For White Nationalists, Genetic Ancestry Tests Challenge Concepts of Identity and Purity


A white supremacist helps a friend after he was punched in the face during clashes with counter-protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A white supremacist helps a friend after he was punched in the face during clashes with counter-protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If genetic ancestry results had been around in Adolf Hitler's day, there's a good chance he would have been unhappy when his results arrived. Though there's no verified surviving sample of the Fuhrer's own DNA, in 2010 a Belgian study of Hitler's living relatives revealed that Hitler's own dominant haplogroup — groups of chromosomes that can reveal a person's ethnic background — was rare in white western Europeans, but common in some North African, East African and Jewish populations.

Contemporary white nationalists and similar hate groups often apparently face a comparable dilemma. When they spit in a cup and send the saliva containing their DNA to commercial genetic ancestry testing services in an effort to validate their white European, non-Jewish roots, the results sometimes are not what they had hoped for. And according to a new study presented on Monday, Aug. 14 at the American Sociological Association annual conference in Montreal, an even more interesting surprise is how they react.

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" movement take refuge in an alleyway after being hit with pepper spray after their Aug. 12, 2017, rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was declared an unlawful gathering.
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" movement take refuge in an alleyway after being hit with pepper spray after their Aug. 12, 2017, rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was declared an unlawful gathering.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sociologists Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, with the help of a team of researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, scrutinized several years' worth of posts on Stormfront, a white nationalist website, looking for genetic terminology and other tipoffs that a site user was discussing a genetic ancestry test.

The sociologists found that of 153 posts where specific test results were revealed, only 53 — about a third — were interpreted by posters as confirming their white identity. The rest contained varying degrees of unsettling news about their ancestry. But rather than simply keep the results to themselves, the white nationalists — and others who commented on their posts — engaged in various rationalizations about the findings.

Some posters tried to offset the test results by comparing them to the family trees they'd constructed with their own genealogical digging. Another tactic was to reject the results because they didn't fit with a person's outward physical appearance. ("When you look in the mirror, do you see a Jew?" one poster quoted by the researchers wrote. "If not, you're good.") Yet another approach was to argue that the genetic testing must be rigged by companies that harbor a secret anti-white bias, or even are part of some insidious conspiracy. One poster, for example, suspected that one company was part of a "covert operation" to obtain white DNA that "the Jews could then use to create bio-weapons."