The following is a guest blog post by Sarah Abel, author of Permanent Markers: Race, Ancestry, and the Body after the Genome.
Over the past twenty years, DNA ancestry testing has morphed from a niche market into a booming international industry that encourages members of the public to answer difficult questions about their identity by looking to the genome. At a time of intensified interest in issues of race and racism, the burgeoning influence of corporations like AncestryDNA and 23andMe has sparked debates about the commodification of identity, the antiracist potential of genetic science, and the promises and pitfalls of using DNA as a source of “objective” knowledge about the past.
This book engages these debates by looking at the ways genomic ancestry testing has been used in Brazil and the United States to address the histories and legacies of slavery, from personal genealogical projects to collective racial politics.
In the past year since I finished writing the manuscript for Permanent Markers: Race, Ancestry, and the Body after the Genome, commercial DNA ancestry testing has experienced a surge in popularity in Brazil. Since 2019, home-grown companies like Genera and MeuDNA have begun offering DNA ancestry services to the Brazilian public, while international companies like MyHeritage (based in Israel) have also started shipping their products to the country. Throughout 2021, numerous articles in Brazilian newspapers and magazines described the mounting enthusiasm for these technologies, which some observers ascribed to the effects of the pandemic: the impossibility of getting together with family in person and the shock of losing loved ones is thought to have led Brazilians to begin delving into their genetic ancestry instead. Moreover, following the global antiracist protests of 2020, the tests have been promoted as being of particular importance for Afro-Brazilians. A special report published by the news outlet Universo Online (UOL) in April 2021 included interviews with twenty Black Brazilians public figures who were invited to reflect on the results of their DNA ancestry tests. And in May 2021, Ana Nice, a Partido Trabalhador councilor in the São Bernardo do Campo municipality of São Paulo state, proposed a bill that would make DNA ancestry tests freely available to Afro-Brazilians in her constituency, framing this as a strategy for the “defense and promotion of racial equality.”
It remains to be seen how the DNA ancestry testing industry and public debates around genetic testing will continue to develop in Brazil. Yet some lessons can already be gleaned from past experience – for instance, by looking at how discourses around DNA ancestry techniques were mobilized in Brazilian public debate in the first decade of the 2000s. In chapter 1 of Permanent Markers, I describe how a moment when the Brazilian government was finally recognizing racism as a systemic national problem – thanks in large part to the long-term lobbying efforts of Black activists – prominent geneticists framed these technologies as a way of proving that all Brazilians are united by their unique racial mixture, regardless of how physically diverse the Brazilian population may seem. In particular, debates over whether DNA ancestry tests might be used as an “objective” way of judging candidates’ eligibility for the newly introduced racially targeted quotas at Brazilian universities led many Afro-Brazilian activists to be wary of claims that genetic technologies could say anything meaningful about a person’s identity or ethnic heritage. These experiences show that DNA ancestry tests are not an inherently antiracist technology: they can just as easily be used to perpetuate as to debunk racialized myths of identity, and they do little to dismantle the structures that perpetuate racism in contemporary societies.
Other similarities can be drawn with the way the industry has captured the public’s imagination in the United States. There, DNA ancestry testing has been successfully presented to the US public as a means to recuperate lost aspects of their personal genealogies and celebrate their “unique ethnic heritage” – something that is seen as particularly valuable for African-descendant Americans, whose ability to access their family histories via traditional genealogical means is limited by the “brick walls” of slavery and racism. The systematic erasure of Black histories from both personal genealogies and national accounts of the past is an enduring and pernicious legacy of slavery in Brazil, too, and in light of this, the current enthusiasm for DNA testing as a way of recuperating these lost ancestries is understandable. Nonetheless, my research for Permanent Markers indicates that like all historical tools, DNA ancestry tests have their limitations and blind spots: rather than offering definitive answers to issues of identity and ancestry they often open up more complex questions. For these reasons, I would encourage prospective Brazilian test-takers to take a critical and cautious approach to these technologies, and to resist seeing them as a “quick fix” to issues of identity and racial inequality.
Sarah Abel is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Latin American Studies.