by Élodie Grossi and Joan Donovan
Following the decline of the Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s, popular movements centered on men’s rights and white identity have gained considerable momentum online since the 2000s. More recently, the election of President Donald J. Trump in November 2016 and his support for a vindictive far-right conservative platform have also given a new impetus to white supremacy movements in the country. The far-right rally and the death of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 have contributed to putting white supremacy movements in the media spotlight, thus raising awareness of the existence and amplitude of such movements in the U.S. and abroad.
Yet despite the recent media exposure, little has been said in the public sphere about the various processes through which individuals affiliate themselves with white supremacy movements and define whiteness as a cultural, phenotypical, and/or genetic entity. Understanding white identity politics is necessary for scholars and activists alike in order to better comprehend and combat the ideology and (mis)use of history that white supremacists develop and deploy in both private and public arenas.
One instance of white identity politics can be seen in the use that white supremacists make of DNA ancestry tests (DAT) to prove their whiteness and to affiliate themselves with European ethnicities. White supremacists often use online platforms, such as Stormfront, to convey their results to their peers, to seek their approval, or to clarify test results they might not understand. However, few of those who take these tests foresee how the results could challenge their belief in who they are and with what group(s) they identify. While they seek confirmation of their personal racial inheritance, they are often confronted with what they regard as deeply discrediting information, such as mixed-race ancestry. This new type of genetic information creates what we call a genetic stigma—a significant gap between the person’s prior conception of themselves and the way others in the broader community perceive them. In the case of white supremacists, the discrepancy may occur when their previously imagined white identity conflicts with their test results, should these reveal non-European DNA. This identity management pattern echoes Alondra Nelson’s concept of “genealogical disorientation,” when DAT customers receive their genetic ancestry tests only to find their identity not confirmed by the test results.
Understanding white identity politics is necessary for scholars and activists alike in order to better comprehend and combat the ideology and (mis)use of history that white supremacists develop and deploy in both private and public arenas.
How do other white supremacists react to the display of non-European DNA? What are the strategies that white supremacists use in order to recuperate their previous white identity from their ‘new’ mixed genetic identity revealed by the DAT test? Finally, what do their reactions and strategies say about the redefinition of whiteness in the 21st-century United States?
To study white supremacists’ reactions to their DNA test results, the Participation Lab at UCLA created a database of instances where white supremacists posted their DNA ancestry test results on Stormfront, a white supremacist online message-board. In our study, we tracked responses to threads where posters revealed their DAT results and asked questions about how to interpret and understand them. We analyzed seventy Stormfront message-board threads containing 3,070 posts, selecting threads that contained message-board members’ DAT results from 2004 to 2016. We found 153 instances where members posted test results and 486 other posts where members alluded to their test results.
Some established members were frequent posters within the science and technology sub-forum, where they were considered authorities on topics related to genetics and DATs. On subjects such as identity and genetics, these established posters tended to have already taken DAT tests themselves as well as having publicly displayed the results. Newcomers tended to have posted on the forum fewer times and, consequently, were not known by other users in the community. Membership is similar to a “career model,” where a newcomer has to prove their good intentions towards the group in order to be accepted as a full-time member. Analyzing the database of posts, we explored how this online community employs different narrative strategies of inclusion and exclusion to deal with information from DAT results that discredited members.
“I know many of you are ‘‘whiter” than me, I don’t care, our goal is the same.”
User A starts the conversation by explaining that they learned they were ‘‘61% European” using a DNA test.
Post by User A (2016)
Hello, got my DNA results and I learned today I am 61% European. I am very proud of my white race and my European roots. I know many of you are ‘‘whiter” than me, I don’t care, our goal is the same. I would like to do anything possible to protect our white race, our European roots and our white families.
User A first covers their stigma by appealing to the fact they share the same political goal, because they are worried that these results do not grant full access to membership owing to their high percentage of non-European DNA. Furthermore, this post also shows how using DAT can be a way to reconstruct personal history ties and make up for lost intergenerational memory or missing historical paper records.
User B, an established member of the community, gives his opinions on User A’s results. User B attacks User A’s legitimacy as a white supremacist with great vehemence.
Reply to User A by User B (2016)
I’ve prepared you a drink. It’s 61% pure water. The rest is potassium cyanide. I assume you have no objections to drinking it. (You might need to stir it first since anyone can see at a glance that it isn’t pure water.) Cyanide isn’t water, and YOU are not White.
Water here refers to “pure” genetic white identity, while cyanide would be the poison that tarnishes white ancestry. User B’s metaphor reveals a clear dichotomy of values between what is perceived as “white DNA” and “non-white DNA” in an effort to exclude User A from whiteness based on his low percentage of European ancestry.
While white supremacists deploy exclusionary strategies to banish members who are not seen as worthy of whiteness, in some instances, however, they redeem posters on certain conditions, even though their test results show mixed ancestry results. In the following post, User C reassures another member bearing genetic stigma by arguing that whiteness is made in and lived through a cultural community. User C encourages them to dismiss the test results.
“I am white. I do not identify as anything else.”
User C (2014)
When you look in the mirror you see white. You feel white and act white and love your white brothers and sisters. And work to maintain your people. I’ve been told the ‘we have Indian somewhere’ story. No one has ever said where. I have a genealogical study back 12 paternal generations. I’m American, 2 generations from Canada, and 6 more to France. I am white. I do not identify as anything else.
By saying that they do not identify “as anything else,” User C stresses whiteness is a matter of self-identification only. User C relies on a nationalist definition of white heritage by tracing their genealogy through America, Canada, and France, which shows that for white supremacists in the U.S., being associated with settler nations, like France, strengthens their belief in their inalienable right to American soil. For User C, being white requires political work to protect and “maintain” other whites. Accordingly, whiteness as an identity is a self-defined, cultural, historical, and political choice, where race is defined as a performance.
Among white supremacists, the notion of whiteness has often been associated with the one-drop rule, which has marked the concept of racial purity in the U.S. since the late 19th century. Therefore, the one-drop rule is often understood as genotype ruling over phenotype: a person who looks white and acts white is, nevertheless, considered “non-white” if their DNA reveals non-European ancestry. However, the new cultural narrative allows white supremacists to include new members in their movement, to swell the ranks, by giving a broader definition of whiteness, not based solely on biological variables or the one-drop rule. Paradoxically, as white supremacists reconstruct their arguments to stay “white” in a genetically-diverse world and keep their demographics, they also undermine previous social and historical constructions of white superiority that used to be based solely on blood purity and the one drop-rule.
The research for this essay derives from an article that is currently under review for publication in a peer–reviewed journal.
Élodie Grossi is a PhD candidate in Sociology and American History at University Paris Diderot and whose dissertation is supervised by Dominique Vidal and Paul Schor. In 2015 and 2016, as a research member of EpiDaPo (CNRS-UCLA) and of the Participation Lab at the Institute for Society and Genetics at UCLA, she organised the symposium “The Color of American Genomics: Genetics in the Era of Racialized Medicine” held at UCLA in December 2016. She is currently a Fulbright and Georges Lurcy Fellow at the Tulane History department and a member of the research center URMIS, University Paris Diderot. Her PhD research focuses on the social history of racialized psychiatry in the segregated South and the medicalization of the black body from the 19th century to the contemporary era. Her field of interests also includes the politicization of science, whiteness studies, critical race theory, and the transformation of identity politics in the era of genomics.
Joan Donovan is the Media Manipulation Research Lead at the Data and Society Research Institute, where she researches how the Internet became a political tool. She received her PhD in Sociology and Science Studies at University of California San Diego, where she studied activist communication networks. After UCSD, she went to UCLA as a Post-Doc at the Institute for Society and Genetics, where she studied white nationalists’ use of science and DNA ancestry tests in the search for racial purity.
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 For the online presence of such movements, see Jessie Daniels, “Race, Civil Rights, and Hate Speech in the Digital Era,” in Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media, ed. Anna Everett (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 129-154 ; Jessie Daniels, Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009), 12-20.
 For the concept of stigma, see Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 4-6.
 For the concept of genealogical disorientation and ancestry tests, see the seminal work of Alondra Nelson, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2016), 84-88.
 For the notion of career, see Howard Becker, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, (New York, NY: Free Press, 1963), 31-35.
 For previous social constructions of white superiority that used to be based solely on blood purity and the one-drop rule, see James F. Davis, Who Is Black?: One Nation’s Definition, (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001), 12-16 ; Matthew Pratt Guterl, The Color of Race in America, 1900–1940, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 5-7.