Open Access Dissertation
Date of Award
Towards the turn of the 21st century, spawned in part by the Human Genome Project, ideas about race and ethnicity shifted away from the essentialist belief that humans can be grouped into discrete, biologically relevant racial groups. More recently however, genetic ancestry testing (GAT) has exploded in popularity, as individuals seek to identify their ancestry and/or health profiles through genetic testing. Genetic testing commercials implicitly promote the essentialist belief that racial and ethnic identities are embedded in genes by portraying images of people altering travel plans, checking a different racial category on a survey, or trading in bagpipes for lederhosen, based on their genetic test results. In recent decades, academics have begun to underscore how GATs are spurring a geneticization of identity as companies are marketing a technology that encourages individuals to experience changes in their racial and ethnic identity based on genetic evidence. Scholarship increasingly suggests that white Americans are both more likely to take genetic tests and to change or exoticize their identity based on results. Through in-depth interviews and a survey experiment, I explore identity formation and essentialist attitudes among individuals that have participated in genetic testing. This dissertation contextualizes the institutional role of direct-to-consumer genetic science in facilitating constructions of and determinative beliefs about race and ethnicity for individuals. I argue GATs are racial projects prompting white individuals to engage in an inverse process of constructing race, a process called ‘the social deconstruction of whiteness.’ White individuals use the imprimatur of genetic science to deconstruct their race in an era where the socially constructed category of “white” is losing salience as an identity and the history of white supremacy is becoming more widely recognized. GATs allow whites to claim an alternative identity, leaving the structures of white supremacy firmly in place. This process could lead society past “racism without racists” and toward “white supremacy without whites.”
Hunt, Whitney, "Backdoor To Essentialism? Genetic Ancestry Testing And The Social Deconstruction Of Whiteness" (2022). Wayne State University Dissertations. 3674.