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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 36, 2020

Home: Sanctuary, Shelter, and Justice

William H. Harwood
Pages 153-177

Genes are the New Black
Racism and ‘Roots’ in the Age of 23andMe

Although there is much discussion in scientific and law journals regarding direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTCGT), there is a paucity of philosophical-ethical examination of how such services threaten to repeat the essentialist, racial-projects of the past. On the one hand, testing for ancestry can be cathartic: for those lacking familial history as to when and how they came to be where they are, DTCGT can offer powerful access to their lineage and identity-formation. On the other hand, DTCGT inevitably reinscribes problematic epistemologies of race—even when the companies claim that their tests can be tools to combat white supremacy. Tracing the roots of biological essentialism back to Aristotle, through the invention of raza as cocreator of modernity, and up to critical race theories today, provides a strong foundation to examine the nascent race-thinking underlying DTCGT. Borrowing heavily from Paul Taylor and Charles Mills, but also enlisting scholars from other disciplines, such as Ifeoma Ajunwa (law), Alondra Nelson (sociology), and Troy Duster (genetics), provides the broad scope necessary for thoughtful, agile engagement of that which is ameliorative, unethical, and even dangerous—for all of us—in the age of 23andMe.

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