Monday, October 12, 2015

I'm not laughing.

This week, while attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, I learned  about wonderful advances in the field of genetics and human genetics, including initiatives to push forward personalized medicine, resources for understanding genetic susceptibilities to disease, efforts to catalog typical patterns of human variation, and methodologies aimed at improving our ability to investigate human history, health, and sickness.

This conference also has a large hall of vendors with resources for geneticists. These include services for sample collection, processing, analysis, and interpretation. Generally these vendors have some give-aways, ranging from candy to pens to t-shirts, that help promote their brand.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I passed a booth with a give-away that clearly did not promote their brand. I literally did a double-take, then stood there with scrunched eye-brows while reading this:

Photo by M. Wilson Sayres

Let's break this down just a bit.

Some science
First, the company sells a product for DNA extraction. Each of our cells has many different components that need to be removed if we want to look at the DNA. DNA exists in one part of the cell:

By Eukaryote_DNA.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-EN.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-DE.svg: Sponk (talk) translation: Sponk (talk) Chromosome.svg: *derivative work: Tryphon (talk) Chromosome-upright.png: Original version: Magnus Manske, this version with upright chromosome: User:Dietzel65 Animal_cell_structure_en.svg: LadyofHats (Mariana Ruiz) derivative work: Radio89 derivative work: Radio89 (This file was derived from  Eukaryote DNA.svg:) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

DNA extraction is where you take a sample of cells (for example a cheek swab, or blood sample), and you go through a process to separate the DNA within the cells from the rest of the parts of the cell.

The joke hinges on racism
The phrase on the shirt, "MY DNA is PURE," is supposed to be a joke with a double meaning. They are referring to the pure collection of DNA, using their method, but it can only be viewed as a joke or a witty phrase if it is also viewed in reference to language about purity of DNA used by the eugenics movement and white supremacist groups. For the shirt to be funny, you have to understand that supremacists claim to have "pure DNA" relative to other "races", from a misinformed understanding of genetics, but that their company really does give you the purest extraction of DNA.

Get it? Isn't that so funny?

P.S. They are totally not racists.

Discussing the shirt in person
After my double-take, and stopping to ponder why anyone would think that it is okay to use eugenics, an embarrassing and shame-filled history of genetics, as the butt of a joke at a human genetics conference, I decided it would be worth talking with the people at the booth (all white men) about how that message would poorly represent their company. Each of the three representatives were busy, so I waited my turn to speak.

When one of the representatives was free, I expressed my concern about the shirt, how it makes light of the history of eugenics, and how it may send a message of exclusion from their company. It turns out that the person I spoke to is the president of the company. He listened politely, then responded that no one had raised that concern, and they had never even considered that it might be harmful to anyone. I responded, that this type of language is still routinely used by supremacist groups and to marginalize many people, and that it wouldn't send a good message. He responded that he hadn't heard any complaints from anyone else at the conference about the shirt, and that, in fact, many people told him how much they loved it. With that, I thanked him for his time, asked him to please think more about the message this was sending, and then left him to his booth. As I walked away, two people walked up and asked for the shirt.

A larger discussion
At this point, I decided to make a comment on the shirt to the broader conference attendees, using the conference hashtag:

Some people were equally shocked, some were not sure what the shirt could be referring to other than eugenics/supremacy, and then, there were those who either thought I was being too sensitive about the joke, or who completely misunderstood what it was about.

To me, the range of responses illustrates how many people are blissfully unaware of the history of eugenics, whether they are part of the general population, or M.D. and Ph.D. scientists studying human genetics.

Eugenics and before.
Let's take a step back then, and think about eugenics.

With understanding about genetic inheritance came the idea of eugenics: That we could improve the condition of the human population by using genetics, that we could cull harmful features using the wonders of modern genetics. Through eugenics, it was claimed, we could promote reproduction of people with desired traits, and prohibit reproduction of people with undesirable traits. This hinges on the idea that there are people with "pure DNA", who are free from those harmful genetic anomalies that society should eliminate. Ideas about genetic, or "racial" purity, existed well before the eugenics movement, but genetics gave a sense of legitimacy to the supremacist notions that already existed.

The glass of undesirable traits that eugenicists typically promoted removal of ranged from physical and mental disability, to calls to purge whole ethnic and racial groups.

Eugenics is, and has been, used to justify "euthanasia" of people with physical and mental illness, forced sterilization, prohibition of "race mixing" relationshipsmillions of murders, and generally to advocate for white supremacy.

Modern supremacist groups still talk about the purity of their DNA relative to people from ethnic and racial groups that they view as inferior to themselves.

Eugenics does not belong in human genetics
To anyone attending a human genetics conference, the connection between "pure DNA" and the mis-use of genetics to advocate for eugenics should be obvious, and unacceptable.

To anyone who could look around the ~6,500 participants at the American Society of Human Genetics conference, and not be glaringly aware of the demographic disparity is, at best, exhibiting privileged blindness. A message steeped in racism, ableism, and classism, whether intentional or not, can only contribute to a harmful climate for scientists who represent the butt of that joke.

A joke that hinges on eugenics and supremacy does not belong at a human genetics conference. 


Education resources
There are many resources for learning more about eugenics, and I couldn't cover even a fraction of them here, but I encourage you to check out these, and other materials.

A big "thank you" to Dana Waring Bateman for pointing out this collection of lesson plans from the Personal Genetics Education Project . Especially note the lessons on:"History, eugenics and genetics" and "Using primary resources to examine the history of eugenics"

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has an image archive on the history of eugenics here,, including several virtual exhibits you can click through.

The University of Washington has this History of Eugenics Resource guide:


Mark P said...

I tried googling the shirt without success--which company was it--perhaps some more feedback to them would be useful.

mathbionerd said...

I am planning a follow up to them.

I consciously decided not to name the company in this post because I want to have a discussion about the racial undertones that persist in human genetics, not about focusing on this particular company. This company is not the only one to blame. What about all of the conference participants who eagerly lined up for a shirt, and saw no problem with it?

Jen MacCormack said...

Take that shirt out of the context of a vendor's booth at a genetics conference, and you'd have an incredibly difficult time arguing that it could signify anything besides the racist attitudes of the wearer. Even if the core of this is ignorance and not intentional racism, it's a serious problem either way. Thank you for noticing, speaking up, and sharing.

Natasha said...

I cannot FATHOM finding this funny. As you say, Melissa, the issue is so broad. Those who wanted this shirt definitely have issues.

And, as Jen says, are they going to find themselves discovering those issues only when they wear the shirt out in the world? If so, what does it say about our scientific history teaching that human geneticists in 2015 didn't instantly think of the eugenics movement when reading this t-shirt?

Embarrassing things, that's what it says.

mathbionerd said...

I agree, Jen. Out of context, there is no other interpretation.

Anonymous said...

Message to the president of that company: what do you suppose my mixed-race little girls would think of that when they saw it?

Steven Ray Wilson said...

Do you think that there is a lot of racism in the minds of people working with genetics, and that this is why they wanted the shirt? Or are they so past the concept of eugenetics that it has virtually died, and thats why they didn´t see the (unintended?) double layer?

Athena said...

I may be dense, but I just thought of DNA purification kits... Could the company be British (or not north American) and have missed the racial purity angle? I know the British often refer to themselves as a mongrel race (been invaded by most people [and then done very bad colonial things]), but pure DNA in the sense of racial purity isn't what a lot of even British lab biologists would think?

mathbionerd said...

Anonymous - I did bring up mixed-race kids, and it didn't really phase him.

Steven, I think part of it is being unaware of the history, and part of it is not realizing that this sort of joke is harmful to creating an inclusive environment in science.

Athena, no, the company is not British. And if they were, the British are not immune from the eugenics movement. I'd ask you to show the shirt to friends or family who are not familiar with DNA purification and ask about their first reaction.

Anonymous said...

As a mixed race individual with what could be considered a mental defect from childhood (thus the anonymity) and scientist myself, I will admit that my first thought was of DNA extraction. However, I do not agree that there there is no other interpretation of the shirt. If I (or any other racial minority) chose to wear this, it could be taken as an affirmation AGAINST eugenics. Thus, I think some of the problem in this discussion is assuming that only white scientists would choose to wear the shirt. Would the outside world consider the shirt equally problematic on a mixed race woman? I could be making the choice to say that my DNA is pure despite historical vitriol. That being said, I do agree that the shirt should be considered a little tone deaf.

mathbionerd said...

Thanks for sharing, anonymous.

If the majority, or even more than a countable minority, at the conference were non-white, then I think this post would be much different. But, the company representatives were three white men, and the conference is dominated by people of Western European descent. The types of people this shirt is marketed to are not mixed race.

I would also be very interested to hear what sort of responses you get when you show this to friends and family who are not familiar with DNA extraction. I am genuinely curious what interpretations they have.

There could certainly be some witty way to unambiguously tout genetics and refute the abominable history of eugenics. This shirt does not do it.

As an alternative example, I do think the trisomy 21 community has done a great job of marketing, with the, "Keep calm, it's just an extra chromosome" shirts.

A person can be prejudiced and support eugenics ideology regardless of their ethnicity or race identification.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great response, Melissa! I really appreciate you taking the time to address my comment and I love your example of the trisomy 21 community's shirt.

So far, the response has been a mixed, with the majority immediately thinking of racism and a few who know what I do saying DNA extraction. Certainly, my first thought was not the norm and I sincerely hope that by sharing my perspective I have not contributed to a bigger problem.

Not to belabor the point, but I chose to post an alternative interpretation only because the online response seems to be that there is NO other interpretation which I am afraid can be isolating and I am afraid that an insignificant portion will double down on opinions to form an "us vs. them" mentality. Rather, I think that the activist portion of the scientific community should be careful in asserting that there are alternative explanations, but it is not the first one that comes to mind to all people and that it is even less likely to be these alternative explanations when you are not at a conference surrounded by science. For avoiding pointing fingers at only one group, I truly appreciate you refusing to share the company name and stressing that many conference goers shared in responsibility. While it's concerning that so many people lined up for the shirt, I can only hope that all conference goers recognize the issue now and that those who lined up for the shirt will react differently in the future.

-Anonymous from 02:35:00 PM

mathbionerd said...

Not at all! I'm happy you shared your perspective. Thank you for sharing. And for continuing the discussion!

Unknown said...

I had to read the article to see what was wrong with this shirt. I'm from the US and a biologist. The only thing I could come up with is a fear of genetically modifying human DNA - no racial overtones. My baby daughter is 'mixed' but her DNA is still pure.

Have you considered the possibility this is all a misunderstanding? I can't imagine some people sitting around thinking, hey, wouldn't it be funny if we made a eugenics joke for our product?

Beyond that, maybe they were making the point, like I did about my daughter, that we are all born with pure DNA, and we are all mixed anyways.

mathbionerd said...

Larry, I think the point of marketing is to unambiguously promote your product. This shirt, regardless of the company's intention, does not do that.

As with other commenters, I'm very curious to see what interpretations are among your friends and family who are not studying biology/genetics, when you show them this shirt, or ask them what comes to mind when you say the phrase. The context of the shirt is most people will be wearing it outside of a biology/genetics conference.

I don't think they intentionally wanted to promote eugenics or white supremacy. But intentions don't matter when harm is done.

As I explained, I did think it was a misunderstanding with the company, which is why I approached them. Their response was basically that there was no possible negative interpretation. Given the responses I've received at the conference and on-line, they are incorrect. This message is not one that can be easily interpreted in a positive light by people outside of genetics/biology, nor by many people within who are aware of the shameful history of genetics being used to support eugenics.

Anonymous said...

well, it stopped me in my tracks & i am sitting down. how can this be ok? ? people are really that clueless now, when not so long ago it was the avowed policy of genocide???

[ i'm a Deaf jewish lesbian, so nu]

i want this company to know that it bothers me - and lots of others.

mathbionerd said...

I will be writing a follow-up to the company, including responses received here and on social media. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Excellent work comrade! With enough dedicated and patriotic citizens such as yourself, we can crush the wreckers (racists) and build socialism (multicultural society)!