From the Test tube to YouTube: Ancestry DNA Testing and Racial Identity Performances in Social Media Spaces

Authors: Nicole-Marie Cotton*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Ethnic Geography, Communication, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Black, DNA, Race, Social Media
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/14/2018
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Nottoway, Sheraton, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The largest genetic testing company sold nearly 2 Million personal ancestry DNA test kits in 2016. Genetic ancestry testing is permeating media outlets and proliferating forms of social media and popular culture. Celebrity racial genealogies announced on educational programs and television talk shows have popularized home ancestry DNA kits. Users have turned to YouTube and other social media as a platform to share their results to worldwide audiences. Given how ubiquitous genetic ancestry testing is in American households and the frequency which results are shared on social media, this paper asks what do DNA ancestry test reactions tell us about the way race is viewed (and how we want others to see us)? Do test-takers change their affiliations after reading test results? Through the performative, dramatic nature of result-sharing in front of virtual audiences, we can understand what people think constitutes racial identity and how categories are being contested. This paper uses ethnographic data from 50 YouTube videos (Vlogs) and social media posts from Twitter and Facebook posts where subjects eagerly shared results of their DNA ancestry tests. Findings show that despite anti-black racism in the U.S., test takers from various racial and ethnic identities tended to overemphasize African percentages and minimize European results. African-Americans expressed hesitancy to take tests for fear results might conflict with their black identity. Vloggers often contested the genetic testing company’s nation-state boundaries and ethnic categories on the genetic mapping displays that accompanied test results.

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