Genetic Ancestry Testing and Reconnection: An Interview with Dr. Victoria Massie

Victoria Massie

In this episode of the Matrix podcast, Julia Sizek, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at UC Berkeley, interviews Dr. Victoria Massie, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, and Faculty Affiliate for the Center for African & African American Studies (CAAAS), the Medical Humanities Program and the Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (CSWGS) at Rice University, in Houston. 

Dr. Massie completed her Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology with a designated emphasis in Science & Technology Studies at UC Berkeley. Her expertise sits at the intersection of African and African Diaspora Studies, feminist kinship studies, postcolonial science studies, vitalism, and anthropology of race and racialization. Her work broadly explores the political economy of emerging technologies from West and Central Africa, addressing geopolitical processes of racialization shaping the conditions of exchange, belonging, and scientific authority in the 21st century.

Her first book project, Sovereignty in Return: Building Utopia through Genetic Reconnection in Cameroon, draws on ethnographic and archival research examining how the emergence of a genetic Cameroonian diaspora has created new opportunities to rewrite the legacy of the postcolonial nation building project. Dr. Massie’s work has received generous support from the Mellon Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, in addition to the UC Center for New Racial Studies, the UC Berkeley Center for Race & Gender Studies, and the UC Berkeley Center for African Studies. She has also been invited to speak on how a black feminist bioethics can help better understand the stakes of CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology by Black Women for Wellness in Los Angeles and the Francis Crick Institute in London.

Outside of academia, she has worked as a journalist and freelance writer. Her writing focuses on the intersection of racial injustice, technology, politics, and pop culture, with features in The Intercept, Vox, Complex Magazine, GeneWatch Magazine, and Catapult Literary Magazine. Massie also worked as a communications coordinator at the Center for Genetics & Society. She is also a Nonfiction Writing Fellow with the Hurston/Wright Foundation.

On the podcast, Sizek interviews Massie about her research tracking diasporic connections between the United States and Cameroon, and the wider world of genetic ancestry testing.

Produced by the University of California, Berkeley’s Social Science Matrix, the Matrix Podcast features interviews with scholars from across the UC Berkeley campus. Listen to other episodes here. You can also listen on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.


Podcast Transcript


Woman’s Voice: The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Julia Sizek: Hello, everyone and welcome to the Matrix Podcast. I’m Julia Sizek, your host. Today, we have Dr. Victoria Massie on the podcast to talk about her research on genetic ancestry testing in the African diaspora.

A recent graduate of the anthropology department at Berkeley, she’s now an assistant professor in anthropology at Rice University in Houston. Thank you so much for coming on today, Victoria.

Victoria Massie: Thank you for having me, Julia. It’s a pleasure.

Sizek: All right, so let’s just hop in and start talking about your research, which is about the social life of genetic testing. So tell us a little more about the history of the genetic testing industry and how you became interested in studying it.

Massie: Well, so I think in trying to give some historical analysis of genetic testing, it’s, for me, focusing specifically on genetic ancestry testing. And basically my work focuses on not just the social life of genetic ancestry testing, but specifically looking at it through the question of, how does notions of African descent say about how genetic ancestry is made to travel and what work it’s made to do in the world for home with a specific focus in Cameroon?

So how I got there though is basically, it’s in many respects their origin story of my route to anthropology as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, Upstate New York with a lovely mausoleum of one of our forefathers, Henry Lewis Morgan.

I basically came to anthropology, one, intrigued by the race lecture, the notion of racism biological, that lecture in my intro to cultural anthropology class while also trying to figure out how to pursue this interest, this revelation I’d had one fall day on the quad and my consistent love of DNA.

Since I was in 10th grade for whatever reason the topic for my honors biology class just stuck with me and so much so that not necessarily having the resources to do research in this small school in rural North Carolina.

What I ended up doing was creating complementary base pair races with a colleague in the class like really nerding out hard core about DNA to the best of my ability at the time. Yeah.

It is really funny.

But this evolved in high school because I ended up going to this magnet public boarding school called the North County School of Science and Math. They have various outposts in other states, around the country, but we were the first unicorns. And during that time I was able to start getting my hands dirty with actual genetics research work.

I did research in a Genetics Lab at UNC. I also was able to do some work at the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences within the triangle there. so just learning about the techniques, all of this.

And what I’d basically figured out by the time I entered college at Rochester was that, yes, I’m interested in genetics. But this whole sitting at a bench with doing pipette work was just not going to happen, just not interested. Yeah, not happening. And so by the time I had this revelation about anthropology, I was basically stuck in a situation of, OK, can I do genetics and anthropology? It was not clear to me.

And as I was having this existential crisis, whatever that is– I was a sophomore in college– I got a random email from my father. And my father was and continues to be the family genealogist. Growing up, one of the things that would often happen when we were driving up and down I-95 was he would just talk about random figures in my family and all their various antics that they would get into.

And so just the notion of genealogy and liveliness of it was very palpable for me, always. And yet as people who are descended from Africans who were enslaved in the United States and the complex issues around history and whether and how our absence or presence is available or not in the historical archive, he decided like many people in, I guess what? Was that 2008? To take a DNA ancestry test for his 50th birthday.

And he didn’t tell anybody. And so all of a sudden I’m having this, again, existential crisis. Miraculously, get some random email from my dad like here’s some DNA test results. And at the time I was doing this creative ethnography seminar and I was even just already thinking about, OK, how do I do this creative writing project on a notion of Blackness today?

And so of course, of all things today, rethinking this via DNA testing and trying to consider this moment of no racism biological, but then I’m looking at this is also going to talk about historicizing the industry.

And I think it’s– one of the reasons why the narrative around genetic ancestry testing is consistently been the reification of race the reemergence of race without even having necessarily say it via ancestry is because at that time 10 almost 15 years ago basically what started out with the test results were basically looking at just these very obviously racialized origins.

So it’s like somehow my– what is it? For one test result I think it was mitochondrial DNA. It had something like the Near East and it was bringing up like Eurasia or whatever. And nobody knew what to really make of that. It was just, OK, that’s fascinating.

And then the Y chromosome happened to have traced back to Africa. And of course, it wasn’t just general Africa, it was the racialization, the blackening of Africa via sub-Saharan Africa highlighted in orange. But again, not just like, hey, you’re racially Black. It’s like E3a haplotype known as the language people.

And it’s just all of this really fascinating clear emergence around, again, the reinscription of race via biology that shouldn’t be there, as was told by anthropologist. And so I just ended up luckily having a really phenomenal mentor as an undergraduate.

I just started looking into it. So I wrote a little essay reflecting on this conundrum for my creative ethnography seminar. But then the McNair program that next summer was really actually starting to get into the discourse and the actual literature of what’s going on.

And so yeah, now that’s basically from an honors thesis working with African Ancestry, the only Black-owned and operated genetic ancestry testing company to suddenly by the time dealing with dissertation and now soon to be book project, well, it was initially a question about the industry, just consumers finding their origins.

Suddenly now at this moment when you also have DNA tests have evolved to a certain level of precision, so where with African Ancestry because they cater specifically to the desires of an African diasporic imagining of Africa, which is not the racialized sub-Saharan Africa, but a notion of a present national and ethnic identity. So their results were the present day like Bamileke people in Cameroon today.

That’s basically at this point now an industry standard. You have to have some precision, whatever we mean precision to be. But some notion of not just these general large spaces regions. But with that, we at least from my work having to get beyond just these African-American desires to go back home, reclaim home.

But in a way I never anticipated seeing how temporary conditions in the post-colonial Africa, and in my case Cameroon, have made it possible for Africans on the continent to make a claim to the diaspora as an investment not necessarily to recover a path, but to recover the possibility of an alternative future to be made.

And so really just trying to think more broadly about the reification of race at a global scale, but more so with political economy and focusing squarely on Africa as the center and very materially, not just abstract spectre of Africa.

Sizek: Yeah, so maybe you can just– one of the things that you mentioned is how the genetic testing has actually become a lot more precise in some ways, but also stranger and weirder in other ways. Can you just tell our listeners a little bit more about how the testing has actually changed and what the forms of precision that are available now that weren’t available in the past are?

Massie: Yeah, so basically 15 years ago. I mean, it’s at this point. So I’m teaching this class of social life of DNA, surprise. And when I began it, I was telling, showing these students all of the ways that we see DNA. And one of the examples was including Lizzo’s lyric from “Truth Hurts,” took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch.

And it’s interesting because it’s a part of the spectrum of genetic ancestry how entrenched it has become, I mean, who has– I’ve often given talks and asked people, who has taken a DNA? Who has taken a DNA ancestry test or knows somebody who has? And basically everybody in the room knows this.

And so a part of trying to how entrenched this is just dealing with from the very beginning when they’re I guess talking about precision in terms of now getting to the point of say, again, now trying to codify genetic ancestry in terms of contemporary national boundaries or whatever at the very least.

There’s a certain generality made available just because the tests were so expensive. At one point, I think it was in 2007, with 23andMe, if I’m not mistaken. It’s hard to imagine that 23andMe in the past was struggling to get people to take their tests because they’ve taken over the market so clearly.

But back in 2007, they were still in the process of trying to recruit people to just get interested. And we were seeing things like spit parties. There’s a New York Times article that notes that the development of a spit party at New York Fashion Week.

And so the elite of the elite trying to engage with this new consumer market, trying to corner the market with people who had the resources to engage with this, similarly with even for the African-American market potential consumers.

Again, Henry Louis Gates has become the face of DNA testing as well. And yet in 2005-2006 when he was not focused on just testing everybody, just general genealogy and genetics work that he does with at this point, but when he was doing the documentaries African-American Lives 1 and African-American Lives 2, he was focusing solely on African-American celebrities like Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg.

And I remember very vividly when I was even doing field work with a few people I had met through African ancestries road tour that I was doing ethnographic field work with, that was one of the things that they had mentioned that part of it didn’t feel palpable to take a test even though you see people at least racially like you. Again, the cost actually mattered quite a bit.

But now at this point it’s easy to take a test for less than $100. There are strategies sometimes that I’ve heard, even African Ancestry of people– African Ancestry tests tend to be more expensive. It’s 300, 350, that’s for the precision.

And there’s just all these strategies where because it can be treated as a family project having people chip in so easily like $100 pass even though you just have one person take it because it’s information for the whole family, how is it easily suddenly if you’re getting 20 people it’s like, OK, just $5, just $5, here we go?

Sizek: Yeah.

Massie: Easy-peasy suddenly to figure out potentially where your ancestry is from. And so when you deal with the limiting of the price point. The market in some aspects expands, but it has now expanded to the point where the market is now saturated. And so now we have a situation that we’re seeing with a lot of companies that people are not taking the test.

So suddenly it was 2018, if I’m not mistaken, was the point at which they had basically had– there was an article that noted somehow that almost as many people had taken genetic ancestry test the year prior as in compared to the entire 10, 15-year period in which the test had been evolved, had been available.

And so just the exponential growth also means that there’s going to be a steep downfall. And so what we see right now is that because the market is saturated, the prices are fairly low and you’ll get holiday discounts oftentimes.

But now they’re trying to salvage the value of genetic information via the clear third party partnerships that are being made. Now, because you’re not going to get the raw material, now you really actually have to try to do something with the actual information, whatever that happens to be.

Sizek: So one of the things that you mentioned is that after this market has become saturated, the types of things that people can do with this information that they’re learning about their ancestry, it’s really changing. In your research one of the things you track is exactly what people do with their genetic ancestry tests, which is go on these tours. Can you tell us a little bit more about the tours that you studied during your research?

Massie: Yeah. So I use a pseudonym “seeds of return.” And basically, what ends up happening on these programs? And so one thing to consider is that via fieldwork they would not be considered a tour. There’s a constant tension about, at least in Cameroon, I wouldn’t speak for– you see these kinds of things, there’s a way to see this emerge in Ghana and there’s a way to see this emerge in other places in West Africa.

But at least in Cameroon, a part of the reason why you don’t necessarily call them tours per se is to get at this tension of the tourism industry or the potential of seeing it as some industry that in Cameroon just is not– the infrastructure is just not there for that.

But also trying to get at a certain legitimacy that comes from treating it as a pilgrimage and bringing it into the fold of a legitimate means of rectifying historical wrongs to bring people together as kin.

And so I say that because the way these programs operate is that a lot of it is set up not just the feed some notion of, OK, here are Americans. Even if they’re African-Americans you can’t– so the notion that you could ignore the power that comes with having American citizenship is not possible.

But it really tries to set up these situations for actually connecting directly with people, as well as immersion activities to actually make some sense of a genuine connection that’s not just you’re here. Say hi. We host you for a dinner or something.

And all of that do you deal with an ethic that really tries to imbue for African-Americans that they have a stake in the lives of those that they’re connecting with. So really trying to think about a bioethics where the possibility of return is not just you consume, you have to give back, you have to come back. And trying to create conditions that obligate return after the program itself.

And so it can be naming ceremonies, meeting with higher level dignitaries. I mean, again, some of this is just, again– this is like, again, not ignoring the social capital that comes with being American specifically.

But especially given one of the things that has long struck me about my project and the first program that I observed back in 2011 was that there was a wealthy landowner in Cameroon who inspired by the prospect of African-Americans coming back, this is all by DNA testing, gave the groups who were there land.

And so again, the materiality of a need of obligating return and linking it to, again, the process. Even the possibility for those in the area who live around the link is to use even the possibility of their kin, their brothers and sisters who happen to have been displaced in the United States via slavery back home.

That the prospect of them coming back offers them a prospect of holding tight to a future that otherwise given the lack of investment from the Cameroonian government is on strap, the different ways it does not give, but also being strapped for resources via various geopolitical entanglements that also are only exacerbated by the way the economic partnerships the state makes with foreign investors.

Oftentimes, it seems like the town where the land is located, the spectre of the Brexit phenomenon specifically, in this case China and China’s investments in infrastructure in that area, what you get is there’s a way that it does mirror standard roots tours and yet it’s the ethical need to obligate return beyond the program itself. That’s really critical and what ends up being different.

And I think one of the factors of not just saying it’s a tour, but focusing on, say, pilgrimage and why, given that tension, I just started calling them roots programs or genetic reconnection programs.

Sizek: Yeah, so through these programs, what are some of the– you mentioned this gift of land, for example. What are some of the other connections that people make? Or do you have examples of people going back to this land gift that they’ve been given, or what they’ve done with this land, or in other cases, people have pursued citizenship in country based on a genetic ancestry test?

Massie: Well, so the funny thing about my project and what was one of the most frustrating things think about doing as I go to field work is trying to capture the fact that people haven’t done anything. Not only have they not done anything, but doing nothing does not preclude the possibilities of speculating.

So for instance, so one of these things is the issue of, how do we think about citizenship and the qualifications for citizenship that aren’t just the juridical notion of recognition from the state?

So one was Isaiah Washington back in 2009 made headlines when he basically became the first African-American to gain formal dual citizenship based on DNA ancestry tests. For him it wasn’t Sierra Leone.

The thing with a place like Cameroon, that’s not really possible because, for instance, dual citizenship is not available or it’s this funny thing of the illicit nature of dual citizenship where it’s this joke that many people in government elites have citizenship in France, but dual citizenship in France, but it’s not technically possible. So that’s one part.

But a second part with this notion of citizenship even thinking maybe more generally on just the prospects of belonging, for a part of the legitimacy of the diaspora, being an investment is not playing into the ways that the state has motif of engaging with people.

So in African Studies this is often called the policy wonk or the politics of the belly. And a part of this is based on taking for granted a certain level of gross inequality between people of very extreme of differentials of power who has clearly more resources than those who are basically at the bare minimum.

And there’s a ethic, the way to leverage. Its ethics around sharing resources in some capacity, and because, again, the stark level of inequality, that’s enough to create a ethic of resource distribution.

And with this, what we find is that a part of resist– one of the keys to certain sense of legitimacy. And this is why at least in my work the genetic is not enough. It’s only an opening, it’s literally only an opening– a part of making the possibility of return for African-Americans actually legitimate requires that they leverage their resources as Americans.

They become a investment that helps to leverage neutralize or minimize these hierarchies, become a resource that for those who have so little suddenly via kinship ties can have so much more if that makes sense. They become a actual good, a material good in a very vitalistic sense.

And so in terms– that’s the I say politics of belonging, but it’s entrenched by just simplicity. That’s the notion of possibilities of citizenship in say Cameroon. Now, that was not the case in other places like say in Ghana. Ghana was a really great foil to some of the discussions and national discussions around the legacy of slavery based on the 1619 Project.

So we saw in the United States with the 1619 Project, this very clear conservative backlash about the prospect of making the slave trade and a particular narrative of a group of enslaved Africans who landed in Virginia in 1492 and located that as like an origin for the national narrative, like what it means to be American.

And yet Donna used it as a whole means of bringing the entire African diaspora home. They use an American notion of slavery there too for their own purposes. And with that I think because of especially Ghana having its own long standing discussions around citizenship for, again, formal citizenship for people of diaspora– I mean, remember there were like a ceremony that came with the year of return that included giving people citizenship.

So in Cameroon, it’s more so less about a juridical recognition of the state, but more so about practice and ethic that makes it possible for you to authentically claim people as kin and therefore, belong. And belonging being not a ontological thing you just have or you’re endowed with, but it’s an it. It’s ongoing or it ends when you stop coming back, whereas other places in West Africa that’s not the case.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s really interesting because it points out, I mean, I think as you already mentioned, this big tension between state recognition versus non-state recognition and in many ways the way that people enter into these conversations and say like, hey, I am going to go back is through these genetic ancestry tests.

And I think one of the things that I think is really amazing about your work is the way that a lot of people don’t really take these tests very seriously. They’re like people take these tests, they find out stuff, maybe they’re deluded in believing the things that they find out from this test.

But you take this as a real starting point for investigating this whole network of social and all sorts of relationships that emerge. And so I was just wondering if you could help me understand, how is the field of studying genetic ancestry testing already constituted? What do anthropologists or other people, how do they talk about genetic ancestry testing?

Massie: [LAUGHS] No, I’m laughing because a part of one of the issues that comes up. I mean, my project quite frankly should be unthinkable and it stark to me how it’s almost like I often have run up. It becomes this very psychoanalytic like what is– I’ve literally had people respond to my work and be like, is it real?


I mean, I say this to say that one of the challenges that I think is– my work is based on calling a bet that I think a lot of anthropologists, sociologists, social sciences I don’t think actually just social sciences. I think there’s a post-World War II narrative that just saying that race isn’t biological is enough to contend with the processes of racialization today, least of all in the sciences.

And so because people are so caught up in race not being biological, the notion that I could do work, then only not shows that that’s not true, I mean, or that is true. No, it’s not biological and yet people are still– it doesn’t mean that we can discount it.

The use of genetics, that’s really not just about biological essentialism, biological determinism. What we end up having– what I find is that there’s a crisis of the imagination where people don’t know what to do when I can still contend with genetics without dealing with the essentialist narrative. So I’ve had this.

For instance, this is especially important given the fact that African Ancestry specifically is oftentimes one of the critical categories. Of all the various categories of ancestry you can come up for genetic ancestry, it’s the pivotal. This is the one that people used to pivot the racism biological.

And not only is that the case, but it’s based on a gross misunderstanding of the possibilities of how African descent kinship and the notion of a essential biological understanding of this actually refracts. A part of the ways that– especially when it comes to kinship studies and even thinking about the ways that people often pity African-Americans for, oh, because they don’t have a history, that, oh, that’s all they got and they’re like, oh, how sad? But we understand.

It comes from this notion that because allegedly there is no history and I think there’s a lot of work with Black feminist thought or even– I mean, it’s not just Black feminist thought. I mean, Michel-Rolph Trouillot offers this critique of really thinking about this sociohistorical narrative, sociopolitical narratives of history where just because of an absence doesn’t mean that something else like biology can somehow replace it. So that’s basically how the critiques go.

And so one of the things that I’m trying to really consider is maybe there’s a way that– no, biology doesn’t– genetics doesn’t somehow become a supplement to history, but that’s based on the fact that with African-American kinship practices the possibility of this reduction is based on– and draw from Hortense Spillers on this– it’s a cover up.

It’s a cover up of all of the ways that social life is so deeply overdetermined by a theft of Blackness to survive. And so what I have to contend with is just basically how much not only historicizing how the race isn’t biological, it’s socially constructed at least in anthropology and maybe even more broadly in science studies given the way the social sciences I think tried to recoup science after Nazi eugenics, Nazi science after World War II.

But a part of this race isn’t– this duality of race is socially constructed, is not biological. It’s also based on a historical narrative of making blackness, Black people a clear conceptual problem in particularly in anthropology and that despite whatever we say, a part of this negation of race to be allegedly good is also based on an implicit concession that race actually can be understood biologically. And Kamala Visweswaran is very clear about this.

And a part of what I try to do is, yeah, just take the practices, which practice has always had to be a part of African-American kinship practices because of chattel slavery, because of the anti-Black racism in the United States. The notion of the biological to secure a family has never been available. It’s literally never been possible, never as a condition.

And so challenging. Why would we presume? Literally asking, why would we presume this is true just because of genetics? For whom is this allegedly true? And so you get to that level, for me, it’s just almost having to just deal with the unfortunate reality that my intervention in this discourse is just basically comes down to taking Black people seriously as agents who have actual practical reasons for doing what they do.

And it’s not always– you can’t explain away these things on the notion of just mythologization least of all in such a way that you get to pose a self-righteous posturing for doing good or ethical critique that leaves people solely operating a false consciousness. I think, well, I’m having to really sit with– when I have people at the AAA, again, asking me, I give my project and I gave a paper. Again, is this real?

It’s that why do you need this to be real in the way that we can only talk about this in terms of biological essentialism even when we know that the gene doesn’t actually inherently operate that way? And it just comes down to, yeah, actually just taking Black people seriously, that’s really it. It’s unfortunate, but that’s really what it comes down to.

Sizek: Yeah, I mean, I think that that’s one of the things that’s really I think walking that line between genes mean everything and genes mean nothing. It’s really like an interesting problem to try to inhabit, especially as yourself being a science studies scholar who also– you know how all of this biology works in your practice.

I guess one of the things I’m curious about is since the biology side of it is, how do you think about the actual practices of the science? So underlie these projects that you’re understanding both biologically and as cultural phenomena in and of themselves

Massie: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things where I think a part of the way I tend to be maybe– so there is something to be said about these companies are especially great about not essentializing. They need to essentialize for their own for the commodification of the information they’re allegedly offering. It’s not subtle.

And I remember even there was– it was positioned as a talk with the Center for African Studies actually at Berkeley. It was back in 2017. It was led by someone at 23andMe. I don’t mean to be harping on 23andMe I promise. It just happens to be, again, they do so much that it’s not uncommon for me to have to talk about them.

And one of the things that came up is that they were trying– it basically ended up being what I thought would be a talk was actually basically just like a recruitment effort for this African ancestry project that they were doing, but it was also just– it was unbelievable because, OK, you’re doing this at the Center for African Studies on I think a racialized presumption that African Studies would likely be a bunch of Black people.

And yet if the field of African Studies, it’s almost all White people. So I’m in this room with nobody– I think there was one postdoc who happened to be from South Africa and was a Black South African in the audience. But otherwise, it was just a couple of White geneticists. It’s just completely misunderstanding their audience really presuming a whole bunch of things. Anyway, so failure on that part.

But nonetheless, the person that goes through their presentation. And so this is very air, almost racial purity that’s still makes my skin crawl of showing us this diagram of their ancestry, it’s all blue. They’re not allegedly mixed. It’s all just European. It’s just like, oh my God, what are you doing here? What are you doing here?

But then some map of the interesting elegant mixed ancestry all the various colors. It’s just all this weird multiculturalist essentialist notions of someone who was I think African-American and using this as ploy to enhance. They need to enhance their African ancestry database. And yet when they were doing it, it was all this very neoliberal self-identification.

So if they were going to have someone recruited, one, they wouldn’t even be dealing with people who were actually on the African continent. That was not up for it. Rather they were dealing with specifically targeting people based in the United States, but also that allegedly someone’s grandparents. All four grandparents would have to be from the same country in order to qualify, which doesn’t even make sense because I’m like.

Thank you for listening OK. To learn more about my about central science matrix please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.

I’m like there have been at least five versions of what territorially was Cameroon. Parts of Cameroon at that time in 1919 are now parts of Nigeria. So this literally– so many things are getting lost here. Not only that, you possibly couple in questions around immigration and class and who is coming from the continent to here. I mean, it’s mind boggling.

And so I called them out. I called the researcher out specifically using Cameroon. I was basically pointing out the issue of the construction of these national boundaries and the person just quipped at me. And again, these people the social scientific rhetoric, which is why, again, I think social scientists really need to think hard about what rhetoric we’re using allegedly for our critique or some sense of being positioned as good agents in the world to talk about these things.

She basically responded to me, well, all country, all national boundaries are socially constructed. And I was like, no, you have to do what people– it’s not just that. But these were especially the carving out of Africa. This was not done with respect to people’s actual sense of relating to one another. And so things got quiet and then the person who is managing the situation decided to turn to another question. So surprise.

So you have that part. But I do take that very seriously. But I also think this is trying to critique the science studies notion that all power lies with scientists or in the laboratory like, OK, bet. So you all are being wild and ridiculous. I shouldn’t say ridiculous because I’m also trying to be better about critiquing. But there are very serious concerns about how these markers of ancestry are genuinely being materially constructed. So we have that.

But I don’t place my bets on– I don’t hinge everything on that being the site of transformation. I think the site of transformation, for me, is the post-lab life. And so like Noah Tamarkin I think is someone else who has noted this and really, especially being, despite all the discussion of African Ancestry, the first person that I know of who’s really taken that on by looking at the African continent, which is, again, a gross like indictment of science studies and it’s anti-Africa anti-blackness.

And so yeah, for me, I see the active social life, what people are making of it as the opportunity to really challenge, no, it’s not– genetics can’t determine just like scientists and what– they are not the point in which power is completely decided.

And so really taking those other spaces as a means of least of all a place like Africa and Black Africa very seriously as a space where we can really see materially ways to critique the essentialist discourses that we presume are there, but actually in practice aren’t really there.

Sizek: Yeah, I think that’s just such an amazing– I think that this is such a great indictment of the way that science studies is practiced. And I’m so glad that your book is going to be in the world so soon or I mean whenever it comes into the world.

Massie: Yeah, give me– let me adjust just my first semester on the tenure track.

Sizek: Yeah, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. This has been really so fascinating.

Massie: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Woman’s Voice: Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix please visit matrix.berkeley.edu.




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Published November 3, 2021

Land, Camps, and the Remains: Heba Alnajada on the History of Syrian Refugee Camps

Heba Alnajada is a Ph.D. Candidate in Architecture History at the University of California, Berkeley, and a 2021-2022 ACLS/Mellon Fellow. Her dissertation project situates the Syrian refugee crisis within an architectural and socio-legal history that spans from the late Ottoman period to present-day Jordan. Social Science Matrix content curator Julia Sizek interviewed Alnajada about her research, using images from her dissertation.

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Affiliated Centers

Call for Papers

Published November 2, 2021

Call For Papers: Managing Distributed Safety and Security in a Hyper-Connected World

UC Berkeley scholars are co-editing a special issue of Safety Science, an international medium for research in the science and technology of human and industrial safety. Papers are sought that address the challenges of safety and security as “messy” problems whose components are hard to define. Deadline for submissions: June 30, 2022

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Special Event


Published October 29, 2021

Music, the Diaspora, and the World: A Conversation with Angélique Kidjo

In this conversation, recorded on October 28, 2021, the University of California, Berkeley's Social Science Matrix, together with the Townsend Center for the Humanities, Cal Performances, and the Black Studies Collaboratory, took advantage of the precious artist-in-residency of Angélique Kidjo on the UC Berkeley campus to open a conversation about the global circulation of African musical forms and musicians, its worldwide significance, and its social power.

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