Genetics, Identity, and Geo-racial Essentialism

Authors: Donnise Hurley*, CUNY Graduate Center
Topics: Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: Essentialism, DNA testing, Identity, Pragmatism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 12:40 PM / 2:20 PM
Room: Cabinet Room, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Public interest in direct-to-consumer ancestry testing and genealogy has surged in recent decades. These tests have strengthened the essentialist notion that identity is an inborn, unalterable quality embedded in the genes. In this construal, the scientific language of genes and DNA perform as placeholders for an ancient concept of a spatially embedded internal essence. This paper examines how geo-racial essentialism—the notion of immutable bio-geographically based differences— underpins and is integrally woven into discussions about nationality and ancestry. I argue that the everyday habits of talking about nationality and ancestry provide the experiential grounding for geo-racial essentialism and implicit racism by reinforcing the notion of geo-genetic boundaries and locating identity and behavior in an abstract genetic constitution. In this study I draw on a textual analysis of popular genealogical programs and advertisements for biogeographical ancestry and genealogical DNA tests to critically examine the discourse of geo-racial essentialism used by public personalities and consumers when discussing ancestry, identity, and personality traits. I show that geo-racial essentialist discourses forms both a syntax and grammar for imaging people and places. I conclude with examining how 1) geo-racial essentialism underscores how countries and nationals are conceptualized by providing a ready-made (and often unconsidered) responses for how to think, feel, and act and 2) how geo-racial essentialism is particularly durable when conceptualizing persons of African ancestry due to an interplay between essentialism, power, epistemologies of difference, and geography.

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