Still Holding Out for a Second Opinion: Carlos’s Story II

Back in March, I started a DNA experiment with five friends. I invited each of them to take a genetic ‘ancestry’ test – something that most of them had barely heard of, let alone thought about doing. After sending off their swab or spit sample, I asked each person to describe their expectations regarding their results: What did they expect or hope to find out? What would their ideal result be, based on their own family history, physical appearance and cultural background?

Over the course of the next three months, each of them received their results, provided by different US-based testing companies. After having some time to reflect upon those results, they have each agreed for me to post their reactions to their genomic data, and their thoughts on how they might (or might not) influence their lives and notions of identity. This mini-experiment is inspired by my own PhD research on the way genetic data interact with local conceptions of identity, ethnicity, kinship and nation in the US and Brazil.

Carlos, born and raised in Salvador, Bahia

Receiving my African Ancestry results was surprising and frustrating at the same time. Surprising because I didn’t imagine I would have such a high European percentage, despite knowing about the whole miscegenation process in Brazil. Obviously, because of some of my physical characteristics (my hair texture, my lightish brown skin colour), I thought I would have some kind of European percentage – but not as high as that. My frustration was to do with the indigenous percentage, which, according to this test, doesn’t exist. I found it really surprising that the test found no trace of that.

I spoke to my parents and some of my friends about my results after I received them. Like me, my mum was surprised that there was no indigenous component to my results, because, according to oral history in her side of the family, my maternal great-grandmother was Indian. As for my dad, though, he seemed pretty on board with the test results. My paternal grandfather, while far from being white, had lighter skin and straighter hair, so apparently on that basis my dad wasn’t too surprised about me having a relatively high European result.

My friends, on the other hand, found my high European percentage strange; they, like me, had imagined I would have a higher indigenous result, which would explain my hair and skin characteristics. It was this lack of indigenous percentage that impacted me most overall about my test. To be honest, I still want a second opinion, perhaps from a different company. I think the percentages should be revised.

Overall, though, the testing experience didn’t change the way I think about myself. Identity, as we know, is relative; it is based on how individuals see themselves and how they are seen by others, and constructed through our day to day contacts and confrontations. In the case of the Afro-descendant population in Brazil, identity is formed through daily clashes with the white population; with the police (who tend to target the black population, and treat them violently), etc. In this sense, the test revealed nothing that I didn’t already know, or that could change my sense of identity and belonging, which has been constructed over many years of struggle.

In terms of the potential social effects of ‘ancestry’ testing, I think it is important for the Brazilian population to have access to their identity. I believe this interest in origins is much greater among the black bourgeoisie and intelligentsia than in the population at large. These people know that they are descendants of Africans who were enslaved in Brazil. I think it’s obvious that if a mass genetic programme of this type were to be set up, it would greatly improve this particular public’s self-esteem, which is fundamentally related to slavery.

The latest manifestations of racism in Brazil are mere proof that we still live in a state of ignorance, and that a large proportion of the Brazilian population still believe that skin colour is a valid criterium to support theories of racial superiority. Perhaps, in light of this, and given that Brazil’s black population have enormous difficulties in tracing their ancestry, a quicker test that could tell people which region their ancestors came from would have a positive effect on the black population – but it would in no way resolve the problem of race relations in Brazil.

You can read Carlos’s original post here.


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Podcast: DNA Ancestry Testing and the Legacies of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

To listen again to my discussion with Bernice Bennett about my current study on the social impact of DNA ancestry testing in the Americas, as well as related research into the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, click the image below.

A DNA Experiment: Carlos’ Story

My PhD research looks at genetic ancestry testing and genealogical practices in different post-slavery societies, and how these phenomena are influencing our notions of personal identity and human kinship and difference.

As a mini-experiment, I have roped five friends into taking DNA ancestry tests with me. We are from different national and cultural backgrounds, aged between 25-35 years old, and we are all awaiting our autosomal test results. I have asked each person to describe their expectations and hopes regarding their genetic test results, with the aim of highlighting the ways in which our national and cultural backgrounds – as well as our physical appearances – prime our ideas about what our likely or desired ancestral origins might be.

Carlos, born and raised in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

What are your expectations regarding your genetic ancestry test result?

While I have various issues with the idea of mestiçagem, as developed by Gilberto Freyre, the theory isn’t completely invalid. Brazil is a ‘mixed’ country. I don’t know exactly how deep genetic tests go, but I think that more than 50% of my result will be linked to West Africa, another portion will be indigenous American (around 30%), and around 20% European. Obviously these percentages (particularly African and European) might vary a bit, with a tendency towards a higher proportion of European markers.

What would be your ideal genetic ancestry test result?

My ideal result would be a high percentage from West Africa – if possible from Benin – with another relatively high proportion of indigenous markers, and a low number of European markers. The question is simple: embracing a black identity, in my case, means accepting that I identify and am identified as a descendant of enslaved Africans. Since I study slavery in 18th century Brazil, and I identify with and am relatively familiar with the history of Benin in that period, it would be exciting to receive a result that indicated markers from that region. On the other hand, it’s likely that I will have a high percentage of Yoruba ancestry, due to the more recent migration of this group to Bahia.

That’s my ideal result, anyway. My family tree is pretty complicated. My maternal and paternal families come from Reconcavo da Bahia, where historically there was a higher predominance of Central-West Africans and indigenous Americans. I even have some indigenous connections in both sides of my own family. My maternal great-grandmother was Amerindian (despite having a name that is commonly linked to slaves, Sirila), and my eldest cousins from the interior are extremely indigenous-looking. My hair, which is jet black with smooth, fine curls, seems to bear the signs of that Amerindian lineage – although it could equally be put down to European genetic influence.

From a cultural point of view, I have always felt an affinity to black culture because of the place I grew up, in the outskirts of Salvador, along with a high concentration of black folk – although, in my specific case, that isn’t a marker of identity. Of course, living in the ‘blackest city outside of Africa’ has something to do with it, but I believe my identity has grown out of situations of oppression, and not street culture. Obviously, I identify with African culture, but I enjoy samba-reggae as much as I do bossa nova, and flamenco music strikes more of a chord in me than Olodum drums. I prefer a pair of jeans to a kaftan, but on the other hand, I prefer a good leather sandal to a regular shoe! So I’m all mixed up, basically.


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On Racial Profiling and the ‘While…’ Phenomenon

Following inquiries from some of my international readers, I would like to take a few moments to explain the title of this blog.

The ‘anthropology while white’ formulation is a rip-off of the phrase ‘driving while black’ – itself an ironic twist on the legal jargon phrase ‘driving while intoxicated’ (DWI), which is used in varying forms throughout North America (equivalent phrases also exist in Spanish, Portuguese and French). If our good friend Wikipedia is to be believed, the phrase ‘driving while black‘ (DWB) has been in the vernacular since at least the early 2000s, in response to racial profiling that leads to a disproportionate number of black drivers being pulled over under suspicion of criminal activity. The example cited on the Wiki page is that of a black man who, in 2012, was pulled over for the fourth time in ten days under suspicion of driving a shiny new BMW registered to the name of one ‘Joel Debellefeuille’ (a typically Québécois name). Problem? The man was Joel Debellefeuille, and the sole basis for him being pulled over was that his skin colour did not match the stereotypical image of the kind of (white, Québécois) man that one would expect to be called Joel Debellefeuille.

Various snowclones have since been coined to describe other ‘minority’ groups and offences commonly linked to them: ‘flying while Muslim‘; ‘running while Arab‘; ‘seeking help while black‘. The phenomenon is not restricted to North America: London residents have witnessed a rise in stop and search interventions aimed at citizens found to be ‘walking while black’, while in Brazil, a popular witticism goes: ‘How do you know if you are black? Ask a policeman’.

As absurd, unjust and frustrating as racial profiling can be (not to mention divisive, frightening and downright racist), the phenomenon is not born merely of prejudice. In each of the above cases, the stereotype is rooted in an actual precedent: concrete acts or moments of violence preserved in the collective imaginary, in which ‘race’ (read: skin colour and other visible markers of ancestry/culture/nationality/religious identity) played a discernible part – for example, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Boston bombings. The widespread criminalization of black individuals, and particularly men, in the US and Brazil (not to mention other parts of the Atlantic World) belongs to a much longer historical heritage, dating back to the times of slavery when white landowning families lived in acute fear of mass insurrection by the black slaves whom they abused on a daily basis in an effort to maintain control. It is due to the social legacy of slavery, as well as the political solutions aimed at coping with the aftermath of abolition, that the poorer, most marginalized strata of society are still likely to be darker-skinned, and, arguably, more likely to be involved in criminal activity due to disenfranchisement, poor infrastructure, and lack of access to social resources.

All this helps to promote a culture of prejudice, which is compounded by actual acts of aggression, creating a heavy atmosphere of public insecurity, fear, and widespread paranoia. And this leads to visible markers, such as skin colour, being attributed undue importance in the evaluations we make of strangers – particularly in situations or spaces that trigger feelings of unease or threat. And the more situations and spaces in which defined groups are placed under suspicion, the more we reify skin colour and come to believe in its genuine significance to our lived experience, our sense of identity, and the way we are treated by others in general. Wearing one’s skin colour constantly is exhausting and stressful, yet stepping outside of it becomes ever more difficult.

The recent flashmobs* in Brazilian shopping centres by (mainly dark-skinned, working class) adolescents are a case in point: the first major rolezinho (‘little outing’) took place at Shopping Metrô Itaquera, São Paulo on 8th December 2013, attracting around 6,000 teenagers aiming to hang out, have fun, and hook up. Accounts from shopkeepers and the mall administrators disagree on whether reports of shop-lifting from that night were verified, but in any case, shops began to close early, the police were summoned, and a handful of arrests were made. Further rolezinhos were scheduled via Facebook; each was met with police intervention on a steadily more aggressive scale. In response, the rolezinhos themselves devolved into confusion, culminating in cases of actual theft. Shopping centres across the city reacted preemptively by promising hefty fines for participants in future rolezinhos, and by implementing stop and search checks against those who fit the key demographic, even if visiting the mall for legitimate reasons. The situation has been met with public outcry, allegations of police and middle-class white racism, and hysteria from both the political left and right. This reaction is unsurprising, given that racial discrimination is a criminal offence in Brazil (albeit one that is extremely difficult to prove in a court of law). The outcome is likely to be more skin colour prejudice against young, dark-skinned Brazilians in shopping centres (and elsewhere); more resentment among marginalized adolescents towards the ‘white’ middle and upper classes; and more difficulty in allowing open, dispassionate public discussion of issues of skin colour, ‘race’, and prejudice in Brazil.

Allow me to return to my original intent. I am not insensitive to the risk I take by appropriating the term ‘while black’ – so often used to describe scenes in which skin colour has placed an individual in life-threatening danger – and applying it to the case of (usually) middle class, highly educated individuals who choose to pursue anthropology as a career or personal interest. But hear me out.

In the Americas and Western Europe (and forgive me for speaking in very broad and blunt terms here), white people do not generally encounter discrimination, nor are they usually a political or physical minority in public spaces. All too often, the ‘white gaze‘ is guilty of bringing (nonwhite) people under suspicion, then acting upon that prejudice, with sometimes fatal consequences. The result is what is known as ‘white privilege’, which effectively excludes white people from the experience of ‘colour’ and all that goes with it: white people cannot understand prejudice, nor can they be fully sensitive to it, nor can they legitimately talk about it. This notion is embraced, either sheepishly or willingly, and white people are allowed for the most part to forget their colour and go about their business as people – nothing more.

The anthropologist, on the other hand, is one who seeks to experience and understand social phenomena from different points of view; to develop a double consciousness in order to view oneself through another’s eyes; and to immerse oneself in foreign cultures in an attempt to better comprehend the human condition as a whole. In my own research, this implies experiencing ‘race’ and skin colour in ways that would not have been possible in my provincial hometown in the East Midlands, nor in the elite halls of Cambridge University, where I studied. Yet, as I have often found, doing anthropology as a white researcher in the Americas (and elsewhere) comes with its own historical burden and its own brand of racial profiling: the sincerity of your motives is challenged; your ability to empathize with the ‘subaltern’ experience is questioned; and your authority to speak about issues of ‘race’ and alterity is cast into doubt.

As with the other examples cited above, the stereotypes surrounding the white anthropologist relate to a not-so-distant history of well-documented abuses and human rights violations of which white scientists were the perpetrators. Their crimes range from behavioural and morphological studies intended to prove the inferiority or subhumanity of nonwhite ‘races’ of man; philosophical and theological exegeses aimed at confirming the right of Europeans to enslave other populations; eugenic theories implemented to cleanse undesired individuals and traits from the national body; and medical experiments that misled and took advantage of vulnerable patients, sometimes to the point of denying them life-saving medications in the interests of scientific progress. The fact that the authors of these acts were largely white males is not coincidental, but the result of an accident of history which culminated in white men holding a monopoly over politics, science and learning in the Western world, up until the mid-twentieth century. An excess of power led to the implementation of racist doctrine and large-scale megalomania, culminating in war and disaster.

I have no interest in creating a forum in which to bemoan the treatment of today’s white anthropologist at the hands of their ‘subaltern’ subjects. Nor am I attempting to put in my two pennies’ worth for white victimhood. I am not even especially concerned with the specificity of the ‘white’ experience, although it is the only one I can personally and fully attest to. What does interest me is identifying the scenarios in which skin colour becomes an active, defining factor in social interactions – in which our skin colour becomes us – in order to deconstruct those experiences and move beyond the ‘while…’ phenomenon.

* Thanks to ALA for this example.


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A ‘White’ Anthropologist’s Manifesto, and a Call for Discussion

I am an English PhD researcher based in Paris, doing fieldwork in the US and Brazil. My research looks closely at current perceptions of identity, paradigms of human difference, and the social legacies of colonialism in different parts of the Atlantic world, from a cultural anthropological and historical perspective. In particular, I am interested in observing how the increasing popularity of recreational genomics is changing our notions of race, ethnicity, kinship, origins, and ancestry – for better or worse.

This blog is the fruit of numerous research trips from the Old World to the New, during which I have found myself transformed from a researcher into a white researcher, and have been confronted with my own whiteness in curious and often uncomfortable ways.

I grew up in a small English town with a negligible immigration rate, reading foreign literature, dreaming of far-off lands, and harbouring ambitions of ‘making a difference’ in the world. I had only a vague conception of the meaning or function of ‘race’, and found skin colour prejudice to be a bizarre and foreign notion.

I first became acquainted with my white alter ego on a six-month trip to Ecuador at the tender age of 18, as an idealistic and enthusiastic gap year volunteer. At the time I didn’t have the cultural knowledge or theoretical framework to fully understand the image I projected to the people I met – the underprivileged ‘natives’ I was naïvely hoping to help – and how this influenced our interactions. But some of my memories from that first visit stuck with me, helping me to gradually change my ideas and develop my powers of introspection. To paraphrase Rigoberta Menchú, I began to perceive my own whiteness, y así me nació la conciencia.

Subsequent trips to Cuba, Brazil, the Dutch Caribbean and the US – this time as a researcher and anthropologist – have allowed me to develop a more nuanced comprehension of the symptoms and side-effects of travelling and doing research ‘while white’. I firmly believe that race, ethnicity and skin colour have little to do with the content of a person’s character, and nothing at all to do with the good faith of their intentions or aspirations. Yet, depending upon where you are in the world and the role you are inhabiting, your skin colour can shape your experiences and the way you are perceived and treated by those around you. These are the experiences and situations I would like to share and explore in this blog.

I write, in part, with a Western European audience in mind: friends, colleagues and readers from countries like England (where I grew up), France (where I study), Spain (where I have lived), Belgium and Holland (where I have visited). For centuries, these countries were the Metropolis; the heart of colonial empires; the source of scientific racism and theories of white supremacy. Yet Europeans have generally had the privilege of exteriorising racism: watching slavery, apartheid and Jim Crow segregation unfold from afar and shaking our heads at the barbarity of ‘the colonies’. For these readers, my posts are an invitation to reflect not only upon the peculiarities of race and society across the pond, but on our shared historical connections, and the tensions within our own national communities that we are so good at pushing under the carpet.

I am also bearing in mind my American readers (broadly defined): those who grew up familiar with concepts and phrases like mestiçagem‘mejorar la raza’, and the one-drop rule. Studies of race and ethnicity tend to focus on dark-skinned individuals, as if they were the only ones to live, experience and be affected by these phenomena. As a foreigner and a pale-skinned researcher I am often questioned or challenged on my motives, and I hope to make these clearer by explaining and analysing my experiences and thought processes as I carry out my research and go about my daily life.

I am aware, from conversations with friends and colleagues, that researchers of all shades and backgrounds encounter similar situations and dilemmas all over the world, with different conjugations of skin colour, class, gender and nationality. I therefore welcome comments and constructive criticism, and hope to stimulate debate about the politics of race, as they act upon daily scenarios; the logic of political correctness; the meaning of whiteness (as privilege or handicap); and the implications of doing anthropological research ‘while white’.


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