percent European and 1 percent Caucasian. This should be reassuring news for your typical white supremacist, yes? Not so fast. Among that European portion of Law’s DNA was “a HUGE percentage of Irish DNA,” he wrote, before going on to confess his longstanding anti-Catholic and anti-Irish bias. (Apparently they are “subversive to America,” and St. Patrick’s Day is “a dissident holiday.”) But the nugget of truth revealed by his DNA test changed Law: “The results, I must say, humbled me.”

The 23andMe test helped Law “move beyond thinking of myself as a WASP and focus on who I really am to everyone I’ve ever met or will meet.” Naturally, in his viciously racist worldview, that means only other white people. Genetic testing gave Law a sampling of the only kind of diversity he could begrudgingly learn to stomach: another kind of whiteness. While he describes an evolution in his racial thinking in the form of a new willingness to tolerate Irish people, the genetic test’s main effect has to been to reaffirm his noxious white supremacist identity. The piece concludes: “Above all else, I realized that I am a White man now.”

23andMe’s opportunistic ad campaigns clearly aim to reflect a tolerance that is anathema to Vincent Law and the alt-right. But there is less daylight than there might seem between both sides’ relentless focus on one’s genetic roots. Outside of a medical context, a person’s DNA is mere trivia. It tells us a little bit about where we came from and nothing about who we are. Those who would take it seriously are flirting with regressive notions of race and identity, mistaking genetic markers for heritage and haplogroups for shared cultures. The execrable Law is right about one thing: there is no deep personal truth to be found in the bottom of a spit-cup.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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