Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

An Intercultural Project Exploring the Relationship among DNA Ancestry Profiles, Family Narrative, and the Social Construction of Race

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

An Intercultural Project Exploring the Relationship among DNA Ancestry Profiles, Family Narrative, and the Social Construction of Race

Article excerpt

While important goals of the Civil Rights Movement were fulfilled with the election of Barack Obama, ongoing demands to build a just and inclusive multiracial society require that one constantly looks for new ways to extend the discussion of difference. The goal of this article is to present a project designed for students in intercultural communication classes at a midsize, regional university. In the project, undergraduate students are DNA tested for their genetic ancestry, and that information is used as a springboard for discussion of their racial backgrounds and the social construction of race. This presentation outlines the process for project development, discusses major themes for reflection, and makes suggestions for potential project directors.

Keywords: DNA, ancestry, diversity, race relations, cross-race dialogue, intercultural communication

The evolution and impact of the Civil Rights Movement that crystallized after World War II are well articulated. The Movement, with its focus on changing laws and securing voting, housing, education, and other rights, was perhaps the most effective one ever (Fairclough, 2002; Townsend, 1998; Williams, 1987). The subsequent push for social change emphasized opening hearts and minds. This broader objective coincided with the growth of diversity teaching and training, a good deal of which was conducted by people in the field of communication (Fish, 1991; Foeman, 1991; Irizarry & Gallant, 2006; Orbe & Harris, 2008; Simonds, Lippert, Hunt, Angeli, & Moore, 2008; Sussman, 1 997). This phase saw at least part of its dream fulfilled with the election of Barack Obama, the first Black American president. President Obama received a majority of the popular vote representing a multiracial voting coalition.

As the nation continues to move forward in building a just, multiracial society, it must constantly look for new ways to extend the discussion of difference and inclusion. Completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003 (U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, 2009) and the resultant information on genetic ancestry bring new energy to the conversation on diversity and the social construction of race (American Anthropological Association, 1998; Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Gates, 2008; Kurylo, in press; Machery & Faucher, 2005; Sweet 2006; Zastrow, 2008). DNA data add a layer of genetic information that one can compare with cultural and family narratives to explore the distance between genetic ancestry and racial identity. In doing so, more is learned about how race is constructed in the United States and challenge to old and often rigid ideas about human difference is begun. This novel approach helps to reach across traditional racial lines and academic fields so that communication scholars can demonstrate their facility for leadership in this new conversation at the vanguard of exploration (Daly, 2005; Henry, 2009; Hirschman & PantherYates, 2008; Monmouth University, 2008).

The goal of this article, then, is to present the DNA Diversity Discussion Project. The project, conducted by the author, lead investigator, interviewer, and professor of communication studies, is a campus-wide activity and reaches across the University and into the regional community. The project uses DNA ancestry data to explore the relationship between genetic profiles, family and cultural narratives, and race in the United States. Full discussion of the conceptual relationships among race, narrative, and social construction is presented in another work (Foeman, 2009) that serves as the companion to this piece.

In essence, the project is built on the premise that humans, as "story-telling animals" (Fisher, 1987), develop narratives that carry forward the images they hope to preserve within families and cultures. Narratives that undermine the esteem and status of a family or group fall by the wayside. According to Fisher (1987), narrative proof has two requirements: probability (it could have happened) and fidelity (the story resonates and seems to make common sense). …

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