Genetics and Racial Identity

This week, I decided to read the essay “The Biopolitics of Human Genetics Research and Its Application” by Fatimah Jackson and Sherie McDonald. In this essay, the authors discuss how genetic techniques are used to answer common questions regarding race and racial identity. They discuss how mitochondrial DNA, which is maternally passed down, has been used to determine a person’s lineage and give various reasons why this is not the most reasonable method of discovering racial background.

Firstly, they mentioned how African ethnic groups is “ahistorical, since many of these African groups did not even exist four hundred years ago”. They also argued that mtDNA only takes into account genetic material maternally all the way up to the oldest mother, which totally disregards the contribution of paternal genetic material in ethnicity. They also mention that ethnic groups often disappear due to warfare, social struggles, and other hardships and mtDNA doesn’t reflect any of these historical events.

The authors then discuss the “Out of Africa” Replacement Model in human evolution. They mention how this widespread theory leads to misconceptions, which includes contemporary Africans being the “parents” of modern humanity. They further show that the replacement model doesn’t mention how other pre-human Neanderthals were replaced by homo sapiens sapiens.

Finally, the authors bring up a different method of determining racial identity, called ethnogenetic layering (EL). The approach combines genetics with geographical, environmental, cultural, historical, and demographic information, because a huge part of racial identity depends also on how genes are expressed, or a person’s phenotype. The phenotype is affected by these other information.

Overall, the authors have shown how the old method of using mtDNA and other solely genetic techniques are archaic and dysfunctional techniques to finding racial identity. Then they further mention a new way that includes other factors as well that they believe should be used instead.

The ideas in this essay bring me back to the project by Heather Dewey-Hagborg  called Stranger Visions. In this project, Dewey-Hagborg collects DNA from random areas in New York City, from chewing gum at a public park to random pieces of hair on the street, and then uses the genetic information in the gum to construct a visual representation of how the person would look like. In this project, she uses solely genetic information and fails to connect other factors in a person’s appearance such as those that the authors in the article mentioned in ethnogenetic layering.

Also, the ideas in this essay show how African culture takes these scientific discoveries and uses them to strengthen a sense of unity. This is a way they use scientific discovery to fight social injustice against their “race”, and it is good but the use of the scientific discoveries is not necessarily accurate.

This essay is particularly interesting to me because it plays into how anything that is scientific is usually believed by the public. It makes it a point to show that just because a scientific discovery shows it, doesn’t mean that further studies can’t be done to disprove it.


Da, C. B., & Philip, K. (2008). Tactical biopolitics: Art, activism, and technoscience. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.  pg 201.

Dewey-Hagborg, Heather. "Stranger Visions." Heather Dewey-Hagborg. N.p., 2012. Web. 23. May. 2017.