GENEWATCH
 
RETHINKING 21ST CENTURY RACISM ON THE WAY HOME
By Victoria Massie
 

from GeneWatch 27-2 | May-July 2014

Returning home from fieldwork can be difficult when you find yourself caught between an unintended call back to your project and the impending reality that home has lost its capacity to act as sanctuary. That was at least the situated liminality I encountered in the John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 16, 2013. Fresh off of a flight from Belgium after leaving Cameroon, I met America at a crossroads. It had been a little over 48 hours since the news had circulated around the country, and the world, that self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman-turned-vigilante George Zimmerman was found not guilty for stalking and shooting in the chest at point-blank range a young 17 year-old boy, Trayvon Martin, who was simply returning home after buying some skittles and iced tea.

Indeed, since I had left it in May, America had proven itself audacious and arrogant in ways that I could not stomach. To think it had only been a few days earlier that I met with a young Cameroonian woman at a café in downtown Douala to inform her that, despite the election of Barack Obama, America still has yet to fully confront the legacy of racism. That it still haunts those bodies whose skin does not prove bright enough to mirror the clouds. That despite her dreams of changing the world through medicine, America was not necessarily likely to welcome her, at least not with open arms. That she, like me, like my family, like many of my friends, would come to find herself engaging in the fight of her life in the pursuit of her happiness away from home.

As I sat in the waiting area, anxious to board my final flight to San Francisco, I doubted my advice had been marked by anything more than naïveté. After all, surrounded by television screens in every direction, all of which seemed to be tuned in to the same program on CNN, I listened as one of the jurors, protected by the veil of anonymity in a world marked by surveillance, echoed the President's official statement that the verdict was justice served.

I was not thirsty enough to swallow the audacious idea that one could condone the possibility that it could ever be rational to consume black life, my life, with all of its innocent willingness to exist, with impunity.

For this reason, my relief at the call to board the last flight I would have to take to get back to my bed in Oakland was called into question when I came face to face with a 13' by 4' advertisement courtesy of HSBC bank. With a picture of the back of a thumb, whose print was obstructed by the seemingly natural manifestation of a personal QR code, the writing on the wall was clear: "In the future, your DNA will be your data."

What does this bank advertisement have to do with the legal vindication of American racism through Trayvon's murder? If my work on the entanglements of race and genetics through the transnational circulation of genetic ancestry testing information by and on behalf of African Americans can be a reference point, it may be that, despite the lack of resemblance, Trayvon and HSBC are becoming intimately linked in ways that are startling.

Much work has been done to discuss the problematic ways American racial categories are, without even a second thought, being re-inscribed into the genome through what has come to be called genetic "ancestry." And though its applications were first limited to the field of biomedicine, the burgeoning field of direct-to-consumer DNA tests has turned ancestry testing into the latest American pastime. From spit-parties at New York fashion week to Baptist church services and family reunion backyard barbeques, it seems most Americans know someone who has taken a genetic ancestry test, or have done so themselves. While I was working at the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley this summer, the director, Marcy Darnovsky, shared with me her recent encounter with a woman in a checkout line in Trader Joe's. With a voice that carried across the aisles, the woman standing in front of her announced to a friend - and, unintentionally, the rest of the grocery store - the various percentages of African, European, Asian and Native American ancestry seamlessly replicating within her.

Marcy, with all of her critically-engaged curiosity, politely asked, "Well, but what does that mean?" This was not an interrogation. Marcy in fact posed the question because, despite all of the discourse around the techniques, the question of accuracy, of the actual capacity for ancestry to fully signify anything more than self-evident significance, has yet to be clearly dealt with in the academy and the results packages alike. Indeed, despite the fact that we constantly treat DNA as the sovereign purveyor of truth, it may be a bit shakier in some cases than we're willing to admit. Taking a moment to reflect, the woman in front of Marcy, while fumbling through the ethnic identities of a number of relatives who have since passed, responded, "Well, I don't know."

The woman in Trader Joe's is not alone. The burden of non-knowledge often serves as the impetus to take the test. And as I have come to learn during my various fieldwork trips to Cameroon, beginning the day after Christmas in 2011, it can also be one of its effects, despite all of the work done to ensure otherwise.

The year prior, in 2010, Cameroon made headlines as the first African nation to host a delegation of African-Americans in their genetically-certified country of origin through what came to be known as the Ancestry Reconnection Program (ARP). The connections being (re)made, however, were not just those of African-American genetic ancestry test-takers, or Camericans. Largely developed by a US-based NGO of musicians, many of whom happened to be Cameroonian, the ARP was a means for Cameroonians of the diaspora, displaced without reference to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, to rethink their responsibility to their home as their country celebrated its 50th anniversary of gaining independence from France. In the spirit of both Cameroon's national motto, "Paix-Travail-Patrie," and John F. Kennedy's famous rallying cry during his 1961 inaugural address - "Ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country" - the director of the NGO worked to bring peace to the global Cameroonian community by returning long-lost Cameroonians, displaced through slavery, back to the land of their ancestors. It just happens that the pragmatic way of doing this was through genetic ancestry.

The ARP included many things: all-expenses-paid transportation and stays in the Yaoundé Hilton, trips to shop for local fabric, as well as meetings with various government officials, including the prime minister. But what was of interest to many Camericans, and myself, were the plots of land in Kribi privately donated as gifts to participants by a Cameroonian civilian who had no ties to the government and was only indirectly affiliated with the ARP organizers.

What was to be made, if anything, of these gifts? What could be said about the superior status of genetic information as land came to compete with DNA as the signifier of truth about an opaque past, whose unknowability had been passed down from generation to generation as one of the lingering effects of slavery?

Interestingly enough, at this moment, the answer seems to be: nothing. When I arrived in Cameroon last summer, I was surprised to find a surplus of weeds growing around the nametags marking each of the plots. They had appeared abandoned since I had last seen the area two years prior. In fact, it seems that Camericans were becoming all the more Cameroonian in their seamless mirroring of the pervasive practice of absentee-landlordship happening across the country.

The lack of direct action and presence in Cameroon, however, belied the significant discussions that had been taking place about how to deal with the land communally in the future. During a videoconference-after all, Camericans can be found dispersed across the country and globe at any given moment-Camericans and I discussed green-housing options, community centers, and safety issues of living in Cameroon. However, a surprising shadow was lurking behind much of the discussion. At stake was not only the construction of home; Camericans were also confronting the potential return to a home marked by increasing Chinese investment, more recently through the development of a port in the same town as the land plots. America was again facing the normal reality of China as a global power, but now through the latest African diasporic claims to the continent.

And yet, with all of this talk of the future, of the impending challenge between China and (African) America, my Cameroonian auntie would soon remind me over dinner that such talk about big projects -of their projected growth, of their positive impact on Cameroon's economic development - rarely materialized into the present. In other words, Cameroonians often met these promised futures with a disappointing, or what would come to be pointed, evanescence.

What then are the implications of the convergence of Camericans' fight for the future of their homeland - as it pertains to both Cameroon and America - just as Cameroonians find futures-in-the-making, in the end, often bloated and unsubstantiated? "The" answer, if there is only to be one, remains to be seen.

But this poses interesting questions about the status of racial reification, which has often been the problem discussed among social scientists. As DNA is forced to contend with other means of materializing ancestry, such as land in the country of presumed genetic origin, DNA's truth-telling capacity is forced to be accountable to other social and political-economic contexts and histories. Or rather, we come to find that there are differentially distributed abilities to tell stories through DNA. What is to be made of the seamlessly routine denial of Cameroonians' future for the constructions of those of another, cunningly in Cameroon's name? Will Camericans prove culpable in this construction of the every-day foreclosure of Cameroonian futurity in the story they come to tell with both DNA and land title in hand? And as a consequence, what are the parts of our shared transnational social reality that are actually being potentially reified with and through DNA?

If my work is any indication, it seems that when American genetic ancestry meets the ancestral homeland, DNA acquires a degree of contingency from which it cannot escape. In some ways, this may serve productively as a means to rethink what potential there is, if any, of reifying the idea of "race" as we have known it.

However, if, as HSBC suggests, DNA is to be our data, this contingency may prove to be lethal for those who are unable to stabilize it. It will be in the overcoming of DNA's naturally occurring capacity to mutate and exceed itself, even in its social entanglements, that one will be able to be legible, to have data, to have a future, in this increasingly economically driven neoliberal world order. As Camericans struggle to establish themselves as Cameroonians, and as Cameroonians simultaneously struggle to have access to a future that makes such self-definition possible, the insidious nature of racism operating today may be found in the ambivalent ways the world seems to be enabling racialized subjects' fall off of the surveyable grid as they make their way home - with skittles, iced tea, and their genetic material.

 

Victoria Massie is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology with a Designated Emphasis in Science & Technology Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

 

 
 
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