5 Questions: Alondra Nelson on Race, Ethnicity and the ‘Social Life of DNA’

December 18, 2015
Aondra Nelson Social Life of DNA Columbia University

Photo by Michael Dames

As a sociologist who studies issues of race, ethnicity and gender, as well as health and science, Alondra Nelson has for years been fascinated by the boom in genetic testing.

“Given how science has been historically used to make claims about race and to justify racism and inequality, I was interested in the use of new genetic techniques to say something about racial identity,” says Nelson, a professor of sociology and dean of social science. “I felt like I couldn’t not work on this when direct-to-consumer genetic testing emerged just over a decade ago.”

The author of the award-winning 2011 book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination, Nelson is co-chair of Columbia’s Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies Council, created in 2013 to foster ties among the institutes, centers and initiatives at the University working in these areas.

Her genetic ancestry research led to her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome, which was published this month.


Columbia Magazine Cover Winter 2015-16

The Double-Edged Helix, Columbia Magazine, Winter 2015-16

Q. What do you mean by the “social life of DNA”?

A. My initial question was whether these new tests were advancing problematic ideas about racial difference. Ethnographic research revealed that these tests were being used for far more complicated social practices. Genetic information spans medical, forensic and genealogical fields, and the tests are one piece in the larger story about people’s lives, family and history. The social life of DNA is a concept that mirrors the multifaceted uses of genetics and the way I came to discover the stories that are in the book.

Q. How did you find those stories?

A. I joined the Harlem chapter of a national organization called the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. These mostly older African American women taught me how to do genealogy. I also went to conferences with genetic scientists. I found out about the role that these tests played in the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, where a multidisciplinary and interracial team used science to reveal the histories of enslaved men and women. The biological data was put in the context of what we know about the history of New York City at the time and shipping routes from Africa to New York, allowing scientists to move from race to clues about the ethnicity of those buried at the site.

Q. Why is this particularly important to African Americans?

A. You can think about genetic ancestry tests as another way to tell us something about racial stratification. Slavery was a caste system. Regardless of their native language, religion, cultural background, every enslaved person became simply black under conditions of slavery. To give even a “macro-ethnic affiliation”—in the African Burial Ground project, for instance, there were large swaths of remains of Bantu and Gold Coast peoples— is an attempt to move from a kind of unspecified racial caste identity to a more specific ethnic identity. This is important for African Americans because many have never been able to have it.

Q. Are other groups using this testing?

A. The Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo, the women who gathered in front of a government building in Buenos Aires seeking information about relatives who disappeared when a military dictatorship ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, were pioneers in the use of genetic analysis. They used early DNA testing to recover the identities of those who were killed by the state and to have living grandchildren [who were kidnapped or born in captivity] returned to their families. As a result, the advocates were able to make claims about the historical past, about trauma and about how to restore or reconcile communities.

Q. Your own genetic ancestry testing revealed that you are related to the Bamileke people of Cameroon. Did that change anything for you?

A. Anything about Cameroon is now of interest to me, in the same way that things about Harlem and San Diego are interesting to me because I live in Harlem and grew up in San Diego. What’s more interesting is what’s happened in my family. My mother wanted to know the results right away—it was my matrilineal DNA that was tested. That was in 2010. Soon after my mother tells me she met a wonderful woman from Cameroon and she’s going to have the family over for dinner. They were hosted again by my parents for Thanksgiving. One of the beautiful things about these tests is that people meet other people in their communities they might not otherwise meet and it becomes another source of commonality.

By Georgette Jasen

Related: Alondra Nelson: Advocate for the Social Sciences, Nov 15, 2014