White nationalists hinge their quest for so-called racial purity on personal identity, but when genetic ancestry tests show they might not be as “pure” as they thought, some may go out of their way to reinterpret or dismiss the science completely.
In a recent study, researchers found white nationalists sometimes skew their view of science for their own benefit when a genetic test challenges their personal identity. The study, which is currently under review for publication, was led by Aaron Panofsky, an associate professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics, and sociologist Joan Donovan.
“White nationalists tend to follow this ideological rule that they have,” and when they get scientific results that don’t align with that rule, they “find some way to get around it,” Panofsky said.
To conduct their study, Panofsky and Donovan analyzed 153 posts where users displayed results of their genetic tests on the white nationalist online forum Stormfront. The posts spanned more than a decade.
Stormfront was founded in the 1990s by former KKK leader Don Black. It calls itself a “community of racial realists and idealists.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Stormfront the “first major hate site on the internet.”
Out of the 153 posts, Panofsky said about a third of them were users celebrating “good news,” or results that showed they were as “pure” as they thought they were or more “pure” than they thought.
The other two-thirds were either users analyzing “bad news” from their genetic tests, or results that showed they were less “pure” than they thought, or users who posted their results without context.
Stormfront users employed a variety of services to get their genetic results, from Ancestry.com and 23andMe to DNA Solutions. Companies such as Ancestry.com allow customers to request an at-home test for $99 and up, and then send in their DNA, which scientists use to compare with reference panels. Results can be mailed back in up to six weeks.
In a statement, Ancestry.com spokesman Brandon Borrman said the company does not condone people using its services to justify what they see as racial purity.
“We are against any use of our product in an attempt to promote divisiveness or justify twisted ideologies. People looking to use our services to prove they are ethnically ‘pure’ are going to be deeply disappointed. We encourage them to take their business elsewhere,” his statement said.
Users claimed ‘diversity’ from genetics tests
Most Stormfront users were motivated to do these tests because they are “invested in remaining white,” Donovan said. “White nationalists are not acting out of ignorance; they’re trying to actively construct a version of an ideological whiteness that depends on science.”
Panofsky said users who were given “bad” results either used the genetic tests to rethink the boundaries of whiteness or looked for an explanation as to why the tests were faulty. Sometimes users would repeat tests multiple times to try and get a “more desired” result.
Some users excused the test results by claiming the genetics companies were run by Jewish people, who purportedly skewed results in an attempt to create a multicultural nation, Panofsky said. Others saw the results as a way to expand the boundaries of whiteness and ask what percentage of nonwhite is “acceptable.”
“The scientific criticisms were often very sophisticated. You get people who say this is bad news here for our nation, but we need to deal with this and change our definition of white nationalism to take account of this,” Panofsky said.
Some users found they were from multiple European cultures, which they used to claim an ideology of multiculturalism without having to accept people of color.
From a white nationalist’s point of view, Panofsky said, such results look like diversity within the European population, while they see all nonwhite people as basically the same.
“It’s not necessarily changing their minds (about getting away from white nationalism), but they’re grappling with it,” he added. “You can’t rely on people learning more about the truth of human relatedness and genetics to change their minds.”