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Department of Anthropology Symposium


Pop-Culture Racism?
Race, Identity, and the Dangers of Genetic Ancestry Testing


Friday, March 1st
9:30 am – 5 pm
Texas A&M University Hotel and Conference Center
The Ross Room

Abstract for the Symposium

Popular conceptions of race are deeply embedded in everyday life. For decades, anthropologists have argued that biological variations among different groups of humans do not constitute distinct “races” yet racial categories remain significant as socially constructed categories of difference. At a time of increased racial tensions and political disharmony, the growing popularity of genetic ancestry tests has the dangerous potential to reinvigorate enduring ideas about race. Genetic testing companies promise a precise diagnosis of personal family history that breaks down ancestry into percentages of heritage from individual national cultures, in a way that seems to boost outdated models of race.  The controversy engendered by some of these tests have been increasingly prevalent in the media, as for example with Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Native American ancestry, and other recent cases where individuals have claimed minority-owned business status based on test results that show a very small African heritage.  The panelists for this symposium include anthropological geneticists and biological anthropologists who will address how genetic ancestry testing relates to popular misperceptions about the biological basis for race in the United States and Latin America.



This event is free and open to the public. Lunch will be provided.  Interested parties are asked to register for the symposium by February 22nd.

RSVP at:


Schedule of Events

9:30        Opening Remarks

9:45        Sheela Athreya (Texas A&M University) “The History of Scientific Racism”10:30

10:30      Coffee Break

10:45     Jonathan Marks (University of North Carolina-Charlotte) “Genetics and Identity”

11:45     Discussion of Presentations by Athreya and Marks

12:00     Lunch Break

1:00        Deborah Bolnick (University of Connecticut) “High Tech Misconceptions about Race, Ancestry, and Human Biodiversity”

1:45        Coffee Break

2:00        Graciela Cabana (University of Tennessee-Knoxville) “Genetic Ancestry, Race, and National Belonging in Argentina”

2:45        Discussion of Presentations by Bolnick and Cabana

3:00        Final Panel Discussion

3:30        Reception at Texas A&M Hotel & Conference Center Terrace


Speaker Bios

Sheela Athreya        (Texas A&M University)     “The History Scientific Racism”

Sheela Athreya is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, specializing in human evolution.  She has always been interested in understanding why we all look the way we do, which is what led her to study variation in the features of the skull, both past and present.  This inevitably intersects with historical and current definitions of race, and how that idea has informed our understanding of human biological variation and evolution.  Her current work is an NSF funded project that aims to decolonize the study of our evolutionary history by using local voices and data to build evolutionary models that are more appropriate for various regions of Asia. Related to this, she teaches and publishes on critical issues of voice, inclusivity, diversity, representation, and colonialism in science more broadly, and biological anthropology specifically.

Jonathan Marks     (University of North Carolina-Charlotte)     “Genetics and Identity”

Jonathan Marks is Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he has taught since the beginning of the present millennium, after brief stretches at Yale and Berkeley.  His primary training is in biological anthropology and genetics, but his interests are broad, and he has published widely across the sciences and humanities on the general topics of human origins and human diversity.  In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  In 2012 he was awarded the First Citizen’s Bank Scholar’s Medal from UNC Charlotte.  In recent years he has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the ESRC Genomics Forum in Edinburgh, at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and a Templeton Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Notre Dame. His work has received the W. W. Howells Book Prize and the General Anthropology Division Prize for Exemplary Cross-Field Scholarship from the American Anthropological Association, and the J. I. Staley Prize from the School for Advanced Research.  His most recent books are Tales of the ex-Apes: How We Think about Human Evolution (University of California Press) and Is Science Racist? (Polity Press).  And although he has written books called What it Means to be 98% Chimpanzee and Why I am Not a Scientist, he would like it to be known, for the record, that he is about 98% scientist, and not a chimpanzee.

Deborah Bolnick    (University of Connecticut)     “High Tech Misconceptions about Race, Ancestry and Human Biodiversity”

Deborah Bolnick is Associate Professor of Anthropology and member of the Institute for Systems Genomics at the University of Connecticut. As an anthropological geneticist, she analyzes DNA from ancient and contemporary peoples in the Americas, and explores how sociopolitical forces, historical events, and social inequalities shape human genomic and epigenomic diversity. She is also interested in the ethical, legal, and social implications of genomic research and how genetic ancestry tests intersect with understandings of race/ethnicity and identity. Dr. Bolnick co-organizes the Summer internship for INdigenous peoples in Genomics (SING) program and has been president of the American Association of Anthropological Genetics. She is co-author (with John Relethford) of the book Reflections of Our Past: How Human History is Revealed in Our Genes.

Graciela Cabana     (University of Tennessee-Knoxville)     “Genetic Ancestry, Race, and National Belonging in Argentina”

Graciela Cabana, an anthropological geneticist and Associate Professor at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has conducted research focused on studying the human genome in ethnohistorical and archaeological contexts to reveal ancient population histories. Today, she more explicitly places her human genomic work in a biosocial context in order to study its intersections with personal, group, and national identities. Her current study focuses on how genetic ancestry inferences become implicated in notions of race and national belonging in Argentina.  She received her B.A from the University of California at Berkeley and her MA/PhD from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She also served as President of the American Association Anthropological Genetics (AAAG), co-Chair of the Ethics Committee of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), and is currently on the executive committee of the AAPA as Secretary. She also serves on two editorial boards, Human Biology and the Revista Argentina de Antropología Biológica (RAAB).


Venue Information

The TAMU Hotel and Conference Center is located adjacent to Kyle Field.  It is a 10-15 minute walk from the Anthropology Building. The symposium will take place in The Ross Room on the 2nd floor of the hotel.

Directions/Parking:  From Wellborn Road, turn northeast on to Joe Routt Boulevard.  The hotel offers valet parking for $13/day.  There is also an attached parking garage that offers standard university rates for parking.

Lunch:  Lunch will be provided to all registered participants.

Reception:  At the conclusion of the reception, there will be an informal reception at the Block T Bar within the hotel.