Race, Ethnicity, and DNA

What DNA ancestry tests can — and can’t — tell you” — Vox, 2019, 7:24https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIWlatQt4KE

Sociologist Wendy Roth is interviewed in this video on DNA-based racial categories. Since we know race and ethnicity are social constructions, what can at-home DNA testing tell us about our ancestry? Well, if we want our results at the 90% confidence level, then not much at all. The more troubling phenomenon is the reification of discrete racial categories. If we believe race is encoded in DNA then we may also be fueling arguments for “racial purity” and other race-based discrimination. Though not discussed in the video, there is also a major difference between race and ethnicity, commonly defined as our cultural heritage. For example, can someone claim to be part of Scottish culture (and wear a kilt) based on DNA alone, without any knowledge of or socialization in said culture? Is that not akin to cultural appropriation since it is largely self-serving? Many more interesting questions can be raised here but sociologists will have to disenchant this DNA craze as we further clarify how race is socially rather than biologically constructed.

From the video’s description: At-home DNA ancestry tests have become hugely popular in recent years. More than 26 million have taken one of these tests. If their marketing is to be believed, they can help you learn where your DNA comes from, and even where your ancestors lived. But the information that can be inferred from your DNA is actually much more limited than testing companies are letting on. And that has lead consumers to misinterpret their results — which is having negative consequences.