By definition, white supremacists believe that they are superior on the whole to people of color; their belief system also decrees that white people should have power over those of different races. But what happens when those who subscribe to this ideology discover the truth about their ancestries? Well, the consequences are often intriguing – so much so, in fact, that sociologists have started to study white supremacists’ responses to DNA test results.
Since 1996 white supremacists have gathered online at a site called Stormfront, which was originally started by a one-time Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. There, they discuss a range of topics, ranging from theology and homemaking to music and entertainment.
Also up for debate on Stormfront is the issue of DNA testing. At-home kits that use a saliva swab or similar DNA sample have become increasingly popular in recent years as a method of determining genetic make-up. The website’s users have been known to take such tests in order to verify their own roots; for them, entirely European ancestry is often seen as the ideal.
But not every individual looking to corroborate their beliefs gets the DNA results they seek. Take, for example, Craig Cobb. In 2013 the avowed white nationalist and founder of video-sharing site PodBlanc appeared on an episode of The Trisha Goddard Show. There, he would discover exactly whether he could claim to possess an all-European heritage.
And during Cobb’s segment on the show, host Trisha Goddard read the findings of the DNA test out not only to the man himself but also to the studio audience. “Craig Paul Cobb has undergone DNA testing to determine genetic ancestry,” she began.
After that, Goddard broke down his background. “86 percent European…” she said, before taking a pause because the audience was laughing and cheering so loudly. And when Goddard finally finished her sentence, what she revealed may have come as a shock to the white nationalist. “14 percent Sub-Saharan African,” she concluded.
Cobb wasn’t ready to take his results lying down, though. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on, just wait a minute. This is called statistical noise,” he said. Furthermore, after that revelation, he headed online to discuss his DNA breakdown with other members of Stormfront.
But Cobb wasn’t the first to take to Stormfront to discuss – or dispute – the results of an at-home DNA test that told him his background wasn’t 100 percent white. That type of discussion has happened for years on the site, in fact, and the conversations about the matter even caught the eyes of University of Los Angeles, California, researchers Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan.
Panofsky has also written a report published in 2017 on the website of the journal Cultural Anthropology; this discusses the study that formed around the Stormfront discussion. “How are genetic ancestry tests interpreted by people with strong belief in race as a biological essence and the defining characteristic of individual worth and social relations?” he questioned in the piece.
To find the answer to that query, Panofsky explained that he and his fellow researchers had pored over the Stormfront discussion boards. There, they had found that more than 600 users had shared details of their heritages as delineated by genetic ancestry tests.
And while undertaking their investigation, the team found that many Stormfront users’ DNA results yielded positive posts on the site. Panofsky wrote, “Many of these come as good news for white nationalists – either confirming their white purity priors or offering a pleasant surprise.”
In some instances, though, white supremacists disclosed that they didn’t have completely European heritage after all. Such posts also received negative replies – albeit only on occasion. In his piece for Cultural Anthropology, for instance, Panofsky shared that someone on the site had found out that, from a genetical point of view, they were only 61 percent European.
However, according to Panofsky, another individual responded to these figures by saying, “I’ve prepared you a drink. It’s 61 percent pure water. The rest is potassium cyanide. I assume you have no objections to drinking it… Cyanide isn’t water, and you are not white.”
But this type of disapproving comment wasn’t the norm. Panofsky explained, “A more common response to what posters see as ‘bad news’ is identity repair work.” He also gave the example of a woman who had written about her sister’s origins having been traced back to Africa, despite her sibling having fair skin and blonde hair.
Rather than berating the woman, however, other Stormfront members chose to give her reasons why the results of her sister’s DNA test may not have been entirely accurate. “Supportive posters warned about possible contamination of the sample,” Panofsky later wrote in his piece for Cultural Anthropology.
Panofsky added, “Others comforted that even if the result was accurate, after generations of European mixture with that original ancestor, ‘her percentage of possible foreign ancestry/genetic makeup would then literally be nonexistent at this point, yet that same… marker will still have remained.’”
However, Panofsky and Donovan saw that certain Stormfront users took another tack when it came to findings deemed less than desirable. In particular, they questioned the DNA testing companies themselves. The white supremacists were dubious about the ways in which such firms determined whose genetic material would act as a marker for specific geographical regions, for instance.
Interestingly, researchers have also cast doubts over the accuracy of at-home DNA tests – although their motivations for finding out the truth arguably differ completely from those of the white supremacists. And in 2017 Panofsky himself was quoted by the website STAT as saying, “These tests give an illusion of certainty. But once you know how the sausage is made, you should be much more cautious about these results.”
That said, Jhulianna Cintron, a senior product specialist at 23andMe, would explain to STAT how the company attempted to determine who comes from where. She said, “When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country – and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada or Australia – that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data.”
As a result, the dataset to which an individual’s DNA is compared could vary from one genetic testing agency to the next. And, of course, as national borders have changed over time, one’s origins might be traced back to a different place entirely. Users of at-home testing kits, then, may want to take their results with a grain of salt or two.