Boutique Ethnicity

On African Ancestry and neoliberal economies of the self

Authored by: David Bering-Porter

The Postcolonial World

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  October  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138778078
eBook ISBN: 9781315297699
Adobe ISBN: 9781315297682


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African Ancestry is the concept that guides this chapter. It is an idea designating a certain history and a certain ancestry, as they come together to form a personal identity. However, it is also a corporate identity for the company African Ancestry, Inc., a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetics company whose client-base consists almost exclusively of African-Americans. The aim of this essay is to explore the intersection between these two dimensions of African Ancestry, and in both cases this phrase helps us to understand how a certain vision of the past is constructed over a history that has otherwise been obscured by the history of race and, in particular, of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. As a concept and as a company, African Ancestry, Inc. claims to offer a set of tools that fill these gaps in African-American history, all the while framing the personal discovery of ethnic history and identity as a necessary intellectual labor to be carried out on the self. On the one hand, African Ancestry seems to flesh out the gaps in African-American history left blank by the traumas of the colonial period and it does so by promising a new knowledge of family history and ethnic identity that are “empowering.” On the other hand, this notion reframes and reifies identity and ethnicity within an essentialist genetic paradigm, making ethnicity itself a tool for subjection that is a necessary part of imagining and constructing who we “really” are. This chapter argues that the practice of DTC genetics screening operates under a paradigm of self-care that expresses itself through various regimes of government, expression, and value, and that this version of a “boutique” ethnicity belongs to a practice of genetic self-fashioning that exists at the heart of neoliberal economies of the self.

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