Zenobia Jeffries https://www.opendemocracy.net/taxonomy/term/23869/all cached version 08/02/2019 21:23:26 en After Erica Garner’s death, I can’t breathe through the tears https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/zenobia-jeffries/after-erica-garner-s-death-i-can-t-breathe-through-tears <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>In praise and memory of a great advocate for peace and social justice.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/ZenobiaJeffries3.gif" alt="" width="460" /></p><p class="image-caption">Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, leads a march of people protesting the Staten Island, New York grand jury's decision not to indict a police officer involved in the chokehold death of Eric Garner in July, on December 11, 2014 in the Staten Island Neighborhood of New York City. Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images via Yes! Magazine.</p> <p>Three weeks before her death, anti-police violence activist Erica Garner spoke in an interview of the trauma and struggle that caused&nbsp;<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kv6gSl4JcFA">Kalief Browder</a>’s mother to die of heart problems—literally, a broken heart. Browder was the 16-year-old boy from the Bronx accused of stealing a backpack in 2010 who then spent three years in an adult prison, often in solitary, without being convicted. After he was released, he struggled with mental health and eventually took his own life.</p> <p>In the&nbsp;<a href="https://twitter.com/BenjaminPDixon/status/946436687588192257">interview</a>, Erica discussed her own trauma of seeing her father, Eric Garner, killed by a New York police officer, her own health struggles, and the stress of fighting injustice since that summer day in July 2014.</p> <p>“This thing, it beats you down,” she said to podcast and YouTube show host Benjamin Dixon. “The system beats you down to where you can’t win.”</p> <p>Erica shared that she felt her father’s pain watching the viral video that shook the nation, showing New York police officer Dan Pantaleo putting her father in an illegal chokehold, killing him. “That same pain when he said he can’t breathe. That same pain when he said he was tired of being harassed” by police officers.</p> <p>But the self-proclaimed daddy’s girl, the oldest daughter of Eric Garner’s children, stated emphatically, “It’s hard, but you have to keep going. No matter how long it takes, we deserve justice, and I want to get justice for other people.”</p> <p>Erica was tireless in fighting for justice for her father, whose death was ruled a homicide, although no charges were brought against Pantaleo. She died fighting for police accountability and justice for others.</p> <p>Like so many others’, my social media feeds were flooded with the news of Erica’s death on Saturday. People expressed their own pain, anger, frustration, and sadness.</p> <p>But I had no words. I could barely make out my own emotions. I didn’t want to jump on the bandwagon of quick sentiments. I didn’t know Erica personally or professionally. I didn’t follow her work. My reaction was similar to when I saw the “I can’t breathe” video of her father’s killing, similar to when I saw the killing of Philando Castile, the killing of&nbsp;<a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/when-they-shot-terence-crutcher-this-time-i-watched-20160922">Terence Crutcher</a>, the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.</p> <p>There was only numbness.</p> <p>But now the tears won’t stop.&nbsp;<em>I can’t breathe </em>through the sobs.</p> <p>I remember the fatal chokehold that took Erica’s father’s life. I remember the image of a Black child being gunned down by a police officer at the park. I remember the image of a Black driver being shot while reaching for his identification, his girlfriend screaming when he dies on camera, the sound of their 4-year-old daughter consoling her mother. “It’s OK, Mommy, I’m right here with you.” Pleading with her mom to stop “’cause I don’t want you to get shooted.”</p> <p><em>I can’t breathe&nbsp;</em>through all this remembering.</p> <p>My tears will not bring her back, and they will not get the justice that she fought for so personally and passionately. But maybe these tears, along with these words, can touch a few hearts.</p> <p>And maybe many words and many tears can spark a lot of people—tens of thousands, millions—to join the movement to end the oppression of marginalized people in their communities.</p> <p>And maybe those people will propose legislation that refuses to give police violence a pass, and that fully prosecutes wrongful acts of policing. This is something the&nbsp;<a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/the-call-to-end-the-war-on-black-lives-starts-with-accountability-20161103">Movement for Black Lives</a>&nbsp;has already begun.</p> <p>And maybe out of that will come the Eric Garner Law or the Tamir Rice Law, or pick a name—maybe just the Black Lives Matter Law, which sees to it that police officers are not allowed to just retire following an act of violence. Maybe this law will instead suspend them without pay during an investigation of a killing, a rape, harassment—any form of police violence. Maybe this law will encourage just and appropriate charges. And maybe convictions, too.</p> <p>And maybe all the programs that have been proposed to actually train police officers in implicit bias and de-escalation will be mandated for every policing agency in the smallest town to the largest city—rural, urban, suburban, county, state, and federal.</p> <p><em>I can’t breathe&nbsp;</em>through all these maybes.</p> <p>Erica died fighting for justice. Like her father, her heart gave out from the task. She died seeing the person who killed her father not be held accountable for taking his life unjustly.</p> <p>I do not want to die knowing that I said nothing. Did nothing, knowing that oppressed people every day are dying unjustly at the hands of police, moving along with my days numb, as if that is just the normal way things are. It is not normal.</p> <p>So I will fight through the numbness and the tears, and offer my words.</p> <p class="image-caption">This article was first published in <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/after-erica-garners-death-i-cant-breathe-through-the-tears-20170103?utm_medium=email&amp;utm_campaign=YTW_20180105&amp;utm_content=YTW_20180105+CID_c325be1d4f4e3aa12eddef67b19b729b&amp;utm_source=CM&amp;utm_term=After%20Erica%20Gar">YES! Magazine</a>.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/zenobia-jeffries/why-redneck-revolt-says-deal-with-racism-first-then-economics">Why Redneck Revolt says deal with racism first, then economics</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/transformation/alexis-buchanan/blacklivesmatter-makes-some-people-angry-isn-t-that-good">#BlackLivesMatter makes some people angry. Isn’t that good?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/zenobia-jeffries/what-dna-ancestry-testing-can-and-can-t-tell-you">What DNA ancestry testing can and can’t tell you</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Transformation Transformation Zenobia Jeffries Transformative nonviolence Activism Care Intersectionality Thu, 11 Jan 2018 22:12:17 +0000 Zenobia Jeffries 115577 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Why Redneck Revolt says deal with racism first, then economics https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/zenobia-jeffries/why-redneck-revolt-says-deal-with-racism-first-then-economics <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Addressing systems of White supremacy can’t be dismissed as ‘identity politics.’</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/Lori2_1.jpg" alt="" width="460" /></p><blockquote><p>“Moved by the need for control, for an unchallenged top tier, the power elite in American history has thrived by placating the vulnerable and creating for them a false sense of identification—denying real class differences where possible.”&nbsp;Nancy Isenberg,&nbsp;White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America</p></blockquote> <p>There is no shortage of media commentary discrediting “identity politics,” particularly the focus on Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities calling for justice and equity. Economics is our real problem, a counter argument goes, not race, sex, gender, citizenship. But as author Nancy Isenberg points out in&nbsp;<em>White Trash,</em>&nbsp;“identity has always been a part of politics.”</p> <p>Laws have been written to oppress and exploit particular identities—Native Americans, Black Americans, Asians, homosexuals, transgender, and women—in a successful effort to maintain a system of White supremacy. Yet, members of these communities have worked for the rights and equality of everyone. In turn, White allies have joined in these anti-racism fights.</p> <p>The&nbsp;<a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/the-redneck-revolt-is-showing-up-at-gun-shows-and-kkk-rallies-to-end-white-supremacy-20171117">Redneck Revolt</a>&nbsp;is one such organization. The self-described anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-fascist group challenges working-class White people to stand against White supremacy.</p> <p>I recently talked to Brett, one of the members who heads up the network’s Southeast Michigan Chapter (because of hostilities toward the organization, Redneck Revolt members use only their first names publicly).There are about 40 chapters nationwide.<em>&nbsp;</em>He explained why the group focuses on anti-racism rather than economics even though it seeks out white working-class and poor people in economically struggling rural areas. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.</p> <p><strong>Zenobia Jeffries:&nbsp;</strong>What is the significance of the name Redneck Revolt? Why did the name change from the John Brown Gun Club?</p> <p><strong>Brett:</strong>&nbsp;They’re two sides of the same coin. We have some branches that are still the John Brown Gun Club. Our national network is Redneck Revolt.</p> <p>Redneck Revolt chapters like ours in Michigan here primarily focus on outreach, and winning hearts and minds, counter recruitment, showing up, being present, being allies, being where we need to be to show our community support.</p> <p>Whereas, John Brown Gun Club pretty much only deals with the firearm aspect of things. It deals with a lot of tactical training, a lot of information security-type stuff.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:</strong>&nbsp;Can you give an example of what you mean by “changing hearts and minds.” What does that look like?</p> <p><strong>Brett:</strong>&nbsp;A really great example would be back in June. The ACT for America folks did an anti-sharia law march. Redneck Revolt was there. We were on one side of the barricades along with a slew of other leftist organizations. On the other side of the barricades were Proud Boys, Vanguard America, and a hodgepodge of other alt-right groups. But one of the most prominent was the Michigan Liberty Militia, which is famously racist and famously exclusionary.</p> <p>Toward the end of the demonstration, this one older gentleman—he was an older White man up at the barricade with all the gear on, and armed—had his rifle. One of my members and [I] went up to this guy and were like, “I understand mixing state and religion is not good. Nobody here wants to mix state and religion, nobody is protesting that. [But] it’s clearly anti-Muslim. This protest is against Muslims.</p> <p>“Furthermore, it’s against all people of color because this neighborhood [is] first-generation Somali, first-generation people form sub-Saharan Africa who are fleeing abject poverty and warfare, starvation, disease. So how can you be in this neighborhood and be like, ‘This is what America stands for’?</p> <p>“Not only that, if you look to your left and right, those kids with the sun wheel on their shields, and the eagle on their shirts, those guys are self-described, literal Nazis. We fought a war about this. I thought we were all in unanimous agreement that Nazis are bad.”</p> <p>And this guy he kind of started tearing up, and he was like, “You know, I’ll tell you, my dad died in World War II in Europe fighting Nazis.” And he goes, “This really has given me [something to think about]. You know I may not agree with everything you say. But associating myself like this has really given me pause, and has really made me think about what I’m doing here.”</p> <p>We don’t expect anybody to walk away from someplace where we’re counter-recruiting waving the red flag of revolution. But if we can at least pull them out of that mindset, that’s a win for us.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:</strong>&nbsp;One of the things I find fascinating about Redneck Revolt is that your primary focus is organizing working-class Whites, yet you center race and anti-racism in the work that you do. So many are putting the focus on the economy, and calling anti-racism work “identity politics.” How did you all decide that you wanted to focus on White supremacy—that it is just as much of a problem for working-class Whites as for people of color?</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>Our stance is that our entire capitalist system is built on a bedrock of White supremacy, and as White folks we have access to spaces that people of color don’t. So we try to exploit the spaces and put ourselves in those positions to reach the White working class because it’s like the old IWW [Industrial Workers World] saying, “If we don’t get to them first, the Klan will.”</p> <p>And we understand that if there’s going to be any kind of serious discourse about dismantling capitalism, about building the new world from the ashes of the old, as they say, that description can’t be had until the underlying issue of racism is addressed.</p> <p>That’s why [we] don’t engage law enforcement. We believe law enforcement is an extension of the old slave catchers.</p> <p>We don’t engage with anything that reinforces the current system that basically is built on White supremacy. We go to great lengths to dismantle that system and empower people to help us do that, but at the same time using the spaces that we have access to, to get other people to see that.</p> <p>And I believe that a lot of people we speak to may generally not be racist in a conventional sense. But they’re certainly benefitting from the system of White supremacy that has been built. They’re not doing anything to actually help dismantle it.</p> <p>So, that’s kind of the message that we try to bring across. Nobody is saying [to them], “You’re like burning crosses, you’re actively racist.” But you have to acknowledge that … as a White person in America, you are benefitting from White supremacy.</p> <p>So, in order to address capitalism, in order to address economics, the issue of systemic racism first has to be addressed.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:</strong>&nbsp;I would imagine that when you’re in those spaces, and saying what you’re saying, that people respond, “But Black people are racist, too.”</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>Yes, we get that a lot.</p> <p>For an example, I was talking to a gentleman the other day. He was like, “Blacks have a whole month. They have Black History Month, where we do nothing but celebrate Black history. Blacks have their own channel. People would be up in arms if we had a White Entertainment Television.” And that’s the kind of thing we get most often.</p> <p>What I say, first of all, is there is no such thing as White culture—that’s a myth.</p> <p>Secondly, we do celebrate White holidays: Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, arguably Columbus Day. Not to mention our entire society is [tilted toward] celebrating Whiteness. What I try to tell people is, Look at your ancestors. Most White people can point to a single village. I’ll use myself as an example. I can point to a single village in Sweden. I know exactly where my people are from. That’s why I take a lot of pride in my Scandinavian heritage.</p> <p>Whereas with Black folks—and other people of color, but especially Black folks—the reason they celebrate Black culture is because their culture, everything Blacks had, was ripped away from them when they were taken from Africa. So that’s why it’s celebrated; that’s why it’s important.</p> <p>Because it’s the counter narrative to hundreds of years of systemic murder, oppression, just brutal slavery. That’s why we celebrate Black culture, because that’s all most folks have.</p> <p>The conversation we have to have is how can we look at ourselves and say, “I’m benefitting from this culture that has been built to only make sure people that look like me get the advantage.”</p> <p>And, obviously, the topic of privilege comes up, and most White folks will deny that they have White privilege. They’ll say things like, “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” or “My grandfather started his own business."</p> <p>It’s hard to get people out of that mindset.</p> <p>[We] start explaining to them that “I’m sure your grandfather was a hardworking man, I’d never doubt that he was. But the fact that he was able to do that, and given that opportunity, I can promise you that postwar United States, a Black man applying to that same position definitely would not have gotten it.”</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:&nbsp;</strong>Along the lines of the “I pulled myself up by my bootstraps” mindset, I’m sure you also get folks who say, “Why should we poor and working-class Whites care about what’s happening to Blacks and other people of color when we’re struggling, too?” Especially, when the issue of crime is brought up.</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>We get a lot of reactionary questions, and it keeps us on our toes. But it makes our practice better. What we try to explain is that Black communities have their own set of problems just as other communities have their set of problems.</p> <p>The difference is White communities have the support of the state. For example, [when] a Black family moves into a primarily White neighborhood, then the housing values tend to go down. So what happens? The state intervenes and then makes the price of housing so high that then that Black family has to leave. That’s one example of how the state supports White supremacy. I’ve given that example a whole lot, and it tends to resonate with people.</p> <p>I have the clarity to understand that I am a college-educated [man] … who’s had uncountable numbers of opportunities thrown my way because I’m White. And given the same circumstances with a young Black man, that most certainly would not have happened. That’s what I try to explain: that people of color in the United States categorically do not have the same opportunities as White folks. Even if you are poor, which a lot are.</p> <p>But there are systems in place to make sure that I succeed. There are systems in place that make sure that my Black counterpart does not. And it’s designed that way.</p> <p>Until we as White folks can recognize collectively that we are benefitting from a system of oppression, then economics is secondary, or tertiary at best. There is no point in talking about economics when the only people affected by these economics are White people.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:&nbsp;</strong>I’ve read some articles stating that Redneck Revolution doesn’t have a political ideology. While you may not align yourselves with the status quo parties of Democrat or Republican, your actions and principles are very much political. How do you describe your politics?</p> <p><strong>Brett:</strong>&nbsp;We’re broadly on the left. We’re what’s called a “big tent” organization. We’re overwhelmingly anarchists, but we have some communists in our ranks, we have some capitalist Democrats, progressives, and Republicans, believe it or not. I mean, we have people from all political stripes.</p> <p>That being said, we do understand there’s not going to be any grand revolution tomorrow. But the best thing that we can do short of a revolution is revolutionary change. We believe that revolutionary change comes in the form of dismantling the system of White supremacy that exists.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:</strong>&nbsp;What is the end goal of Redneck Revolt?</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>Part of it is dismantling White supremacy. Another part of it is creating spaces inside of communities [where we can] help people not rely on the state. We help to create and encourage radical spaces that encourage things like mutual aid and direct action, as opposed to relying on the state for whatever means.</p> <p>For example, we’re working very closely with the IWW, one of the oldest radical unions in the country. They have a soup kitchen in Detroit where they distribute food and clothes every second and fourth Sunday in Cass Park. They’ve been doing it since 1996, or something like that. We’re trying to build a sustainable model like that close to Ypsilanti [in Michigan], especially with the winter months coming up. There’s another organization called the Michigan People of Defense, who do a lot of street medic training. There are a lot of us, including myself, who have military experience. I’m a combat lifesaver, so I have skills I can teach people.</p> <p>People get hung up on the firearms thing, but we also believe that it’s very important for the working class to be armed. We also understand that that puts people of color at a very high risk. So we try to put ourselves at the tip of the spear, so that way we can teach people the knowledge that we have. We can show them safe operation of firearms. How to use them, how to safely handle them.</p> <p>In [one community], there are a bunch of Hammerskins [a White supremacist group]. They basically patrol the neighborhood, and we have people of color over there who are in fear for their lives, and they’ve been reaching out to Redneck Revolt to help show them to use firearms.</p> <p>We’ve taken proactive steps, and if a community needs us, they know they can call on us, and in a heartbeat we’ll be there to help in any capacity that we’re able.</p> <p>The big point is building mutual aid, radical spaces inside of existing communities to not have to rely on the state, and while doing that trying to dismantle the system of White supremacy.</p> <p>We think that by doing that, one kind of complements the other.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:&nbsp;</strong>Was the Trump campaign for the presidency the catalyst for Redneck Revolt?</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>We were already around, it’s just people didn’t know about us. And that’s probably one of the problems that we face, is that people don’t know we exist. And I want to say it’s our own fault, but we do things very intentionally.</p> <p>We don’t have much of a social media presence, and we do that on purpose because we have no interest in getting bogged down in spam wars on the internet. If you have a legitimate critique of our practices, meet us in the streets, tell us what we’re doing wrong. And if your idea is better, then we’ll incorporate your idea. That’s the way we operate.</p> <p>We feel like we’re an organization that is meant to be in the streets with the people doing things, making differences in people’s lives, not sitting behind a keyboard crying about capitalism.</p> <p>You can be any [ideology] you want. If you agree with the fact that capitalism is a system of oppression, and that system of oppression is largely held up by White supremacy, and you’re willing to dismantle that system, then welcome aboard.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries:&nbsp;</strong>What would be your message to the middle and upper-middle classes, to so-called elite/progressive/liberal Whites who dismiss rural poor and working-class Whites simply as Trump supporters?</p> <p><strong>Brett:&nbsp;</strong>The major issue is getting them to come out of their bubble of comfort. They hear the word “redneck” and they don’t see it through the [same] lens that we do.</p> <p>The word redneck has always been used pejoratively, but we don’t see it that way. We look at our grandfathers, great-grandfathers, and great-great-grandfathers and understand why they were called rednecks. You look back at the Harlan County wars, and those folks would wear bandanas to keep the sun off their necks, and that’s where the term redneck comes from. We embrace that term, and say, “Yeah, that’s who we are. We’re working-class people who are out in the streets.”</p> <p>If you can take the blinders off, you’ll see that … your comfort is still built on a system of White supremacy. Your comfort and the things that you’re enjoying are a byproduct of 150 years of working-class struggle. If you like the weekends, thank a union man. You like your 40-hour work week, you like that there are no kids slaving in textile factories, thank a union worker.</p> <p>It’s working-class people who brought those changes. It wasn’t [the] middle-class bourgeois who brought that change. It was working-class people out fighting in the streets. That’s who we are, that’s what we do.</p> <p><em>This article was first published in <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/why-redneck-revolt-says-deal-with-racism-first-then-economics-20171129?utm_medium=email&amp;utm_campaign=YTW_20171201&amp;utm_content=YTW_20171201+CID_ef20847be54fa7ba0fc41d3e42961bc1&amp;utm_source=CM&amp;utm_term=Why%20Redneck%20">YES! Magazine</a>.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/lori-lakin-hutcherson/my-white-friend-asked-me-to-explain-white-privilege-so-i-decide">My white friend asked me to explain white privilege, so I decided to be honest.</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/transformation/jennifer-lentfer/wrestling-with-my-white-fragility">Wrestling with my white fragility</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/scot-nakagawa/blacklivesmatter-and-white-progressive-colorblindness">#Blacklivesmatter and white progressive colorblindness</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Transformation Transformation Zenobia Jeffries Liberation Activism Care Culture Intersectionality Thu, 14 Dec 2017 22:12:51 +0000 Zenobia Jeffries 115081 at https://www.opendemocracy.net What DNA ancestry testing can and can’t tell you https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/zenobia-jeffries/what-dna-ancestry-testing-can-and-can-t-tell-you <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>What are the social justice implications of spitting into a test tube?</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="//cdn.opendemocracy.net/files/ZenobiaJeffries.jpg" alt="" width="460" /></p><p class="image-caption">Illustration by Bobby Sims for YES! Magazine. All rights reserved.</p> <p>More than 20 years ago, my mother and aunt started a process of finding these answers. My mother then was excited to tell me about a man named Cupid, a not-so-distant relative.</p> <p>The Rev. Cupid Aleyus Whitfield was born in 1868 to Cato and Amanda Whitfield, former slaves of Gen. William Gilchrist of Gadsden County, Florida. When he was about 16 years old, Cupid began teaching at a primary school and became known as one of the leading “colored” teachers in Gadsden County. He married Rebecca Zellene Goodson in 1889, and they had either nine or 14 children, depending on the source consulted.</p> <p>My mother and aunt learned their father, Charlie Whitfield—my grandfather—was one of Cupid’s grandsons. This is all that I know of my maternal grandfather’s lineage. Of my maternal grandmother’s, I know even less.</p> <p>Of my paternal family, I knew only my father’s name, and even after I met him in the late 1980s, that was still all that I knew. I never met his mother, father, or his siblings, and did not know their names. He passed away in April 2006, and I didn’t learn about his death until months later. But I still wanted to know more about him. And so I began my search.</p> <p>Unlike my mother and aunt’s experience of uncovering information to fill in the many blanks in our family tree, I have the privilege of Google, ancestry websites, and DNA testing companies that emerged in the early 2000s. This new technology is revolutionary for folks like me, who want to know not only where they come from but also from whom—genealogical researchers, adoptees searching for family members, and folks tracing family trees, particularly African American families that had been displaced by slavery.</p> <p>In her decade-long fieldwork to learn how the new technology impacts the way people self-identify, Alondra Nelson, Columbia University professor of sociology, says she found so much more. Her latest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome, explores the way in which DNA is being used as a tool for racial reconciliation.</p> <p>I spoke with Nelson about what DNA science might offer social change.</p> <p><strong>Zenobia Jeffries</strong>: You open your book with the story of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the human rights organization that helps find children who were stolen and illegally adopted after their mothers were killed during the Argentine Dirty War. You later tell how DNA was unsuccessfully used in a reparations case here in the United States. How can science help answer fundamental questions about social justice and equality?</p> <p><strong>Alondra Nelson</strong>: The Argentina story shows us that science can help. In that case you’re talking about grandparents and grandchildren. When you’re doing a match, that sort of genetic line is actually pretty close. When you’re talking about the experience of people of African descent, there’s a gap of hundreds of years; you have a bigger mystery and a technical hurdle because you’re dealing with the history of the slave trade. In post-apartheid Africa, you have families who have not been able to do burial rites for members of their [families] who died in the apartheid struggle. I think to be able to identify the remains of a specific loved one, and to be able to commemorate, bury, and memorialize that person is really powerful. Science can help with that identification, but we need to have some complicated conversations. Science can’t be our moral compass.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries</strong>: What implication does DNA testing have for understanding racial and ethnic identity?</p> <p><strong>Nelson</strong>: It’s complicated. The tests are far from definitive. The companies use different databases and make different kinds of mathematical and statistical assumptions. Those formulas and algorithms are their trade secrets, so they’re under no obligation to share them with other countries. So, what we think about in an academic setting, when you think about something being scientifically valid, it means that you can replicate it, you can verify it; [if] someone else does the same experiment or uses the same genetic sample from you and puts it in their database, they’ll get the same results. With these companies, we don’t have any of those kind of gold standards of what we might consider academic research science.</p> <p>That said, for communities like African Americans, they are in many cases left without any other way to think about that. Though we have some communities who’ve been able to use food and linguistic ties, like the Gullah/Geechee communities, who link to contemporary Sierra Leone through linguistic ties. But those cases are less common.</p> <p>And so you have a large swath of people who want to know and who are willing to try different ways of knowing. It can help to the extent that, regardless of whether you’re of African descent, you’ve seen the reality television shows—people get a test, and it gives them sometimes new information, sometimes surprising information, or sometimes it just confirms or underscores what they already thought they knew.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries</strong>: Some tests break down one’s percentage of ethnicity. But does knowing that bring us closer or divide us further when you talk about the struggle toward racial justice?</p> <p><strong>Nelson</strong>: A test that says you’re this percent of this or this percent of that is making not a historical or factual assumption; it’s making a statistical and probabilistic assumption. So, what does it mean if a test says you’re either 100 percent or 30 percent Nigerian? That means they’ve created some algorithm that they assume is 100 percent Nigerian. But what in the world would that be? The history of human history is one of intermixing, intermarriage, intermating.</p> <p>I use the phrase “genealogical aspirations” because the questions that people have in agreeing to the testing experience sort of shape what it can mean for them. If it’s important for you to know what part Norwegian you are versus what part Russian, then you’re going to be interested in how you slice those things up. But if you’re more interested in whether you’re more European or more bio-geographically mixed, then you have a different read of what the tests are.</p> <p>For me, what’s important is not so much that these types of tests give you the truth of who you are, your identity, but that they suggest how we have come to think about putting human beings in buckets. None of these categories means anything outside of culture and history.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries</strong>: You say DNA can be used as a tool in the struggle for racial justice. Is using it for genealogical research part of that struggle?</p> <p><strong>Nelson</strong>: Sure. For people of African descent who feel incomplete without having that information about their African ancestry, it becomes very empowering.</p> <p>Whether we’re talking about genetics or identity, we know that social movements and social activism come out of a sense of empowerment and agency. And like-minded people who feel empowered and outraged about the way things are can change things. That empowerment comes to some through the use of these tests is part of what mobilizes them for social justice issues.</p> <p><strong>Jeffries</strong>: For the companies that own these databases, is there something to be said about the politics of privacy and the ethics of who keeps our DNA?</p> <p><strong>Nelson</strong>: Different companies do different things. Often the consent forms you sign when you do one of these tests look like the consent that you sign when you’re uploading a new operating system—there’s a lot of small words and people don’t really read it. We know, for example, that some companies keep all of your data, because when you’re dealing with millions of genetic markers, the bigger your databases are, the more reliable statistically speaking your findings can be.</p> <p>And now that some companies are interested, not only in genetic ancestry testing but also in pharmaceutical developments, this data becomes really important. They’re using people’s genetic samples to try to do investigations and for the development of personalized medicine and protocols.</p> <p>But then you have the new genetic genealogy 2.0 that’s been happening: the ability for people to upload their markers online, to make them available to other geneticists.</p> <p>On one website you can fill out as much as you can of your family tree and also upload your genetic genealogy results so that other people can see them or people can contact you. On the one hand, there’s two different competing interests here: One is people wanting to know more about their genealogy and their genetic genealogy, which might cause them to reveal information to other people. But then there’s also this real necessary interest in privacy and the desire for privacy.</p> <p>Someone might think, “Well, I’m just using this to do my genealogy.” But that same data could be used to reveal things about your medical profile or could be used potentially to implicate people in the criminal justice system.</p> <p>The thing about DNA that’s different from other kinds of data is that it can be useful in all of these different social and political sites—the exact same data, the exact same samples, potentially. That’s where the portability and transitive nature of DNA technology is the concern.</p> <p>I’m not trying to paint a dystopic future, but I think it’s something to worry about. Genetic data carries a lot of information that can be used simultaneously in a lot of different places for purposes for which people intend it to be used, and purposes that they do not.</p> <p><em><strong>This article first appeared in <a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/science/what-dna-ancestry-testing-can-and-cant-tell-you-20170310">YES! Magazine</a>.</strong></em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/ziyaad-bhorat/in-fight-for-our-genes-could-we-lose-what-makes-us-human">In the fight for our genes, could we lose what makes us human?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/transformation/mark-kernan/in-praise-of-melancholia">In praise of melancholia</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/transformation/eleonora-zbanke/does-anyone-know-what-s-real-anymore">Does anyone know what’s real anymore?</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> Transformation Transformation Zenobia Jeffries Economics Culture Fri, 21 Apr 2017 00:00:00 +0000 Zenobia Jeffries 110112 at https://www.opendemocracy.net Zenobia Jeffries https://www.opendemocracy.net/content/zenobia-jeffries <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Zenobia Jeffries </div> </div> </div> <p>Zenobia Jeffries wrote this article for&nbsp;<a href="http://www.yesmagazine.org/" target="_self">YES! Magazine</a>.&nbsp; Zenobia is the racial justice associate editor. Follow her on Twitter &nbsp; @ZenobiaJeffries.&nbsp;</p> Zenobia Jeffries Wed, 12 Apr 2017 21:06:56 +0000 Zenobia Jeffries 110113 at https://www.opendemocracy.net