I recently came across a short video from the talk show Lopez Tonight featuring Jessica Alba, and in it, George Lopez reveals the results of her ancestry DNA test. According to Lopez and the language used by the testing company, Alba is 87 percent European and 13 percent Native American. But to the astute observer, the show is actually claiming to reveal more than the details of Alba's genetic composition. It is also claiming to reveal information about her "true" race, and therein lies the problem.
As I have noted elsewhere on The Sociological Cinema, racial categories do not consistently correspond to biological observations (see here and here). To put it another way, race is not based on biology; it merely claims to be. This point often confuses people, for they reason that in some sense race must be biological. After all, skin color is largely a genetically determined characteristic, and so the thinking goes, race must be too. But while genetic instructions largely determine the amount of melanin a body produces, it is through socialization that people become predisposed to notice skin color as one of the most salient features a body can have. The thickness of one's eyebrows, the shape of their ears, or the color of their of eyes—these are also genetically determined characteristcs, but people mostly discount these features as the bearers of useful information. To socially construct race, then, is to teach people which physical characteristics are the salient markers of a racial group, and racism becomes possible once people begin assigning meanings to those salient racial markers.
At about the 45-second mark, Lopez explains that the DNA analysis distinguishes between four ancestral groups, and perhaps sensing that it would resonate with his audience, he incorrectly equates each ancestral group with a race. The Europeans, according to Lopez, are white, Sub-Saharan Africans are black, East Asians are Asian, and the Indigenous American group refers to Native Americans. The results confuse Alba, who racially identifies as Latina and knows her last name comes from Spain. But it is instructive to dwell a bit on the basis of her confusion, for it highlights the incompatibility between ancestral DNA and race. In the United States people with Spanish heritage tend to be racially categorized as Hispanic or Latino, which is a category believed to be distinct from white. However, DNA analyses show that the original inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain, Portugal, the small UK overseas territory of Gibraltar and the Principality of Andorra) are a part of the same general migratory group of homo sapiens that settled the rest of Europe. As with all racial categories, contemporary distinctions between whites and Hispanics in the United States are socially created and not based on some deeper biological truth.