Using Genetics to Prove Ancient Greeks Were "White"?

In a recent article by Prof. Denise McCoskey, she noted that our modern racial categories are socially constructed and that, technically, no Europeans are "white" since "whiteness" is not a biological reality but a socially created category that we try to place people with similar physical characteristics into. Race theories go deeper, of course, in that they also attempt to assign moral character to these biologically similar groups, and that is where racism emerges--attributing to groups of people who share inherited physical characteristics similarly inherited moral character that is then ranked in a hierarchy. One of the most consistent responses to the reality that race is social and not inherently biological is an appeal to modern genetics.

In a previous blog post, I discussed some of the communis opinio of the physical anthropology community on the ways in which forensic and genetic categories are subjective and not accurate reflections of a biological realty. "Current scientific consensus is that craniometric yields clustered geographic groupings, but those groupings are subjective and arbitrary"; bone measurements do not yield objectively, naturally defined groups of humans, but we can group them into pre-determined subjective categories of our choosing. Same thing with genetics--we can create broad groups based on criteria that we assume subjectively to be biologically distinctive. We can make that group as large as we like, then label it "caucasoid" or "white" or whatever, and then, we can place those who have the specific traits we have identified into the category. What we cannot do is create neutral, objective categories from the genes themselves.

For example, 23andme and ancestry.com "use both preexisting datasets as well as some reference populations that they have recruited themselves." They create the reference categories themselves based on preconceived notions of what those communities should look like.
"'When a 23andMe research participant tells us that they have four grandparents all born in the same country — and the country isn’t a colonial nation like the U.S., Canada, or Australia — that person becomes a candidate for inclusion in the reference data,' explained Jhulianna Cintron, a product specialist at 23andMe."  
They depend on the accuracy of those self reports and that colonial migration is the only type of migration. And they assume contemporary national boundaries. History doesn't support the methodology.

This is important to understand--the categories are subjective. It is even more important to understand when white nationalists or supremacists use genetics as a way to argue against the scientifically accepted reality that race is not biological, but social. Why? Because it means they can manipulate and morph the categories to suit their needs in the moment. What do I mean?


In the comments to Prof. McCoskey's article, one commenter noted that one of these for-profit gene testing companies (23andme) proved that more than 98% of New Yorkers were of European descent and this proved something. Let's leave aside the fact that people who pay for these tests are a self-selecting group and, apparently, white supremacists like having them done. I am not sure what it proved other than that the logic is circular. It certainly didn't disprove her point that whiteness is a social construct and that the ancient Greeks and Romans would not have had any concept of "whiteness" associated to "race" that equated to ours. Further, the pointing to European genes as proof of the inherent "whiteness" of the ancients is confusing, since there aren't genes for "white", but for "of European descent" and the genes of modern Greeks and, apparently, ancient Greeks, too (and Italians and Albanians, and Cypriots) aren't of European descent, but of southwestern Anatolian (i.e. Near Eastern Asian) descent.

Are you confused yet? If white = European descent, as the commenter seems to have been suggesting, then how are ancient Greeks and Romans white given that they are supposedly genetically from not-Europe, but migrated there in the Bronze Age from somewhere else? Well, because, conveniently for many white supremacists, over the course of the last 100 years, the category of "white" has expanded to include not just people of northern European descent (the original "Anglo-Saxon" definition used for whiteness), but also southern Europe, eastern Europe, north Africa, Syria and Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Kurds, even India in some instances. And, of course, "hispanic" is a sub-category of white, which means that most people from central and south America and Mexico are "white."

This, however, causes a quandary for most white supremacists who also want to be anti-Arab, anti-middle Eastern of any sort, anti-hispanic, etc. because technically ALL OF THESE GROUPS ARE "WHITE." But, if they want whiteness to be defined genetically as people who have similar biological characteristics to those people genetically categorized as European, then they also can't have the ancient Greeks and Romans because they are not of genetic European descent according to the data. If one wants to live by the genetics sword, they also need to die by it.

I'm not staking a claim in this game as to whether I think that genetic data is more accurate than archaeological and historical data in understanding ancient populations and migrations other than to say that I think it needs to all be considered together. But, I will say that if people, particularly those who think the US should be a "white" heritage only country, then they need to deal with the fact that this includes hispanic peoples, Arabs and other north African and Middle Eastern groups, and other "brown" people and, importantly, non-Christian people.  If they want this country to be a European-descent only country, then they need to stop calling themselves "white" and acknowledge that race as defined through whiteness and blackness is just what anthropologists, historians, and even geneticists have been saying for years--a social construct. And they also need to leave the ancient Greeks and Romans out of it.

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