It was a strange moment of triumph against racism: The gun-slinging white supremacist Craig Cobb, dressed up for daytime TV in a dark suit and red tie, hearing that his DNA testing revealed his ancestry to be only “86 percent European, and … 14 percent Sub-Saharan African.” The studio audience whooped and laughed and cheered. And Cobb — who was, in 2013, charged with terrorizing people while trying to create an all-white enclave in North Dakota — reacted like a sore loser in the schoolyard.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute,” he said, trying to put on an all-knowing smile. “This is called statistical noise.”

Then, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he took to the white nationalist website Stormfront to dispute those results. That’s not uncommon: With the rise of spit-in-a-cup genetic testing, there’s a trend of white nationalists using these services to prove their racial identity, and then using online forums to discuss the results.

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But like Cobb, many are disappointed to find out that their ancestry is not as “white” as they’d hoped. In a new study, sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan examined years’ worth of posts on Stormfront to see how members dealt with the news.

It’s striking, they say, that white nationalists would post these results online at all. After all, as Panofsky put it, “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”

But instead of rejecting members who get contrary results, Donovan said, the conversations are “overwhelmingly” focused on helping the person to rethink the validity of the genetic test. And some of those critiques — while emerging from deep-seated racism — are close to scientists’ own qualms about commercial genetic ancestry testing.

Panofsky and Donovan presented their findings at a sociology conference in Montreal on Monday. The timing of the talk — some 48 hours after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. — was coincidental. But the analysis provides a useful, if frightening, window into how these extremist groups think about their genes.

Reckoning with results

Stormfront was launched in the mid-1990s by Don Black, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. His skills in computer programming were directly related to his criminal activities: He learned them while in prison for trying to invade the Caribbean island nation of Dominica in 1981, and then worked as a web developer after he got out. That means this website dates back to the early years of the internet, forming a kind of deep archive of online hate.

To find relevant comments in the 12 million posts written by over 300,000 members, the authors enlisted a team at the University of California, Los Angeles, to search for terms like “DNA test,” “haplotype,” “23andMe,” and “National Geographic.” Then the researchers combed through the posts they found, not to mention many others as background. Donovan, who has moved from UCLA to the Data & Society Research Institute, estimated that she spent some four hours a day reading Stormfront in 2016. The team winnowed their results down to 70 discussion threads in which 153 users posted their genetic ancestry test results, with over 3,000 individual posts.

About a third of the people posting their results were pleased with what they found. “Pretty damn pure blood,” said a user with the username Sloth. But the majority didn’t find themselves in that situation. Instead, the community often helped them reject the test, or argue with its results.

Some rejected the tests entirely, saying that an individual’s knowledge about his or her own genealogy is better than whatever a genetic test can reveal. “They will talk about the mirror test,” said Panofsky, who is a sociologist of science at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. “They will say things like, ‘If you see a Jew in the mirror looking back at you, that’s a problem; if you don’t, you’re fine.'” Others, he said, responded to unwanted genetic results by saying that those kinds of tests don’t matter if you are truly committed to being a white nationalist. Yet others tried to discredit the genetic tests as a Jewish conspiracy “that is trying to confuse true white Americans about their ancestry,” Panofsky said.

But some took a more scientific angle in their critiques, calling into doubt the method by which these companies determine ancestry — specifically how companies pick those people whose genetic material will be considered the reference for a particular geographical group.

And that criticism, though motivated by very different ideas, is one that some researchers have made as well, even as other scientists have used similar data to better understand how populations move and change.

“There is a mainstream critical literature on genetic ancestry tests — geneticists and anthropologists and sociologists who have said precisely those things: that these tests give an illusion of certainty, but once you know how the sausage is made, you should be much more cautious about these results,” said Panofsky.

A community’s genetic rules

Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe are meticulous in how they analyze your genetic material. As points of comparison, they use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves. The protocol includes genetic material from thousands of individuals, and looks at thousands of genetic variations.

“When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,” explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe. Then, she went on, the company excludes close relatives, as that could distort the data, and removes outliers whose genetic data don’t seem to match with what they wrote on their survey.

But specialists both inside and outside these companies recognize that the geopolitical boundaries we use now are pretty new, and so consumers may be using imprecise categories when thinking about their own genetic ancestry within the sweeping history of human migration. And users’ ancestry results can change depending on the dataset to which their genetic material is being compared — a fact which some Stormfront users said they took advantage of, uploading their data to various sites to get a more “white” result.

J. Scott Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, who has studied consumer use of genetic tests and was not involved with the study, said the companies tend to be reliable at identifying genetic variants. Interpreting them in terms of health risk or ancestry, though, is another story. “The science is often murky in those areas and gives ambiguous information,” he said. “They try to give specific percentages from this region, or x percent disease risk, and my sense is that that is an artificially precise estimate.”

For the study authors, what was most interesting was to watch this online community negotiating its own boundaries, rethinking who counts as “white.” That involved plenty of contradictions. They saw people excluded for their genetic test results, often in very nasty (and unquotable) ways, but that tended to happen for newer members of the anonymous online community, Panofsky said, and not so much for longtime, trusted members. Others were told that they could remain part of white nationalist groups, in spite of the ancestry they revealed, as long as they didn’t “mate,” or only had children with certain ethnic groups. Still others used these test results to put forth a twisted notion of diversity, one “that allows them to say, ‘No, we’re really diverse and we don’t need non-white people to have a diverse society,'” said Panofsky.

That’s a far cry from the message of reconciliation that genetic ancestry testing companies hope to promote.

“Sweetheart, you have a little black in you,” the talk show host Trisha Goddard told Craig Cobb on that day in 2013. But that didn’t stop him from redoing the test with a different company, trying to alter or parse the data until it matched his racist worldview.

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  • My 23andme results told me I inherited British-Irish, Ashkenazi Jewish, German, Scandinavian, Finnish and Congolese genetic material from my ancestors, so, I’m a product of America’s melting pot and I am proud to be so 😉

  • The problem with correlating genetics to racial groupings and regions is we cannot assume admixture never occured in the distant past. People moved (or were removed) from place to place whenever the smallest opportunity presented itself.
    If that means a Viking washed up in Canada, or a Chinese transposed into Afghanistan or India, or an African slave marooned in Asia, it takes just one or a few individuals to leave a genetic imprint in the local population, which remains generally accepted as the historical occupants in that region. In the case of race, the obvious morphological traits blend into the established populations.

    So nobody is racially “pure”, and the ancient genetic anomalies show up. Racial traits, morphology and local culture however still exist, there is no reason for it not to exist. That is just heritage. Just like it exists in various dog breeds. Eg the difference between a Dachshund and a Husky. Sorry for the dog analogy.

  • People dont realize that our ancestors were adventurous people. And most people dont realize that even our Mexicans and south American neighbors are partly Europeans too. Europeans whether people like it or not also come in different shades. The Spaniards are dark skinned and so are sicilians. I have a cousin who is half sicilian and has very dark skin. I just found out that my brothers DNA had turned up with 2 percent Asia minor in it. Which means we are partly from turkey. But turkey at one point of time was ruled by the anatolian who were from Greek origins originally. So you never know what your DNA will tell you. It’s a roll of the dice.

  • African, Irish, German, Scandinavian, Great Britain, Native American….
    There are very few people in America who are pure anything….but we are all of the human race.

  • I know this is an old thread but I feel compelled to comment one last time, in particular to Steen’s comment, included below.
    —————————————————-
    I am “white”. My ancestry.com, LivingDNA, and 23andMe tests are all very similar, to my great surprise, in that my last 2,000 +/- years of ancestry is Western European – England, Wales, Scots, Ireland, all combine to 95%, 3% is Germanic Europe and 2% is Norway. I admit I’m not sure what Germanic European means.

    @Steen, I have no self-hatred or hatred of whites, nor of any other ethnicity or group of humans. I believe thinking that a person’s skin color matters at all is like thinking one cat is more perfect a cat than another just because of the color of its coat. Ludacris. Stupendously dense and ridiculous.

    I overcame a racist upbringing. Mom not so much, but dad and brothers were all racist to one degree or another. I heard stories that black people will rape me, Mexican girl’s hide knives in their hair and will kill me, Asian people will poison me or shoot at me with razors – all sorts of junk. I was a terrified child. I stayed home most of the time, frightened out of my wits to answer the door. Yet, in junior and high school, my best friends were not “white”. They were, and are, Japanese and Mexican. (There were no black people in my schools). I graduated (first in my immediate family) and went to work, with a completely diverse group, in the banking industry. There was no strife, but I was generally a bit of the outsider because I’m white. They all knew they were on the same floor and trusted each other. I was white and not to be as trusted. I didn’t blame them then, or now. Had they been working with any of my family members, they would have had excellent reason not to trust me.

    My earlier post about wondering if “Caucasians” were inherently just more aggressive and possessive was just me wondering if that group – the Caucasian’s – had somehow suffered a genetic defect that made them as they were/are. Obviously, I’m not very bright because I never stopped to realize whites are not the only ethnicity to be violent, racist, etc. throughout history. Duh.

    Steen, I honestly do not feel any anti-white brainwashing going on. I see the outting of white racism, violence, denigration, subjugation of others not white and I’m glad that those whites – that group of whites so inclined and so indoctrinated – are under a bright light, exposing their cockroachian repulsiveness and stupendously stupid insistence that whites are under attack in any way, shape or form more than any other group in America. The only “attack” whites may be feeling is that they cannot continue their behavior toward others, that they are being seen as the racist, ugly and ignorant (and likely stupid as well) people they are, and no – those whites don’t like that at all, being accountable for so much ugliness and the death of innocent people because they fear poc. I believe fear is the root of the white psyche in all this.

    Blah blah blah. I’m reiterating things much better said by others. I just know that we are all human, all the same but for one insignificant trait, and all deserving of the human rights, respect, dignity, love, health, safety, education, employment, etc etc etc. as anyone else, especislly whites.

    That isn’t self hatred at all. That is normal, and right.

    Steen
    AUGUST 28, 2017 AT 5:54 AM
    So much selfhatred, Lolly. This is what daily anti-white brainwashing and a lack of historical awareness leads to, for white people. The biggest genocide of all time wasn’t even carried out by whites, but by Muslim Indians against Hindu Indians. Sure, Europeans conquered (so did many other peoples), but we also invented human rights and abolished slavery, amongst other things.

  • Give everyone a break. If Cobb is, or was superior , he wouldn’t be so worried of native people being better. Learn what natives are. Not skinny white people. Native Americans were top-strain…..

    • Native Americans were truly top strain, originally migrating from Asia – very pure and likely still very pure. These “white” people (who are only white because their ancestors migrated to an area of weaker sun exposure) who are so concerned about being “pure” are truly, laughably, scornfully, ridiculous and only fooling themselves for no valid reason whatsoever. Their loss of melanin happened over millions of years but they began black just like everyone else on earth. Their hatred of poc bewilders me. Their belief that white is superior bewilders me. Their racist, ugly and ignorant minds disgust me. I am often disgusted, these days especially, to be white.

  • Sixteen years ago, a white child who was diagnosed with a rare cancer addressed me as his cousin, my response to him was ok, why am i your cousin? his response was, you don’t take my word, let me take you to your BIBLE scriptures, I responded ok, there it was GENESIS 9: 1-9, we are all related, whether we like it or not! Now if you think about it, blood transfusion are given, do you know transfusions are not given to a patient based on race only on blood type? YEPPER WE ARE ONE RACE HUMAN!!! My little white friend died six months later, I am Native American I preach for my 12 old white year friend who opened my eyes to the truth.

  • Racism is bandied about so much it’s lost its meaning. What we are is really cultural supremacists. But one thing our opponents don’t realise is that we actually support ethno-nation states like North Korea and Israel. We beleive each culture should co-exist in harmony – not a multicultrural mash up of everyone in some sort of cosmopolitan utopia – that never works. But give people of the same tribe a homeland and then promote world tourism is the solution.

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