When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity

What happens when a white nationalist finds out their heritage contains non-white or non-European ancestry?

According to UCLA researchers, reactions vary from rejection to reinterpretation to acceptance. And a lot of energy is spent repairing the person’s sense of self. But what can’t be relied on is that the news will change their racial ideology or other white nationalist views.

When Genetics Challenges a Racist’s Identity: Genetic Ancestry Testing Among White Nationalists” is the work of researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan. They studied more than 3,000 posts in 70 discussion threads at the white nationalist website Stormfront, on topics related to “test reveals.” According to the researchers, after getting genetic proof of non-white or non-European ancestry, those posting online “expend considerable energy to repair identities by rejecting or reinterpreting genetic ancestry testing results.” (Stormfront requires members to be white or European with non-Jewish ancestry.)

Panofsky and Donovan say that while ancestry tests promote “the capacity to reveal one’s genetic ties to ethnic groups, ancient populations and historical migrations, and even famous historical figures … this opportunity to ‘know thyself’ can come with significant risks.”

White nationalists seem to have a combination of sophisticated and unsophisticated ways of looking at the data from statistical and genetic viewpoints, to their own historical reasoning or reinterpretation. “In this framework, the repair strategy is not to reject scientific or historical knowledge, but to educate oneself to understand the construction of [genetic test] results and to explain those results in alternate terms,” the researchers conclude.

With the Stormfront posts as fodder, Panofsky and Donovan created a decision tree of “good news” or “bad news” responses. Not surprisingly, “Good news” had a confirming effect and was well-received. But “Bad news” is where things got interesting.

Finding non-white or non-European results led to responses from outright rejection of the test results to citing family history or using a “mirror test,” in which recipients gauged their  racial identity based on their personal appearance. “Many of the responses to bad news are about how to repair the damage, rather than latching onto the ideology of Stormfront,” Panofsky said. “Even though they have that idea of purity, they help people explain away or dismiss the result.”

Some of those who reject the results interpret them as the product of companies with an anti-white bias, or part of a Jewish conspiracy to sow “racial doubt and confusion among whites.” A few chose to dismiss the results as a statistical error.

Broadly, the researchers say, white nationalists have begun using genetic tests as to rethink “the boundaries of whiteness.” A lot of Stromfront’s chatter centers on “what are the genetic markers of legitimate whiteness or European-ness,” they say.

The findings were presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association held Aug. 14.

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