Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Race, Genomic Science, and the Meaning of Ancestry by Elliot James

If at one point it was clear that race is a social construction, this is no longer the case. As Dr. Ruha Benjamin explained in her presentation, “Can the Subaltern Genome Code?” genomics has brought back ethno-racial categories in a big way.
Benjamin clearly lays out the stakes in genomic scientific projects and shows how elites in India, Mexico, South Africa (once sites of colonization) are at the forefront of using science to determine what makes their populations unique biologically. As post-colonial scientists have argued, Genomics enables their nations, as opposed to the pharmaceutical giants in the North (i.e. the former colonizers), to exploit subaltern gene pools for profit.
Genomicists in the global south have now sought to develop medicines tailored to treat diseases specific to their local populations, rather than have outsiders make money doing that work for them.
What Benjamin puts on the table is the way post-colonial genomics needs race to be fixed and objective in order to serve capitalism and nationalism well.
But what else is it about the genome, as opposed to something else, that gives it the potential to reify the racial? And how might we begin to reframe the very categories genomics has deemed natural in order to advance an anti-racist politics?
It is useful to pose these questions in Africa, not just because it is the place where genomicists continue to locate “First Man,” but also because querying genomics here exposes the limit of the project of ancestry (africanancestry.com). As much as what the genome reveals about our great-great grandparents, it tells us nothing of the ancestors.
What elders, griots, and praise poets have taught us across the African diaspora, for example, is that past peoples need not be located and extracted through the scientific method or historical inquiry to be engaged or remembered. Rather, our ancestors are already amongst us—guiding and teaching us. So, how do we invoke the ancestors in the age of ancestry?
The ancestors made themselves present when Dr. Benjamin invited spoken word artist and fellow JWTC participant Roberta Estrela D’Alva to lead the group in song. We banged on chairs and desks, clapped and snapped, stomped our feet, and sang in response to the call of D’Alva’s voice.
I had no clue what the words we sang meant, and I sat amongst people who did not look like me, but drumming and singing in chorus with everyone in the room felt like church to me. It transported me to the Church of the New Vision, where I once communed every Sunday with folks I no longer see—some of whom have passed away.
Though our ancestries differed, Benjamin, D’Alva, and the people in the room that day invoked my ancestors, and I have no doubt that mine sang, drummed, and danced with theirs. We might very well need to continuously find ways to invoke the ancestors as we journey through the country and theorize the “non-racial” if only to contest the ways ancestry has reinscribed the racial in this post-genomic era.

The image is under a Creative Common License: (c) Victoria Pickering via Flickr


About the Author:
Elliot James is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and studies the history of technology in Africa from a “queer of color” perspective. He is currently writing a thesis that retells the history of South Africa’s minibus taxi in order to que(e)ry the nature and consequences of transport reform.
Twitter @elliot_mpls

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