Restoring identity through genetic testing

Day of Common Learning highlights intersection of science and social justice

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon Alondra Nelson

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon
Alondra Nelson speaks in front of SPU students, faculty and staff during Day of Common Learning keynote address.

For some people, DNA testing is a recreational activity. But for the researchers involved with the African Ancestry project, it’s a restoration of identity.

This was the story that Dean of Sociology at Columbia University Alondra Nelson came to tell. Seattle Pacific’s 15th Annual Day of Common Learning revolved around the theme of “Finding your Roots,” with lectures tackling genetics, ancestry and social injustice past and present.  

Nelson’s keynote, entitled “Not Just Fun and Games: The Social and Political Significance of ‘Recreational’ Genetics,” showcased how the science of genetic testing can bring about major changes to identity and society.

The morning began with an introduction by Sonya Crocker-Redbird, founder and president of SPU’s Native American and Indigenous People’s Club. She recognized the Duwamish tribe, who traditionally walked on and cultivated the land on which the SPU campus now sits.

On the stage, Nelson stood behind a huge crest reading “SPU 125: Since 1891.” For a campus community reaching its 125th year with so many questions of racial justice and reconciliation yet to be answered, Nelson shed light on the work of African American biologists and social scientists to answer what she referred to as trans-scientific questions of race and justice.

“As a biologist, a sociologist, and an activist, I found [Nelson’s] talk to be very important from all aspects,” Christina Childs, a Cellular & Molecular biology student, said. “When we see these three areas as different, we don’t see the intersections between them.”  

Direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing has risen in popularity in the last decade thanks to genealogy shows like “Who Do You Think You Are” and “African American Lives.” These shows usually revolve around the excitement and surprise of the “big reveal.”  

But, as a social scientist, Nelson was more interested in the experience that individuals have as the months pass and the surprise wears off — that is, how does learning affect personal identity?

Many people delve into their genealogy and find in the percentages and the names of countries a sense of fun and even wonder. But Nelson showed how for members of the African diaspora, there is so much more at stake.

After a Manhattan construction site was discovered to be a colonial-era burial ground for enslaved Africans in New York, researchers sought to use DNA testing to determine the cultural identities of those who were buried there.

As researcher Michael Blakey wrote, “The scientific research now underway constitutes yet another dimension of a long-standing human rights struggle … we seek to restore knowledge of the origins and identities that were deliberately obscured in the effort to dehumanize Africans as slaves.”  

Restoring knowledge of identities that had once been stolen was the goal at the heart of Nelson’s work, as well as the work of others on the African Ancestry project.

Founded by Nelson’s colleague Rick Kittles, the company specializes in providing DNA information for individuals throughout the African diaspora, helping them trace their ancestry into the country of their heritage.

Their work continues to help African Americans discover these lost cultural identities. Instead of a continent seen in monochrome, DNA testing allows the company to help individuals connect with the more than 50 countries and cultural identities of the African continent.

Reconciliation projects like these abounded in Nelson’s keynote. They were projects, in her words, “in which genetic analysis is put to the task of resolving controversies or answering questions about the past.”

Argentine women known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, for example, were able to employ DNA testing to locate their missing children and grandchildren who had been taken from them by their corrupt government.  

She highlighted the work of reparations lawyer Deadria Farmer-Paellman, who stood at the African burial ground as the excavation began in 1991. In 2002, she filed the first ever class action suit against multinational corporations who continue to benefit from their contributions to the African slave trade.  

She used DNA evidence to demonstrate the mitochondrial link between her plaintiffs and their ancestors who had survived enslavement.

For a campus in the midst of tackling questions of intersectionality, Nelson’s keynote brought to light a new area of intersection. Her event showcased the way science and social justice interact with each other, particularly how science can be used as a tool to fight for racial justice and identity.

Childs found that the speaker highlighted “more options” for life paths along the intersection of science and justice.  

“I never considered what she does as something I could have done,” Childs said. “I’m passionate about these things, but I hadn’t thought about how they intersect. In my life I’ll be a biologist and in my social life I’ll be an activist.”

According to Nelson’s research and advocacy, “we as small communities and as a nation need to have real conversations about reconciliation, racial and otherwise.” As science helps illuminate the past and bring its heritage into the present, it becomes a powerful tool for the work of reconciliation.

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