Dissertation Research

Backdoor to Essentialism? Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Social Deconstruction of Whiteness

Drawing on in-depth interviews and a survey experiment, my dissertation project examines two objectives: through interviews, I first explore why people take tests and investigate how people navigate identity in the context of genetic profiles. Second, after learning from the subjective experiences of test-takers, I deployed a 2x2 online survey experiment using vignettes designed to look like a web-based genetic testing advertisement. This study seeks to determine if the framing (health vs. ancestry) of genetic testing and the race of the people present in testing advertisements impact views of racial essentialism. 

Core findings from my qualitative sample suggest genetic ancestry testing appeals to progressive, educated, white (lighter skin European descendants) individuals, looking to confirm family stories that sometimes involve a mysterious native ancestor or desires to create stronger ethnic bonds. I argue genetic ancestry tests are racial projects that encourage white individuals to contest and reflect on their racial and ethnic formations of identity, and while socially deconstructing whiteness, there is sometimes a small desire to be perceived as raced. I call this inverse process of socially constructing race a 'social deconstruction of whiteness.' The social deconstruction of whiteness explores how white individuals experience their racial and ethnic identity in an era where the socially constructed category of "white" is losing salience as a meaningful identity and the history of white supremacy in the US is becoming more widely recognized. Whereas social constructions of race perceive and disenfranchise individuals and groups that are not white, conversely, people that are white and benefit from social privileges are forming perceptions around desires to be raced or to develop stronger ethnic bonds, without relinquishing privileges. Instead of constructing race, they are deconstructing their whiteness.

My participants offer a unique account of how the social construction of race is experienced in the context of genetic testing, continental ancestry, and identity formation in a "post-racial", "post Trump" era. Drawing on Omi and Winant's (1994) pivotal work on the social construction of race, I argue there is a newly emerging racial formation process occurring among white individuals. The dynamics of racial formation, in this capacity, are motivated by a new type of racial project in which coinciding institutions of science and media are encouraging whites to reconsider their racial identity. Critically, this is a process that implicitly leaves the structures of white supremacy firmly in place while allowing white individuals to disassociate from a privileged identity.

Past Research

My MA thesis research draws on the sociological concepts of new racism and white racial framings to analyze how comic book forum discussions account for a lack of diversity in film adaptations of comic books. Employing a qualitative content analysis of an online forum tailored to comic book culture and superhero movies, this research explores how people negotiate their continued fandom of Marvel comics amidst claims that the comic book industry is discriminatory towards people of color. Findings revealed that fans largely rely on white racial framings throughout discussion. Central themes indicated that most forum participants suggest only overt discrimination implies that race matters, minimize the effects of historical processes, and only a few fans challenge traditional representations that normalize white dominance as inevitable. From this research, "Negotiating New Racism: It's not Racist or Sexist. It's Just the Way it is" was published in Media, Culture & Society in early 2019. I also contributed to Comic Forum, an online space that academics showcase scholarly work on comic books.