DNA, Genetics and Race in the 21st Century

Vivian Chou starts her essay on the race debate by bringing in Donald Trump, a universal symbol of white extremism. She discusses how his election as the 45th president of the United States was patented with racial conflicts. Stating that there was a rise in racial incidents in the aftermath of his victory in November 2016. Jewish community centres and schools have received over 100 bomb threats since 2017. In late January 2017 Trump initiated his travel ban which at the outset affected +/- 90 000 people from several Middle Eastern countries (87 000 of the individuals banned were Muslims). It has been expressed by minorities such as black Americans and American Muslims that they harbour fear over racial relations under the Trump administration. The topic of race and racism has gripped the world over Chou states, which in a sense is accurate but also dispels the complex histories of a country such as South Africa, a country where the discussion of race has never subsided. Yes, race is a topic the world over but it holds a particular efficacy here in a country where people were enslaved, oppressed and killed.

Over the last 25 years it has been hoped that South Africa and the world, especially regions tainted by histories of colonialism become post-racial societies free of racial discrimination and prejudice. This is unfortunately not the case, in South Africa, the United States and all over the world, race is a constant combustible issue. The topics of race and racism are not new but in the Trump era discussions concerning race have taken on a new dimension–that of DNA and genetics.

Estimating ancestral composition down to 0.1% would seem to suggest that categorical divisions exist between human populations, it is however much less simple. The notion of “five races” does to a degree describe the way in which human populations have distributed across the continents research indicates. But these “lines” are more complex than home kit ancestry tests would have you believe.

In 2002, Stanford scientists conducted a benchmark study that explored human diversity by examining the distribution over seven principal geographical regions of 4000 alleles (the different “flavours” of a gene). Over 92% of alleles were located in two or more geographical regions and nearly half of the alleles studied were prevalent in all of the seven principal geographical regions. These findings point to the similarity of all people across the world and has been supported by numerous studies.

If the “five races” as it were, existed it would be the case that “trademark” alleles as well as other genetic features characteristic of a particular group would be found but not indicated in any others. The 2002 Stanford study found that 7.4% of over 4000 alleles were site specific (which only came about in roughly 1% of the people from that region, not enough to consider it trademark). This study shows that there is no evidence that groups referred to as “races” have unifying and distinct genetic features.

Looking into conversations about race within the art world I stumbled across Larry Achiampong and David Blandy’s Genetic Automata showing at London’s Arts Catalyst. The exhibition makes use of emojis, video games, and Darwin to expose falsehoods around intellect and race. The show brings up difficult questions related to race that range from existential questions such as ‘Is race only fantasy?’ to ones that are esoteric in nature asking ‘What has the influence of eugenics been on video games?’ The politics around ethnicity is investigated via video installations seeking to nullify baseless beliefs that have infiltrated our societies.

The main film of the show by the same name, shows to their viewer microscopic topographies of real skin as well as digital versions. A dramatic music score is accompanied by a voice-over that articulates the artists’ perspective on the troubled world they see before them. They discuss how society’s compliance to and actioning of racial divides has created a world of inequality, institutional bias and othering.

“My right to opacity is ignored” – Larry Achiampong

There is a tension created by speaking these words, it reflects on the insensitivity of such pseudoscience.

Using themselves as anthropological subjects in their expression and for the exhibition Achiampong and Blandy took ancestry DNA tests which they concluded to be false, the results being used in the works on display. Visually the work is lay out as avatars whose physical attributes are reflective of the geographies where they have – according to the results of the test – DNA ancestry. The exhibition acts as a reminder that race exists structurally, socio culturally and abstractly, thus the show indicates that which is intangible but is experiential.

The way in which humans navigate the digital sphere offers insight into how people think around “categorization”. An untitled work shows a variety of male and female emojis of different skin tones looping on screen next to a monitor that displays a migrant map. The default colour of these were often yellow before modifiers were added in 2015 to convey diverse skin tones. It is in this fact that one needs to point out that the colour yellow has often been chosen to represent white cartoon characters such as The Simpsons in contrast to characters of colour in the show that are not depicted as blue or green but are clearly identified as brown. This slice of digital history is discussed in Genetic Automata and points to the limits that technology holds on self-representation for some and the fluidity it provides for others. While conversations have been opened around the decolonization of tech design it is not a neutral field and finds its anchor in an Anglo-Saxon perspective.

The virtual is further explored in another untitled work that depicts a scene from the ‘Metal Gear Solid’ video game, 1998 in which the antagonist Liquid Snake catches the protagonist, Solid Snake and tells him that they are twins. This work is indicative of the artists’ interest in how the weaponization and manipulation of DNA is often times used as a plot device in video games. Our obsession with genetics has not only pushed us to personal undertakings for scientific quests but our fear of how it might be used to exploit us becomes a form of entertainment.

Is race a myth? A social construct and biologically meaningless? Social sciences and biology hold that race is socially constructed and not a biological trait. In modern times the term “ancestry” has been popularized among scientists when speaking about human diversity. “Ancestry” mirrors that variation in human groups is connected to the geographical origins of our ancestors. The difference between “ancestry” and “race” is that “ancestry” is concerned with understanding how an individual’s history unfolded as opposed to the categorization of people.

Though scientists are of the consensus that race is a social construct, browsing on the internet indicates that the broader public do not share this opinion. Despite the fact that scientists reject the concept of “race” as a biological concept race is real, and manifests itself as both a social and political concept. Commonly applied classifications of race are based principally on skin colour, eyes, hair and height. It is true that these physical differences between people may appear but this is only superficial difference. This is determined by an inclining of the genome – people are 99.9% the same, all human beings share 99.9% of the same DNA. The differences that can be marked is as a result of differences in environment and external factors but not core biology.

Science shares with us that humanity is more the same than different, however the long and painful history of racism acts as a terrifying reminder that throughout the history of mankind only 0.1% genetic variation has been deemed just cause for committing all manner of discriminatory acts and atrocities. Advances in human genetics and the evidence of sameness across races would be anticipated to subdue racist arguments but the reality is more dire as it is used to further ethnocentric and racist arguments (the alt-right motioning for white nationalism).

The alt-right has been regarded as a fringe movement for years but since Trump’s presidential campaign it has gained considerable attention and relevance. “Indeed, Steve Bannon, the current senior counsellor and chief strategist of President Trump’s campaign, has notable ties to the alt-right. Once relegated to obscure internet forums, the alt-right’s newest pulpit is the White House.” – Vivian Chou

Despite all of the scientific evidence that proves that we are the same, racism persists as these findings are often swept under the rug or manipulated and appropriated to push the racist agendas of extremists. Oppositions to these evils must fight misleading interpretations of such data through education and spreading awareness. No longer a case of only political and social concerns the question of race in today’s world, with advancements in science, has become intertwined. The powerful insights that the genome contains could bring us together as homo sapien sapiens. The reverse side of the coin is that DNA and genetics could be used as a dangerous devise when a group or person’s perceptions and intentions are ultimately flawed. It is becoming more important to understand the narrative that our DNA expresses as it tells us what it means to be human.

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