Andrew remembers feeling a “tinge of apprehension” when he logged on to 23andMe. Several weeks earlier, he’d spit into a tube and mailed it to the genetic testing company, which analyzes customers’ DNA to estimate where their ancestors came from. But when he clicked on his color-coded ancestry chart, he felt relief: 99.7 percent European. He went to the Reddit page /r/WhiteRights, where he’s a moderator, and posted a screenshot: “Finally got around to checking my privilege,” he wrote. At the bottom of the chart, he’d photoshopped in an extra line: “100% Goy.”
“There’s kind of a running joke that everyone works for the JIDF [Jewish Internet Defense Force] or is secretly nonwhite,” explained Andrew, who says he’s a 31-year-old lawyer from Washington, D.C. “So when I posted my 23andMe results, I was playing off that.” (Andrew posts on Reddit as slippery_people, but, like quite a few of the white nationalists I’ve spoken to, he doesn’t want his real identity associated with these views.)
“Everyone” means those posting across the anonymous alt-right digital world — in subreddits, on 4chan, and on other message boards where threads about genetic testing show up several times a week. This loose group of mostly young white men are tech- and media-savvy and not particularly religious, oppose immigration, and may support more extreme steps to make America whiter, such as repealing the 14th Amendment, which guarantees birthright citizenship. They often feel like it’s a thoughtcrime to take pride in white identity, and they want a safe space to celebrate it. They are some of Donald Trump’s loudest supporters on social media, especially on Twitter.
23andMe’s services were initially quite expensive — $999 for consumer genetic testing when the company was founded, in 2006. But in late 2012, it dropped the price for ancestry testing to $99, and not long after, screenshots of DNA testing results began appearing on white nationalist message boards — first on Stormfront, then occasionally on subreddits related to white nationalism, and most frequently on 4chan’s “politically incorrect” board /pol/, from which many alt-right memes originate. These screenshots help posters prove their own whiteness, or serve as an invitation to trash-talk others. (“Eastern European? LOL you’re not even white.” “nice bait, i have blond hair and blue eyes. whiter than you’ll ever be.”)
On the alt-right, the concept of “redpill” is important. It comes from the scene in “The Matrix” when the protagonist must choose between the blue pill (comforting illusion) and the red pill (horrific reality). To the alt-right, being redpilled means being stripped of politically correct illusions about diversity and buying into ideas that run on a spectrum from opposition to immigration to full-on white supremacy. And if you believe in the superiority of European culture and white people, then it follows that one of the most important facts you should establish is that you are white yourself.
And if you believe in the superiority of European culture and white people, then it follows that one of the most important facts you should establish is that you are white yourself.
Sometimes these threads are mostly a joke. Much of the alt-right emerged from message boards that highly prize shock value — a joke about a sacred idea or an unspeakable tragedy, something like the recurring line, “The Holocaust didn’t happen, but it should have.” Even people who’ve spent years playing the troll game tell me they often don’t know whether someone is ironically racist or actually racist. So when someone posts a 23andMe screenshot and asks users to rate his whiteness, it’s meant to be funny, as are comments telling him “gas yourself” because his results show a tiny percentage of Ashkenazi heritage.
But sometimes the 23andMe threads devolve into a deep discussion (or a flame war) about what it really means to be white, underscoring what a slippery concept race can be.
Before he did 23andMe, Ken Mylott says, he had “no racial consciousness at all. No sense that I had 50,000 years of European history I’m carrying around in my genes.” But then Mylott, a high school speech language pathologist in Broward County, Florida, started talking to others in the alt-right. (He’s retiring soon, and he says one of his post-retirement goals “is to not be a coward, and be fearless” when talking about his political views. So he’s willing to use his real name.) He thinks members of the alt-right, who want to promote a strong white ethnic consciousness, are more likely than the average person to do genetic testing and encourage others to do it too. “So I said, ‘Hey, this is within my budget; I’ll do it.’ And it really was an eye-opener.”
Their genetic testing results are not always convenient for the white nationalists’ identity politics.
Genetic testing results are not always convenient for the white nationalists’ identity politics. A July post on 4chan began, “Finding out I’m not white.” The poster recounted an ironic life story: “always think I’m Swedish, Germanic and white as fuck… grow up to be a white nationalist, worshipping Hitler etc … grandparents get old and start doing family research … turns out I’m 25% ethnically Russian, 50% ethnically Finnish and 25% ethnically Sami … MY LIFE HAS BEEN A LIE WHERE DO I GO FROM HERE? DO I MOVE TO FINLAND?”
(Once you have your heart set on a certain race being superior, you have to decide who counts as a member of that race. There is a 4chan meme that Finnish people aren’t white, which causes some Finns distress. Others have argued Spaniards and Slavs aren’t white.)
Andrew, the D.C. lawyer, showed me a thread from last December, by someone he called “one of the most notorious members of /r/CoonTown,” a subreddit banned by Reddit in August 2015 amid an updated content policy. A user named “eagleshigh” reposted his ancestry chart on voat.com, on a board that replaced the banned subreddit. “Oy vey. My ancestry dna results are back,” Eagles wrote, linking to a chart showing 7 percent African ancestry and 22 percent Native American. Someone reassured him, suggesting he hadn’t come by the genes by choice: “There is no way that anyone’s lineage avoided rape. While there is no way to prove that, I am positive it’s true.” Another said he was “deffo mostly White.”
Mylott says that while it wouldn’t have bothered him if his results had come back “89 percent European” with a mix of something else, “I do see occasional trepidation among people in the alt-right on the net, and they’re worried about, ‘Well, what if this comes back and I’m partly sub-Saharan African or whatever?’”
His 23andMe results showed Scandinavian ancestry he’d had no clue about. It gave him a vivid picture of his ancestors struggling through eight-month winters. He uploaded his results to another site, Promethease.com, which gives even more information about a user’s genes. (They must first click a disclaimer that says, “I realize that most published reports about DNA variations explain only a small part of the heritability of a trait, and they also don’t take into account how different variants might interact.”) Promethease showed he had a gene that limits oxytocin, a hormone that helps humans bond, thought to have evolved among humans in Northern Europe, where the mortality rate was high. It made perfect sense to Mylott. That’s why he “can very easily disengage from relationships if they’re not going well, and the next day be whistling like nothing happened,” he said. “The only reason I have this characteristic, which has affected until this day in 2016 my relationships, is because for thousands of years my ancestors lived in an environment that was covered in ice!”
But where Mylott found a sense of personal history, political consciousness, and an understanding of his personality in his 23andMe results, much of the obsession with genetics and ancestry, in the end, comes down to sex. (The alt-right’s first big splash into the mainstream was with the term “cuckservative,” a conservative who’s been cuckholded by minorities.) TheApricity.com is not explicitly political but rather a “European cultural community.” Like on many older message boards, members can list age, gender, and location, as well as several ways of describing their ethnicity, various DNA markers, and supposed ethnic phenotype. Not every member is white, and not every post implies white supremacy. But there are countless threads classifying people, usually women, into various European phenotypes, and many about whether a particular person or ethnic group could “pass” as white. (“Can Mandy Moore pass as a full European?”)
Some posters are worried about successfully passing on their white genes. A 4chan commenter posted in July: “[that feeling when] pure white, 100% European DNA … [that feeling when] will end my bloodline because I’m a shut-in virgin autist.”
“We alt-right types may have more at stake in our genetic results than the average deracinated Western white,” Andrew said. “I mean, I can easily picture a white millennial hoping in earnest to find an exotic branch in his family tree.”
23andMe does not test for race. Its main business now is ancestry testing, after some early trouble with the FDA over claims the service could mine your genes to determine risk factors for disease. The company, based in Mountain View, California, received an investment from Google in 2007, a year after its founding. It got another boost in 2012 when PBS began running “Finding Your Roots,” a show where celebrities traced their ancestry with genotyping from 23andMe. By June 2015, the company had analyzed the DNA of 1 million customers, though it has faced some criticism for not having a large enough sample of DNA from people who do not have European heritage.
23andMe analyzes customers’ DNA in two ways. First, it tests their mitochondrial DNA — tracing their mother’s mother’s mother, etc. — and, if the customer is male, his Y chromosome, tracing his father’s father’s father, etc. Because these parts of human DNA are passed down from one parent, it’s a way to test a small piece of a person’s ancient ancestry.
Second, the company tests customers’ 22 pairs of non-sex chromosomes, plus the X chromosome, against its reference data sets, genetic information from modern humans all over the world. “These are present-day individuals, but we’re trying to capture the world as it was before the massive transcontinental migration that’s happened over the last 500 years,” Kasia Bryc, a population geneticist for the company, explained. That’s why some people read a result that says 80 percent European as 80 percent white. But it’s not that simple.
Some people read a result that says 80 percent European as 80 percent white. But it’s not that simple.
Even those whose results are mostly European often have trace ancestry from other parts of the world. “As much as 10 percent of European-Americans from the South carry small levels of African ancestry, a few percent,” Bryc said, based on the company’s study of 160,000 customers. Those with less than 28 percent African ancestry were more likely to identify as white, and those with more were more likely to identify as black. Bryc found that European-Americans living in states with the highest numbers of African-Americans were more likely to have African DNA, specifically West African, “which is consistent with the historical slave trade,” she said. “The correlation there is basically that people are mixing if they’re in the same area. And that’s sort of the story of humans in general.”
Terence Keel, an assistant professor of history and black studies at the University of California–Santa Barbara, studies the relationship between culture and race within science. He says these present-day white nationalists are reproducing very old ideas about race, perhaps due to anxiety about their place in the social order in an era of the first black president.
“Geneticists, after looking at the human genome, realized something we’ve thought for a while, which is there’s not a direct correlation between the external things we see — height, skin color — and the genes,” Keel said. “Once we sequenced the genome, we also discovered humans are about 99.98 percent the same.” Only about 10 percent of genetic variation is between what we traditionally think of as races.
“There are two ways to look at genes. One way is they are like locks that come from God that explain and determine who we are,” Keel said. “The other way is to look at genes as the canvas that records the social and biological history our ancestors went through.” White nationalists, he says, are looking at genes the first way and seeing whites as the smartest, tallest, most morally upright because nature, not society and culture, made them that way. “This happens when groups are trying to justify their social position. If nature creates an order, our politics should mirror that order.”
There’s a long history of people starting from an assumption of white supremacy and then reverse engineering a scientific justification for it. In the late 18th century, German physician Johann Friedrich Blumenbach introduced the term “Caucasian” to describe Europeans. He argued that the first humans were white and all other races were the result of degeneration, from climate or poor diet. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American eugenicists worried that immigrants of “inferior stock” from Southern and Eastern Europe would dilute the old stock of Northwestern Europeans, and argued for sterilization. In North Carolina, more than 7,000 people were sterilized between 1929 and 1976. California sterilized about 20,000 people. Eventually 32 states had sterilization programs. Even Hitler was impressed.
Some white supremacists interpret more contemporary scientific breakthroughs about the human genome as further evidence for white superiority, even when it’s counterintuitive. In an article for GeneWatch, published by the Council on Responsible Genetics, Keel noted “Just days after the discovery of the Neanderthal genome,” Stormfront commenters “claimed Neanderthal DNA was responsible for the ‘intellectual supremacy’ and ‘physical prowess’ of Europeans.”
“Historically, we don’t think of the Neanderthals as very sophisticated, very evolved,” Keel said. (Think of old Far Side cartoons.) “The discovery that the citizens of Eurasia may have up to 3 percent Neanderthal DNA changes our perception of them, because at one point our ancestors got in bed with them and had kids.”
When you live in a world of trolls, you see trolls everywhere — you imagine the world is full of people creating fake personas and making insincere statements to sway public sentiment and for personal entertainment. Being in on the joke that everything’s a joke has the unexpected effect of making you paranoid.
As Andrew noted, a recurring joke within the white nationalist and alt-right world is that everyone is secretly Jewish. /pol/ threads often accuse users of being paid trolls for Hillary Clinton. “Prior to the election I rarely saw any of these ‘23andme’ threads, and when I did it wasn’t to compete to see who was the most white; it was just sharing the heritage you didn’t know you had with others,” a longtime 4chan user told me. When I showed him a thread I thought looked too pat to be true (“To find out I’m 15% black is killing me inside”) he responded, “It could be real. Sometimes even the most veteran 4chan users can have a tough time distinguishing between troll or not troll.”
Naturally, some alt-righters suspect 23andMe is trolling them, too. One conspiracy theory holds that the company artificially claims customers have sub-Saharan African DNA as part of a hidden agenda to promote diversity. A 4chan user wondered in September, “Have you guys ever thought these test results to be fabricated? Like any pure Aryan person can have their information tampered to make it so they believe that their DNA carriers that of other races? What if they’re tricking people into self loathing and in a way making them more inclusive?” The entry for 23andMe on the racist conspiracy site Rightpedia claims, “This company likes to give people of European descent about a 1% nonwhite mongrelization, usually Subsaharan African. They’re really just finding DNA common amongst all races of humans and assigning it as black.” An 8chan commenter asked for a DNA testing service “that’s not known to sprinkle ‘diversity’ into your results to perpetuate the ‘out of Africa’ myth.” A Stormfront user wrote that 23andMe is “rigged” in order to “spread multiculturalism and make whites think that they are racially mixed.”
When I asked Bryc about this conspiracy theory, she was shocked. “We have an algorithm. It’s a very robust machine learning algorithm, and what the results are, are the results that you get.” Andy Kill, who works in media relations for 23andMe, stepped in: “We can unequivocally deny that. 100 percent.”