Is There Neo-Nazi DNA? Ancestry Tests and Biological Essentialism in American Racism

by Martie Smith Roberts

The vision of white racial purity that drove the Nazi regime to perpetrate genocide in the mid-twentieth century has persisted into the present, most recently made visible by American white supremacist groups. The idea that bodies not only represented but also manifested an essential cultural supremacy may seem to be an outdated and backward view of the world. And yet, a recent surge in popular interest in ancestry and DNA may reveal the ways in which biological essentialism continues to inform popular American notions of identity.

In the wake of Charlottesville, articles and exposés on the alt-right, KKK, white supremacy, and neo-Nazi movements in America are flooding newsfeeds everywhere. Two of those recent articles connect white nationalist movements with ancestry and DNA testing, raising questions about our general assumptions on relationship between biology and identity. Headlines, such as Sarah Zhang’s article in The Atlantic, “When White Nationalists Get DNA Tests That Reveal African Ancestry,” and Tom Hale’s post on IFL Science, “White Supremacists Taking Ancestry Tests Aren’t Happy About The Results” play on the generally assumed biological basis of identity. (Similar articles can be found here, here, and here.) Continue reading “Is There Neo-Nazi DNA? Ancestry Tests and Biological Essentialism in American Racism”

Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?

by Lissa Skitolsky

When I read the glowing New York Times review of the recent movie Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (2017) by the Israeli-American director Joseph Cedar, I was intrigued about what A.O. Scott reported as “one of Mr. Cedar’s slyest conceptual jokes,” or the director’s deliberate decision to cast all non-Jews in the roles of the New York Jews who make connections between rich Jews and Israeli politicians.  Scott neglects to explain what is clever or funny about the casting choice, though he does list some of the dangers that could have emerged from this choice: “obnoxiously shticky performances; sentimental tribalism; easy moral point-scoring,” and then immediately declares that “None materialize.” The potential problem of the casting choice appears briefly only to be immediately negated, and so disappears as a problem.  When I thought of the casting choice I was led to ask a question that nagged me before I saw the film: “What does it mean for a non-Jew to ‘act’ like a New York Jew?” In other words, how was it possible to give direction to the non-Jews about how to ‘appear’ Jewish in stereotypically ‘Jewish’ roles as New York shysters, without inadvertently reinforcing anti-Semitic stereotypes? In most of the positive reviews of the film, this problem did not appear as a problem because the movie was described as a satire. Continue reading “Were We ‘Bamboozled’ by “Norman”?”

Of Victims and Agents

I’m hardly the first to point out how curious the current coverage is of white communities in decline, dealing with poverty, alienation, and, in some cases, severe drug addiction, as opposed to the coverage of black communities that have long lived with many of the same problems. Continue reading “Of Victims and Agents”

Names and Things

Picture 4Have you heard?

There’s a new theory as to where the term “eskimo” originated.

Click the above image to read the brief article, but here’s a snippet: Continue reading “Names and Things”

PC Power

7608093198_1fb5281ed3_zBooks can be the best Christmas gifts, at least in my humble opinion. I have already finished one novel that I received for Christmas, Singapore Exile Murders by F. van Wyck Mason. Written, published, and set in 1939, the novel incorporates the responses of Europeans and Americans in southeast Asia to the global events leading up to World War II, making it an intriguing historical artifact based on one person’s imaginings. As a piece of data, the language in the novel surprised me at points, including the off-hand use of terms for African-Americans and Chinese that would be considered offensive today.

Beyond illustrating how what is considered acceptable has shifted in the past 75 years, these problematic terms (by our standards) also illustrate the ways everyday language reinforces, even makes appear normal, social hierarchies. The ways that Europeans and European-American characters use these terms in casual speech places African-Americans (who do not appear as characters in the novel) in the position of menial, hard laborers and Chinese (who are primarily servants, rickshaw pullers, and the like) as clearly inferior. The condescending labels thus socialize people into particular positions of inferiority and superiority by making the hierarchy appear natural, simply the way things are. Continue reading “PC Power”

At the Painting’s Edge

uacampusOur campus has a new painting, hanging in the lobby of our main library, depicting the University of Alabama prior to the Civil War — near the end of which most of the campus was burned down by northern troops passing through the city. But here, in this roughly 6 by 14 foot vibrant painting, we see the Rotunda brought back to life, as well as several other now missing buildings (only the remains exist today, such as a pile of debris that was once Franklin Hall that has come to be known as “the Mound“). Continue reading “At the Painting’s Edge”

Symbols and the Confederate Flag

2751691807_dbcebbaa69_bI am not a fan of the Confederate Flag. While I have spent all but two of the past 28 years in states that joined the Confederacy, I grew up in a Border State with parents from another Border State, making me an outsider to many who see the flag as an important symbol of their Southern heritage. Despite all of this, I found myself bothered by the argument in last week’s Atlantic article by Ta-Nehisi Coates calling for the immediate removal of the Confederate Flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol. Coates asserts that, since the shooter had apparent links to white supremacist ideology and the Confederate flag, these murders become the occasion finally to remove the flag from the Capitol grounds. Continue reading “Symbols and the Confederate Flag”

It’s Not the Taj, It’s the Tour Guide: Some Musings on a Trip to India

Taj Mahal

Almost exactly two years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to accompany a group of my students to India for a course designed to specifically examine how notions of “justice” operate in an Indian context. As you might imagine, we saw literally hundreds of noteworthy things. With time, though, I have mentally sifted through some of these memories of what went on during our travels and realized that the most poignant moments of analysis came from events that no one had planned. Continue reading “It’s Not the Taj, It’s the Tour Guide: Some Musings on a Trip to India”

The Well-Intentioned Racist

Target practice

As Americans today celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, many of us continue to grapple with how to contextualize and understand the recent deaths of several young black American men at the hands of the police. This need to explain is thrown into even starker relief with the very recent story that black men’s photos are being used for target practice by the North Miami Beach police department. The chief of police insists that this is a case of “poor judgment,” not racism, because those officers taking aim at the targets are themselves multi-racial, and because other races are portrayed in other targets. As one might expect, however, at least one of the black men whose face became a target is not personally reassured, saying, “Now I’m being used as a target? … I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a career man. I work 9-to-5.”

It may seem quite paradoxical to discuss a “well-intentioned racist,” but arguably, there is usually no other kind. I am often amazed by how we expect that racism (or discrimination, more generally) is something committed by self-described bigots. Like many others who study and teach about social dynamics, I frequently tell my students that prejudicial behaviors and attitudes are not only ubiquitous, but also quite mundane — they are simply the old recipe of one part distinction and another part essentialization — and they are used to stir the stew of social power. Continue reading “The Well-Intentioned Racist”

Of Planks and Specks and Ice Cream Trucks

icebreamtruckI recently wrote a post on living in Alabama, and the way it can be frustrating when those from elsewhere in the country adopt the moral high ground and judge us while exempting themselves from the same criteria. My point was that while, yes, there’s a number of complexities associated with the U.S. south when it comes to such topics as the history of race relations, they are hardly unique to this part of the country. Continue reading “Of Planks and Specks and Ice Cream Trucks”