Review of Chapter 12, “Roots and Revelation: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the YouTube Generation” by Alondra Nelson & Jeong Won Hwang
Central to Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s argument in “Roots and Revelation: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the YouTube Generation” are an attempt to track the parallel emergence of social networking technologies or SNS (like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and particularly YouTube) and direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing or GAT (like Google’s 23andMe, African Ancestors, or Oxford Ancestors) and to theorize how both of these digital technologies co-constitute a technologically-mediated, and at times, technologically-valorized understanding of race. Nelson and Hwang provide a brief ethnography of this curious intersection of technologies, saying, “The founding of YouTube [was] followed by just a few years of the emergence of [direct-to-consumer] genetics. Recently, a genre of broadcasts that we describe as roots revelations has emerged on this SNS” (272). The essay follows a small cast of amateur genealogists and their use of YouTube as a medium of education, confession, and process. The important provocation here, as suggested by Nelson and Jeong, is that online genealogists often use YouTube videos to “try on genetically derived identities. Using image, sound and text, they perform the new or elaborated selves made available to them through genetic ancestry testing” (272).
Nelson and Hwang focus primarily on “a small subset of black genealogists…specifically interested in genetic ancestry testing and African diasporic identity” (275). The essay then captures ten “roots revelations” (a term evoking Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family) culled from YouTube, narrativizing the process each genealogist takes from why they sought the genetic testing to why they made a YouTube video to the revelations framed and structured by both digital technologies. Central to the “reveal” is the dilemma faced by the amateur genealogists: whether or not what they discover via genetic ancestry testing validates or invalidates their own understanding of race, identity, history, and family. Some genealogists refuse what their test reveals as in the case of one of the profilees yeamie who must come to terms with the fact “that ‘European DNA’ does not make him a white person” (279). Other genealogists revel in the racial affirmation provided by their test results as revealed by Jasmynecannick’s exclamation, “I have a new birth certificate!...Now, when people ask me where I’m from, I can say, ‘[Do you mean] pre- or post- Middle Passage?” (as qtd. on 281). Though Nelson and Hwang are mindful of these dilemmas, their arguments do not fully address the tensions between what Nelson has called “affiliative self-fashioning” and the technological and biological determinism of both GAT and SNS, or more importantly, the tensions between the personal projects of each genealogist and the larger academic project of the authors themselves. In other words, how do both participate in what Lisa Nakamura has called “identity tourism,” how do both depend on logics of (mis)appropriation of certain subjectivities and histories, and how do both simultaneously, ambivalently deconstruct and reconstruct normative logics of race?
Ultimately, to return to the essay’s larger provocation, Nelson and Hwang offer the beginnings of answers to the above questions. Their essay offers interesting and inviting world-making possibilities, saying that these roots revelation videos “serve not only as a forum for the evaluation of new selves by a multifaceted social network, but also a vehicle of self-making” (273). They continue in their conclusion, “Developments in computer science and molecular biology offer new avenues for the construction and performance of racial identity. Roots revelations videos suggest that African American genealogists’ identities can be drawn not only from genetic ancestry results but also from the networked interaction that occurs between broadcasters and their audiences” (286). It will be important to continue to address and analyze the intersections and interactions in these networks as they continue to define and determine what race means online and offline in the real world. How genetic ancestry testing and social networking sites mediate and modulate “genetically derived” and “historically denied” identities (286) is key. But Nelson and Hwang offer a hopeful vision in the end and imagine understandings of identity that is race-based but non-essentialist, that is negotiated and interactional, or a world articulated by what anthropologist John L. Jackson calls “racial sincerity.”