Scholarly article on topic 'Negotiating Imagined Genetic Communities: Unity and Diversity in Brazilian Science and Society'

Negotiating Imagined Genetic Communities: Unity and Diversity in Brazilian Science and Society Academic research paper on "Biological sciences"

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American Anthropologist
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Academic research paper on topic "Negotiating Imagined Genetic Communities: Unity and Diversity in Brazilian Science and Society"

Negotiating Imagined Genetic Communities: Unity and Diversity in Brazilian Science and Society

Michael Kent, Ricardo Ventura Santos, and Peter Wade

ABSTRACT In this article, we explore the ways in which genetic research reconfigures historically rooted debates on race and national identity by analyzing the intense debates that have taken place in the past decade in Brazil around the genetic profile of the nation's population. Such debates have not only featured a significant variety of interpretations by different geneticists but also involved the media, policy makers, and social movements. Here we focus in particular on the ways in which genetic knowledge and the arguments it makes possible have reproduced, contested, or transformed pre existing narratives about race and national identity in Brazil. A central underlying tension in these debates is that between unity and diversity—between views that consider the Brazilian population as a single unit that cannot be differentiated except at the individual level and alternative interpretations that emphasize the multiplicity of its populations in terms of race, region, and genetic ancestry. [genetics, imagined communities, Brazil, identity politics]

RESUMEN En este artículo, exploramos las formas en que la investigación genetica reconfigura los debates históricamente arraigados sobre la raza y la identidad nacional, mediante el analisis de los intensos debates que han tenido lugar en la ultima decada en Brasil alrededor del perfil genetico de la poblacion del país. Estos debates no solo han contado con la importante variedad de diferentes interpretaciones por los genetistas, sino tambien han involucrado los medios de comunicacion, los políticos y los movimientos sociales. Aquí nos centramos en particular sobre las formas en que el conocimiento genetico, y los argumentos que el facilita, han reproducido, impugnado, o transformado narrativas preexistentes acerca de la raza y la identidad nacional en Brasil. La tension central que subyace en estos debates es la entre la unidad y la diversidad—entre abordajes que consideran la poblacion brasileína como una sola unidad que no puede ser diferenciada, excepto al nivel individual, y las interpretaciones alternas que hacen hincapie en la multiplicidad de sus poblaciones en terminos de raza, region, y ascendencia genetica. [genetica, comunidades imaginadas, Brasil, políticas de la identidad]


In 2007, BBC Brazil arranged for genetic ancestry tests for nine black celebrities that participated in its "Afro-Brazilian roots" project, with the objective of raising awareness among the Brazilian population of its partial African origins. The results, however, caused a major controversy. Attention focused on sambista Neguinho da Beija-Flor, who

was revealed to have a predominant European ancestry of 67.1 percent. One of the most visible symbols of the Brazilian black community, Neguinho emphatically dismissed the results: "Me, European? A black guy like me! I'm going by skin color. If I say that I'm 67 percent European, people will think I'm messing around with them."2

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 116, No. 4, pp. 736-748, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. © 2014 The Authors. American Anthropologist published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/aman.12142

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

According to geneticist Sergio Pena, who led the testing, the results confirmed what his previous research on the genetic ancestry of the Brazilian population had revealed: that this population is so mixed that there is only a weak correlation between genetic ancestry and skin color and that there exists no biological basis for the idea of race. Neguinho's majority European ancestry received widespread media attention and was used in arguments against affirmative action policies aimed at the black segment of the population, as scientific evidence of the difficulties of using racial categories in an inherently mixed—or mestigo—country. Members of Brazil's black social movement, however, responded by dismissing the relevance of genetics on the grounds that in Brazil racial identity and discrimination are based on phenotypic appearance rather than ancestry. Thus, genetic data became incorporated into political disputes about the pertinence of multicultural policies, as well as into wider debates about the nature of the Brazilian nation and its people (Kent n.d.; Santos and Maio 2004). Historically, such debates have revolved around the tension between unity and diversity, pitching views that consider the Brazilian population as a single, thoroughly mixed entity that cannot be differentiated, except at the individual level, against alternative interpretations that emphasize the multiplicity of its populations in terms of race, ethnicity, and region (Fry 2005; Guimaraes 1999; Oliven 1996; Telles 2004).

Similar tensions have resurfaced in genetic research and its appropriation beyond the scientific field. A variety of "imagined genetic communities" (Simpson 2000) have emerged from research conducted by geneticists at different laboratories in Brazil, as well as from engagements with their research by the mass media, social scientists, and political actors. Alternative approaches have remitted Brazilians to a unified national identity of mestizos, enabled regional differentiations and race-based identifications, and established symbolic transnational connections with Africa and Europe.


The Brazilian experience with genetic ancestry research is located in the context of global genomic science, which has been mapping the genetic diversity of humans worldwide, with various aims in view. First is the search for genetic variants related to diseases or to medically significant traits such as drug metabolization. Relevant variants may be more frequent among some populations, defined in biogeograph-ical terms (see below). Individuals and groups may want to know if their genetic ancestry contains elements from that population. Geneticists seek to link particular biogeograph-ical ancestries to particular genetic variant traits associated with disorders (Burchard et al. 2005). Also, when comparing a sample of people with a disorder to a normal control sample in order to locate disease-related genetic variants, geneticists ensure that the biogeographical ancestry of both samples is similar to prevent false positive associations due to "population stratification"—differences between cases and controls resulting from structural variations in genetic an-

cestry rather than from an association with the disorder (Choudhry et al. 2006). The study of evolutionary and demographic history is a second field in which genetic ancestry is important: particular genetic markers, inherited over time, can give clues about the movements and interactions of populations over long and prehistoric periods.3 Third, ancestry science has spawned "recreational genomics," usually in the form of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests, which promise to give buyers information about their personal genetic heritage and origins (Bolnick et al. 2007).4

These genomic techniques involve the concept of bio-geographical population: a set of people thought to have evolved a genetic profile in a given location and transmitted this to their descendants. A key question is how to define such populations—given that humans share over 99 percent of their DNA—and whether these populations relate to modes of social classification, such as ethnic group, race, nation, region, community, and so forth. Literature in social science has focused in particular on the impact that genomic science has on the concept of race, perhaps lending it—whether purposely or inadvertently—a genetic basis or perhaps transforming or undermining it (Koenig et al. 2008; Palsson 2007). Genomics does not reproduce late-19th-century notions of "racial types" as fixed biosocial units, radically different and unequal. Genomics talks in terms of allelic frequencies and clinal distributions (Abu El-Haj 2012; Rose 2007). However, these are still said by some geneticists to differentiate between "racial or ethnic groups," with "biologic implications" (Burchard et al. 2003:1171).

This explicit geneticization of race aside, many social scientists argue that genomic science in the United States effectively lends some kind of genetic meaning to race. Even if the terminology of biocontinental populations is used (Africans, Europeans, Amerindians, etc.) or reference is made to specific sample populations (e.g., Yoruba from Ibadan) that are not meant to be generalized (e.g., to "Africans"), the effect can be to inadvertently biologize categories that look familiar as racial ones (Bliss 2009, 2012; Fujimura and Rajagopalan 2011; Fullwiley 2007, 2008; Reardon 2005). Geneticists themselves are aware of this problem (Bertoni 2011; International HapMap Consortium 2003). Other studies suggest that "while the geneticization of 'race' and ethnicity may be the basic logic of genetic genealogy testing," when lay people in the United States and United Kingdom engage with such testing, this logic is "not necessarily [the] inexorable outcome" (Nelson 2008:761) because people combine genetic and cultural facts about their pasts to create meaningful stories.

However, race is not the only mode of imagined community that genomics can influence. In other cases, genomics suggests ways of imagining nation, although this may well entail racialized meanings, given the historical links between race and nation. One genetic ancestry project created the image of a British nation that highlighted the mixture resulting from ancient migrations (e.g., of Vikings and Anglo-Saxons) but also marginalized recent migrations from the

postcolonies, thus effectively depicting the nation as white (Nash 2013). In contrast, in Uruguay, genetic data showing the presence of African and Amerindian ancestry destabilized dominant ideas about the nation as white (Sans 2011). In other cases, genetics may be used to fuel imagined communities at the level of the nation, as in Iceland (Palsson and Rabinow 1999), or at the level of the ethnic community in relation to the nation-state (Kent 2013), with race hardly playing a role.

In general, as Benedict Anderson (1991) has argued, nations are imagined communities that draw on a variety of repertoires such as a shared language, history and symbols, religion, race, and fictive kinship ties. These same repertoires may also fuel alternative imaginations that compete for people's allegiance. Thus, imagined communities are diverse, open to contestation, and constantly negotiated.

The Brazilian material contributes various ideas to these debates. First, we argue that genomics creates a multiplicity of "imagined genetic communities" or nations, with race playing a varied role. Rather than generating a single mode of construing the nation and its racial aspects (or lack of them), geneticists and those who engage with their data produce several different genetic images, with varied political affordances. It is important to engage with the internal diversity of genomic ancestry research and avoid homogenizing its effects. The way genomics is mediated through lay people's engagement with it creates some heterogeneity, but genomics itself also creates heterogeneous images of race and nation.

Second, the variety of genetic images of Brazil is distinctive in the way that images of homogenous mixture and heterogeneous mixture are generated. A good deal of the literature on genomics and racial identity highlights how genomics can lend a genetic meaning to specific racialized identities and connections—for example, in the U.S. case, people may search out African or Native American links (Hamilton 2012); the Lemba in Africa focused on Jewish genetic heritage (Abu El-Haj 2012). In addition, in the United States and United Kingdom, the politics of inclusion has institutionalized the recognition of ethnic and racial difference in medical research (Epstein 2007; Smart et al. 2008). In Brazil, we see a more varied picture, as genomic data underpin diverse representations of the nation, bringing race into and out of focus. Brazil is imagined as various genetic communities: as homogeneous and raceless; as a country differentiated by regions with very distinctive ancestral mixes; as rather European; and as connected to Africa. Genomics participates in long-standing debates about Brazil that have involved not only ideological and cultural narratives but also older modes of biological and physical anthropological investigation into diversity.

These debates have been characterized by a tension between unity and diversity (Santos 2012; Santos et al. 2014). In the 19th century, influenced by contemporary science,

the Brazilian population was conceptualized as consisting of distinct and incommensurable racial groups, which were hierarchically ordered, with the white race ranking highest. Mixture was considered a source of degeneration, and governments promoted policies of "whitening" by stimulating mass immigration of Europeans: whiteness and modernity were seen as linked (Marx 1998; Schwarcz 1993; Skidmore 1974).5 From the early 20th century, Brazilian physical anthropologists distanced themselves from such deterministic racial hierarchies, which threatened the Brazilian national character. From the 1930s, especially through the work of Gilberto Freyre (1946), Brazil's race mixture was reinterpreted in positive terms, with the hybrid figure of the mestico becoming central to the construction of a unified national identity, in which extensive mixture had led to a "racial democracy," symbolized by syncretic products such as samba (Vianna 1999). This view has been challenged since the 1950s by social scientists and black movements, who have highlighted profound racial inequalities that, for some, indicate a society differentiated into white and black segments (Guimaraes 1999; Hasenbalg 1979; Telles 2004). Shaped by the multiculturalist reforms sweeping Latin America, this approach underwrote the adoption, since the 1990s, of policies aimed at Brazil's black population, including racial quotas for public employment and university access, as well as differentiated health policies. These policies have, in turn, been contested by those who argue for universalist and race-blind social policies to address inequality (Fry 2005; Fry etal. 2007; Maio and Santos 2005). Affirmative action policies are sometimes depicted as based on U.S.-style racial politics, seen as inappropriate to the Brazilian milieu.6 This briefaccount shows how race has been backgrounded in relation to a predominant mixture or foregrounded as important despite mixture.

The Brazilian material shows how genomic research can suggest multiple imagined communities, with racialized difference figuring in varying ways, rather than simply being either reinscribed or not. The various approaches all ultimately depend on the notion of separate, original, ancestral populations of Africans, Europeans, and Amerindians—that is, biocontinental populations that resemble familiar notions of race. But in Brazil we see how genomic data, and appropriations of them, play on various possibilities of imagined communities of race, nation, region, and diaspora—possibilities afforded by the image ofmixedness, which always conjugates similarity and difference in varied ways. Genomics provides a specific language for thinking through these possibilities and may allow specific modes of traction—as in the use of genomic data to deny a "black identity" in Brazil—but it does not simply reify race. Rather, it engages with the ambiguities of race and the multiple modes of imagining community that are characteristic of the Brazilian milieu. In the following sections, we analyze in depth the different images of the nation generated with genomic data.7


In April of 2000, amid the quincentennial celebrations of the Portuguese's arrival in Brazil, geneticist Sergio Pena and colleagues published their "Molecular Portrait of Brazil" in the popular science magazine Ciencia Hoje (Pena et al. 2000).8 Since then, Pena has produced further studies on the genetic ancestry of Brazilians, and especially on the relative contributions of African, Amerindian, and European roots. He has also worked in the areas of paternity testing, biomedicine, pharmacogenomics, and indigenous populations, among others. Drawing on an influential tradition of genetic research (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1994; Lewontin 1972), he has systematically argued that there exists no biological basis for the idea of race. To Pena, this point is particularly salient for the Brazilian population, which is so mixed that it acts as an excellent exemplar of the impossibility of differentiating between racially defined groups at the genetic level. From this body of research emerges an image of the Brazilian population that is unified and mestizo, sometimes implicitly so, as when Pena addresses questions of pharmacogenomics and biomedicine (e.g., Suarez-Kurtz et al. 2007), and at other times explicitly, as when his focus is on the genetic ancestry of Brazilians (Pena et al. 2009; Pena et al. 2000; Pena et al. 2011) or when he engages with issues of public policy, such as affirmative action (Pena and Bortolini 2004) and differentiated health policies aimed at Brazil's black population (Pena 2005).

In the first phase of their research, Pena and colleagues analyzed the genetic ancestry of self-identified white men from different regions of Brazil. This study deconstructed the relationship between whiteness and European ancestry in Brazil. National averages revealed that, while paternal lineages found in the Y-chromosome were almost uniquely European (98 percent), maternal lineages found in the mitochondrial DNA were evenly distributed: 33 percent Amerindian, 28 percent African, and 39 percent European.9 Pena and colleagues emphasized this "surprisingly high" Amerindian and African maternal contribution as evidence of the mixed nature of white Brazilians (Pena et al. 2000).10 Drawing social implications from this research, they presented genetic knowledge as a potential antidote to racism:

It might be naive on our part, but if the many white Brazilians that have Amerindian and African mitochondrial DNA became aware of this, they would better value the exuberant genetic diversity of our population, and, who knows, they might construct a more just and harmonious society in the twenty-first century. [Penaetal. 2000:25]

They deployed genetics as a means to imagine the kind of "deep horizontal comradeship" that Anderson (1991:7) defined as lying at the heart of national identity constructions. Locating such horizontal ties between white and other Brazilians in their genetic constitution—which, according to Pena (2008), offers more reliable knowledge than superficial appearances—gave these ties symbolically greater

depth. While such arguments merely suggested the existence of a genetic community consisting of the entire nation, its delineation soon became explicit with the coining of the term Homo Brasilis, the title of Pena's edited book on the Brazilian population (Pena 2002).11

The next step in the construction of a national imagined genetic community was the definition of the Brazilian population as a collective of 190 million undifferentiated individuals. Research published in 2003 was aimed at a more general deracialization of the Brazilian population by analyzing the autosomal DNA—the recombinant part of the genome, which is particularly suited to revealing levels of admixture—of samples collected among individuals classified variously by researchers as black, intermediate, and white or self-classified as branco (white). This study revealed significant overlaps between the census categories: while variation in African ancestry between individuals within each category was considerable, such variation between categories was relatively small. The authors concluded that in Brazil physical appearance has only a weak correlation—if any at all—with genomic ancestry (Parra et al. 2003:177). With such data, Pena has argued repeatedly that

the only way of dealing scientifically with the genetic variability

of Brazilians is individually, as singular and unique human beings

in their mosaic genomes and in their life histories. [Pena and

Birchal 2006:19]

For Pena, Brazilians should be classified, simultaneously, as an undifferentiated mestizo population—the Homo Brasilis— and as a collection of individuals that are "equally different" (Pena 2009).

Since 2006, Pena's research has also deconstructed the association between black phenotypic appearance and African ancestry, analyzing various Brazilian populations with a new panel of 40 genetic markers that he designed for calculating an individual's relative proportions of African, European, and Amerindian genetic ancestry. In academic publications, Pena and coauthors have emphasized the admixed character of Brazil's black population by highlighting the predominance of European ancestry (80%) among individuals self-classified using the census category pardo (brown), as well as the lower-than-expected proportions of African ancestry (40—50%) among those categorized as preto (black, also a census category) (Pena et al. 2009; Pena et al. 2011). The Afro-Brazilian Roots project discussed in the introduction has been particularly important in this respect.

Finally, Pena's most recent research has focused on deconstructing regional differentiation within Brazil. Using samples from four macroregions (North, Northeast, Southeast, and South), Pena and colleagues concluded that "the genomic ancestry of individuals from different geographical regions of Brazil is more uniform than expected" (Pena et al. 2011:1). This effacement of regional differences is important for the construction of a national and unified genetic community because both in social identity

constructions in Brazil and in other genetic research (see below), the idea of region figures as one of the most important factors of internal differentiation.12

Pena's research has attracted considerable attention beyond the scientific field. He has played an active role in the public dissemination of his research by publishing in social science journals (Pena 2005; Pena and Bortolini 2004) and popular scientific magazines and Internet fora (Pena et al. 2000), as well as by writing a number of short books in nonacademic language (Pena 2008, 2009) and making frequent media appearances.13 In such fora, he has denounced the notion of race, comparing it to earlier beliefs in witchcraft and taking on the mission to "un-invent" race. This has led Pena to become involved in political debates about race-based public policies aimed at Brazil's black population, mostly in the areas of health and education. He gained considerable public visibility through his participation in the debate on racial quotas. In 2010, Pena offered an expert opinion during the public hearings of the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of racial quotas for university access, contributing to arguments against such policies by reaffirming his views on the inexistence of race. According to him, science

plays an important role in instructing the social sphere by showing "what is not" . . . The scientific fact of the inexistence of "races" must be assimilated by society . . . this consciousness meets the utopian wish of a non-racialist, "colourblind" society, where the singularity of the individual is valued and celebrated. [Pena and Birchal 2006:13, 20]

Pena has articulated genetic and social interpretations of the Brazilian population, affirming the relevance of genetic data for the construction of the Brazilian imagined community.

The heated political debate on affirmative action provided the main vehicle for the dissemination of Pena's research beyond the scientific field. Genetic data have been deployed in this debate as part of arguments that question the pertinence of using racial categories for differentiated public policies, claiming such categories have no scientific foundation. The results of Pena's research have figured prominently in the antiquota manifesto launched in 2008 (Daher et al. 2008) and the legal action presented to the Supreme Court arguing that racial quotas are unconstitutional (Kaufmann 2009:27—37), and they have also been drawn upon by social scientists who question the efficacy of racial quotas (Fry 2005; Fry et al. 2007; Maio and Santos 2005). Dozens of media features have used Pena's research as evidence of the inexistence of race and of the inherently mestico character of all Brazilians. As one columnist of the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper claimed, the "Molecular Portrait" offered "scientific proof of what Gilberto Freyre formulated in sociological terms" (Elio Gas-pari, as quoted in Santos and Maio 2004:351), reconfirming long-term interpretations of Brazilian society related to the idea of racial democracy.14 The media and opponents of affirmative action have also used genetics—in particular the predominantly European ancestry of Neguinho da

Beija-Flor—to undermine the identity strategies of the black movement. Genetics has been used to embed the black population firmly within an imagined Brazilian community of undifferentiated mestico individuals. Explicit articulations have been established between genetic ancestry and racial classification, with the former overruling the latter.

Pena's scientific research and political views have become incorporated within a wider contemporary current in Brazilian society that emphasizes and values mixture, against a competing tendency toward the production of differentiated racial identifications. The media and other critics of race-based quotas have deployed genetics for the construction of an imagined genetic community that is national, unified, and firmly recentered around the figure of the mestigo, which previously had been backgrounded in multiculturalist discourse.

However, this is far from the only genetic image of the Brazilian population that has circulated in the scientific field and social debates. Other geneticists, black movement activists, and media appropriations of Pena's own most recent research have offered other interpretations of Brazil's imagined genetic communities.


Alternative images of the Brazilian population emerge from genetic research conducted in some of Brazil's most well-established laboratories: Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), in the southern city of Porto Alegre, and the Federal University of Para (UFPA), in the Amazonian town of Beleam. This research presented two challenges to Pena's approach.

In the first place, research at the UFRGS reestablished a correlation between phenotypic appearance and genetic ancestry by arguing for a close connection between the population of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, whiteness, and European ancestry. The UFRGS group challenges a basic premise put forward by Pena and colleagues (Parra et al. 2003), according to which there is a dissociation between color or race categories and actual appearance in Brazil. The 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the large-scale European migration to Rio Grande do Sul. Consequently, whiteness and European descent play a central role in contemporary social constructions of regional identity (Oliven 1996).

This conception of regional identity is reflected in the work of medical geneticists of the UFRGS, in particular, those involved in "association studies" aiming to identify genetic variants associated with specific diseases. As noted earlier, such studies compare diagnosed cases and healthy controls, which need to be matched in terms ofancestry. The assumption that all populations in Brazil are mixed—widely held in the global genetic field and reinforced by Pena's publications—has presented UFRGS researchers with significant obstacles during the peer-review process of scientific journals and in terms of establishing international

collaborations: the validity of their results has been frequently contested on the grounds of likely population stratification due to admixture. In response, they have argued for the equivalence between cases and controls through discourses and practices that construct their studied populations as homogenously European and that minimize the possibility of significant admixture.

Their research has sampled individuals classified by the geneticists as "white" on the basis of their phenotype. UFRGS medical geneticists have systematically defined the state's population as being "European" (Zembrzuski et al. 2006) or "of European descent" (Polina et al. 2009). They have claimed that the southern Brazilian population is an exception to the general pattern of high levels of mixture established by Pena's research (Zembrzuski et al. 2006:822—823) and affirmed that there is an "absence of population stratification in this region" (Kohlrausch et al. 2008:1435). Thus, "white" samples have been used as a proxy for European populations and been made to represent the population of Rio Grande do Sul—or southern Brazil—as a whole. While such arguments are mostly restricted to populations of southern Brazil, another UFRGS study on HIV susceptibility affirmed the existence of a correlation between phe-notypical whiteness and European ancestry for Brazil as a whole (Vargas et al. 2006:324). Geneticists at the UFRGS have challenged Pena's claim about the low correlation between phenotypic appearance and genetic ancestry, arguing that, depending on the samples and genetic markers used in the analysis, such a correlation can be quite strong (Vargas et al. 2006).

In the second place, studies of regional differentiation have generated images of the Brazilian population that diverge significantly from Pena's claim about the inexistence of relevant intermediary genetic categories between the national and individual levels. Such studies reveal considerable variation in the process of admixture that has occurred in Brazil, resulting in clearly differentiated regional populations.

At the UFRGS, Maria Catira Bortolini has coordinated research on the genetic profile of the Gauchos of Rio Grande do Sul, the cowboys of the rural grasslands. They are a symbol for the state's particular ethnic identity, which places strong emphasis on differences from the rest of Brazil (Oliven 1996). According to Bortolini, her own strong regional identity was one of her main motivations for conducting this research (Kent and Santos 2014:115). At the genetic level, the Gauchos revealed an idiosyncratic constellation of ancestral contributions that differentiates them from the rest of the Brazilian population. These include a remarkably high proportion (52%) of Amerindian ancestry on the maternal side, which in addition is traceable to the extinct Charrua— the main indigenous group in the region at the time of colonization, which had its origins in the southern Cone, rather than in the Amazon. Also, the Gauchos' paternal genetic heritage showed greater proximity to Spaniards than to the Portuguese who colonized Brazil (Marrero et al. 2007). The

research on the Gauchos has both drawn on and reconfirmed conventional social interpretations of regional identity. In consequence, this research has received considerable media coverage in Rio Grande do Sul, with results being picked up by regionalist movements (Kent and Santos 2014). While Bortolini has mapped the genetic ancestry profiles of other populations and regions within the state of Rio Grande do Sul, she has avoided generalizations, even when prompted during an interview by one of us: "I would present [Rio Grande do Sul] as a number of macro-regions from a genetic perspective . . . It's a heterogeneous population, in a large geographic area, with different profiles . . . generalizations are difficult" (interview, October 21, 2010).

A similar kind of regional imagination was also at play in research conducted since the 1980s on the genetic ancestry of the Amazonian population by Sidney Santos, Joao Guerreiro, and colleagues at the UFPA. Defining the Amazon as a "microcosm" (Santos et al. 1999), their studies revealed ancestry constellations and dynamics of admixture that differentiate the region's population from that of Brazil as a whole. In particular, it consists of mixed urban and rural populations, which are characterized by a significantly higher percentage of Amerindian ancestry than other Brazilian populations; an important number of isolated indigenous populations revealing little or no signs of admixture; and rural quilombo (maroon) communities that, in spite ofbeing admixed, have conserved relatively high levels of African ancestry (up to 74%; see Santos et al. 1999:188). Finally, geneticists of the UFPA have represented the Amazonian population as the sum of these main components rather than attempting an overall synthesis (Santos et al. 1999). From this research, the Amazonian population emerges as a differentiated and internally diverse imagined genetic community.

More recently, Sidney Santos has expanded his research to include the Brazilian population as a whole, building a collection of samples from the majority of Brazilian states and developing his own panel of genetic ancestry markers (Santos et al. 2010). Regional differentiation continues to be a recurrent theme in his work. In a recent publication, Santos and colleagues affirmed that "the modern Brazilian population is genetically very diverse and . . . heterogeneous when considering the 5 main geopolitical regions" (Palha et al. 2012).15 As they repeatedly affirmed during interviews, the North is characterized by its high proportion of Amerindian ancestry, the Northeast by the African genetic contribution, and the South predominantly by European ancestry.16 The Southeast region, in turn, presents a more equal balance of the three main ancestries. From this research emerges an image of Brazil as constituted by a number of genetically differentiated regions.

Santos's and Bortolini's research on particular regional configurations entails different ways of thinking about Brazil. First, they establish internal heterogeneity as a key characteristic of not only the Brazilian population as a whole but also of the populations of the Amazon and Rio Grande do Sul. According to Bortolini, while generalizations such as

those proposed by Pena are useful in genetic research, they are simplifications that conceal significant underlying variety and particularities. They are not absolute, incontestable images of the Brazilian genetic community but, rather, a result of the level of geographical resolution chosen in the analysis. Second, they conceptualize genetic admixture as a process producing—rather than effacing—differences between populations. Santos and Bortolini coincided in attributing the existence of pronounced regionalized genetic distinctions to variations in historical patterns of mixture. Key factors that they mentioned include different histories of colonization and immigration, the degrees of mixture between different populations, and the dynamics of internal migration between the various parts of Brazil.

Both sets of research discussed in this section raise alternatives to Pena's image of the Brazilian population by re-establishing internal plurality, diverse populations (in the plural), and heterogeneous regions, with plurality being parsed in significant measure in terms of ancestries that have racialized connotations. These approaches chime with Pena's in their emphasis on mixture, but they play another variation on the tension between similarity and difference, bringing traces of the foundational ancestral populations closer to the surface of contemporary Brazil.


Since publication of the "Molecular Portrait" in 2000, members of Brazil's black movement have been highly critical of Pena's research. However, rather than questioning its content, they have focused on its political uses and effects. From their perspective, by offering scientific support to the ideology of racial democracy and to arguments against affirmative action, this research bolstered political strategies aimed at maintaining a status quo of racial inequality (Kent n.d.; Santos and Maio 2004). The black movement's main critique was that genetic data and the arguments they sustained were irrelevant to the debate on race and affirmative action, for two interrelated reasons.17 First, in Brazil race is not a biological reality but, rather, a social construct based on factors such as skin color, distinctive cultural practices, and shared historical experiences of racism and exclusion. Second—as vividly expressed in the frequently recurring trope that "the police do not ask for a DNA test to know who is black"—racial classification and social inequalities in Brazil are based on appearance rather than ancestry or genotype. This separation between social and biological dimensions of race has been a central element in the black movement's strategy to keep genetics outside the debate on differentiated, race-based policies (Kent n.d.). The conceptual negotiations taking place in this instance are not about the content of imagined genetic communities but, rather, about whether genetics has any legitimate place at all in the ways in which Brazil and (the different segments of) its population are imagined. This view prevailed in the political debate on affirmative action: in 2012, Brazil's Supreme Court ratified

racial quotas unanimously, arguing that it was necessary to "remove the biological concept of race" from the discussion but that quotas were justified because "racism persists as a social phenomenon" (Lewandowski 2012:19—20).

Nonetheless, segments of Brazil's black movement have also engaged positively with genetic research, in ways that engender imagined genetic communities significantly different from the homogeneous community ofmesticgo Brazilians emerging from Pena's research. Such engagements have been related to political strategies that promoted the development of differentiated health policies aimed at the black segment of the country's population. The final report of the "Health of the Black Population" seminar sponsored by the Ministry of Health in 1996—in which activists of the black movement had a significant presence—claimed that "the black Brazilian population reveals a genetic specificity that distinguishes it from any other part of the world" (Hamann and Tauil 2001:9). This translated into increased vulnerability to particular diseases. Being the most common hereditary disease in Brazil (Hamann and Tauil 2001:14), sickle cell anemia has received most attention, becoming a bandwagon of the political campaign for differentiated health policies.

This disease has been used in efforts to establish close associations among black phenotype, genetic heritage, and health outcomes. While some segments of the black movement conceptualized such connections as exclusive—by defining sickle cell anemia unequivocally as a "doenga de negros' (black people's disease)—activists involved in the various sickle cell anemia associations founded since the 1990s tended to view the connection as predominant. In their everyday work, these activists encountered significant numbers of patients of white phenotype, a fact they attributed to the process of admixture in Brazil. In their experience, the prevailing stigma of being a doencga de negros meant that sickle cell anemia had been systematically neglected by policy makers. Redefining it as potentially affecting all Brazilians was important in order to increase the legitimacy of policies focusing on this disease (Kikuchi 2003). The latter interpretation prevailed in the section on sickle cell anemia written by geneticist Marco Zago in the Ministry of Health's "handbook of the most important diseases that prevail, for ethnic reasons, among the Brazilian Afro-descendent population" (Hamann and Tauil 2001:13—36). According to Zago, while in Brazil the disease is predominantly found among negros and pardos—of whom between 5 and 10 percent are heterozygous carriers, depending on region—it also occurs among brancos (Hamann and Tauil 2001:15). By attempting to establish a significant association between phenotypic appearance and genetic ancestry in the case of black people, black activists imagined this segment of the population as a differentiated genetic community within Brazil. However, even such partial claims of a connection between sickle cell anemia and a population conceptualized in racial terms have been strongly criticized by Pena (2009:57—68), who defined sickle cell anemia as a "geographic disease" instead, and

by social scientists who warned of the risks of reproducing racial stigmas and divisions (Fry 2005:273-300).18 Eventually, the Ministry of Health developed policies focused on the diagnosis and treatment of sickle cell anemia, but they adopted a universalist approach rather than targeting the black population.19

Black activists have deployed genetic data in additional ways. As the names of the different genetic variants—or haplotypes—associated with sickle cell anemia refer to the broader geographic or linguistic regions of Africa where they originated—Bantu (comprising, among other countries, Angola and Mozambique), Benin, Senegal, and Cameroon—they have been used as ancestry markers in genetic research (Cardoso and Farias Guerreiro 2006). Berenice Kikuchi, president of the Sickle Cell Anaemia Association of the state of Sao Paulo, has deployed these haplotype names to promote processes of identity formation among the patients and relatives that her association assists as part of courses designed to help them cope with the disease. Her aim was to stimulate the development of differentiated identities—Bantu, for example—rooted in the African continent. This echoes the interest among some black activists in Brazil—and in the United States, where this tendency is more pronounced (Nelson 2008)—to use genetics to establish direct connections with areas of Africa. Such approaches reveal efforts to constitute an imagined supranational genetic community consisting of black Brazilians and Africans.

However, Kikuchi also used the disease's association with African origins as a means to create awareness of mixed origins among participants who identified as white. As she explained during an interview, at the end of the courses "these [patients] weren't able to affirm themselves as white anymore. So it's really interesting, this re-reading of history that sickle cell anaemia permits" (interview, July 22, 2012). Thus, in a social context in which the ideal of whitening still holds strong currency, genetics offered the potential to redefine white Brazilians and to include them within a mestizo imagined community. Thus, the ways in which members of the black movement have engaged with genetics have been quite diverse, resulting in a variety of imagined communities. Some of these have been more aligned with Pena's image of a mixed national community, while others have raised alternatives aligned with black and African diasporic identities.


A third source of alternative images of the Brazilian community based on genetic research consists—ironically—of mass media interpretations of recent research by Pena and colleagues. Published in 2011, this study analyzed samples collected in four macroregions of Brazil among individuals that self-identified as white, brown, and black. In addition to claiming a relative homogeneity of genetic profiles between regions, as discussed earlier, the study affirmed a predominance of European ancestry throughout Brazil, ranging

from population averages of 61 percent in the Northeast to 78 percent in the South (Pena et al. 2011:5). The authors emphasized that in all regions the category "preto" revealed African genetic ancestry of less than 50 percent, with the exception of a sample from the southern state of Santa Catarina (2011:3). In their interpretation, this was due to the policies of whitening that promoted massive European immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries, thereby effacing previously existing regional differences (2011:1).

The mass media in Brazil picked up the potential of this study to redefine the Brazilian population as European. Two days after the article's publication, its results were featured on the front page of the Globo newspaper, with the headline "A More European Country." The article's subtitle affirmed that "the genetics of Brazilians reveals less black and Indian ancestry." It was accompanied by a graph: a triangle in which the average ancestry of four macroregions was placed in relation to African, Amerindian, and European poles, with the latter on top. Next to the graph, "Brasipeus"—or "Brazipeans" in English—was written. This "Europeaniza-tion" of Brazil was attributed to the influx of European immigrants in the 19th century (Globo 2011b). That day's editorial established a direct connection with the debate on affirmative action, stating that this research provided "irrefutable information" that the process of mixture placed an "insurmountable obstacle to the execution of racialist policies." It affirmed that "now it is science that proves the inexistence of the 'Afro-Brazilian'" (Globo 2011a).

Pena's study featured in other important media in a similar way. In a sensationalist representation of the study's results, an article in the national newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo affirmed that the "DNA of negros and pardos is 60% to 80% European."20 The article incorrectly projected the results for the Brazilian population as a whole onto its black and brown segments, thus taking the deconstruction ofblack identity well beyond the limits imposed by Pena's research. Finally, the Folha piece was reproduced on the website of Veja magazine, under the title: "Mama Africa, No Way! It's Really Mama Europe!"21

These articles' deployment of genetic data shows several differences from the media's earlier engagements with Pena's research. In the first place, they redefined the Brazilian population from being generically mixed to being essentially European. Second, they constructed arguments against affirmative action that were no longer based on this generalized mixture of the Brazilian population but, rather, on the "inexistence" of any Afro-Brazilians that could be their beneficiaries. Finally, by speaking of low levels of "black" ancestry, the Globo article conflated racial identification and genetic ancestry. It not only claimed that Afro-Brazilians do not exist from a genetic perspective but also suggested that self-defined black Brazilians cannot be considered black. Instead, the Brazilian population was imagined as thoroughly European, resulting from the policies of whitening. The article used Pena's research not so much to undermine the idea of race but, rather, to speak precisely about the racial

makeup of the country's population, privileging a particular white—European racial heritage.


Many different imagined genetic communities have emerged from genetic research and its social appropriations in the past decades in Brazil. The unified national community of mesticgo Brazilians emerging from Pena and colleagues' research has been most visible both in the scientific field and in social debates. Alternative approaches, however, have enabled the regional differentiation of Amazonians and Gauchos; have generated racialized identifications as whites, blacks, or "Brazipeans"; and have established transnational connections between Africa and its diasporic descendants. At times geneticists have actively imagined such communities, as in Pena's "Molecular Portrait" and Bortolini's Gaucho project; often, however, such communities have emerged implicitly out of data generated by research designed with different objectives or out of engagements with genetics by nonscientists. Imagined genetic communities have articulated with existing images of the Brazilian population, the nation, race, and regions, themselves formed by complex interactions between scientists and nonscientists. As in social interpretations of identity, there is an underlying tension in genetic interpretations between views of the Brazilian population as unified and other approaches that multiply its internal diversity. This variety of imaginative routes is enabled by the fact that different sets of genetic data—generated by research using distinct samples and technologies—offer different possibilities for the construction of communities. Connections have been established between genetic ancestry and social identity in ways that are far from straightforward, resulting both in es-sentializations and deconstructions of established identities. As such, genetics has served, on the one hand, to connect white and other Brazilians to a community of Europeans and to include black people in a transatlantic African imagined community. On the other hand, it has been used to strip the same whites and blacks of their differentiated characteristics and to embed them in a generic community of Brazilian mesticgos.

Different imagined genetic communities have sustained different kinds of political arguments. In social debates and the media, alignments have been established between genetic data and competing ideologies and political projects such as racial democracy, multiculturalism, and whitening, the latter rearticulated as a process of Europeanization. Pena's individualizing, antiracialist approach, for example, has revealed a particular fit with the idea of racial democracy and its focus on mixture and a continuum from the whitest to the blackest individual. The idea of a differentiated black community has been contested in the media on the basis of the pervasive genetic mixture of the Brazilian population and its supposed European genetic essence.

This Brazilian material highlights how genomics and engagement with it can take multiple forms. When genetic

data circulate in a context in which racial mixture is key to the imagined community, we see how the data can bring race both into and out of focus, while it does not vanish entirely, providing nuance to debates about the relationship between genomics and race, which tend to focus on whether genomics transforms race into something new or simply biologizes it.

Our data also address the question of the "geneticization" of society. Public debates in Brazil have revolved not only around the character ofgenetic communities but also around the question of whether genetics has any place at all in the ways in which Brazil and its communities are imagined, most significantly in the black movement's response to genetic arguments against affirmative action. The Supreme Court's dismissal of genetic arguments in favor of an interpretation of Brazilian society in which race as a social construction does play an important role reveals that the incorporation of genetics into social identity has been partial at most. It would be overstatement to consider this the "geneticization" of identities; genetics has merely added another twist to ongoing processes of negotiation of identity. It is, however, a relevant twist because it has partly reconfigured debates about race and nation in Brazil by multiplying the possibilities of imagining communities and incorporating biological repertoires into social discourses.

Michael Kent Social Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom;

Ricardo Ventura Santos Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, Escola National de SaUde PUblica,Rua Leopoldo Bulhoes 1480, sala 617, Rio de Janeiro 21041-210, Brazil; Peter Wade Social Anthropology, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, Manchester, M13 9PL, United Kingdom;

Acknowledgments. This article arises out of the collaborative project "Race, Genomics and Mestizaje (Mixture) in Latin America: A Comparative Approach," funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant RES-062—23—1914) and The Leverhulme Trust (grant RPG-044). The project was based at the University of Manchester and ran from January 2010 to March 2013. It was directed by Peter Wade, withcodirectors Carlos López Beltran, Eduardo Restrepo, and Ricardo Ventura Santos; research associates Vivette Garcia Deister, Michael Kent, Maria Fernanda Olarte Sierra, Sandra P. González Santos, and Ernesto Schwartz Marán; and research assistants Adriana Diaz del Castillo, Verlan Valle Gaspar Neto, Mariana Rios Sandoval, Abigail Nieves Delgado, and Roosbelinda Cardenas González. The ideas expressed here are indebted to the conversations and exchanges of ideas with project team members. We warmly thank the geneticists and members of the black movement who shared their time and insights with us. We are also grateful to journal editor Michael Chibnik and four anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments.

1. Neguinho translates as "blackie" and refers to the sambista's dark phenotype.

2. See 2007/05/070424_dna_neguinho_cg.shtml, accessed November 12, 2011.

3. See The Genographic Project (https://genographic.national; see also Nash (2013).

4. Forensic identifications may also use ancestry-based genetic data (M'charek 2008), but we do not address this here.

5. In the 20th century, there was also substantial Japanese, Chinese, and Sirio-Lebanese immigration. Genetic data on these populations have not been the focus of public debates.

6. Some university quotas exist for indigenous people, but the debates have focused on the much larger black population.

7. Here we do not explore the long-standing tradition of research that has focused on indigenous peoples. In brief, there are two main lines of investigation in this area (Santos et al. 2014). The first investigates the contribution of Amerindian populations to the biological formation of the Brazilian population. This approach is evident in the "Retrato Molecular do Brasil" by Pena et al. (2000), which contained details of DNA matrilineages of Amerindian origin in the genomes of Brazilians. The second line of inquiry focuses on the genetics of Amerindian populations themselves, exploring, for example, the pre-Columbian populating of the American continent, the migratory routes of the first Amerindians and the microevolutionary processes associated with the demographic dynamics of indigenous populations (Salzano and Callegari-Jacques 1988). Brazilian population geneticists, including Pena, often research both lines of inquiry.

8. "Retrato Molecular do Brasil." All translations from Portuguese are ours.

9. Mitochondrial DNA and the Y-chromosome are inherited integrally from the mother and the father, respectively, without recombination. Their analysis is a key tool in genetic research, as it establishes the ancestry of an individual's distant ancestors in a direct line on the mother's and father's side.

10. The results of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome analysis were also published in academic journals (Alves-Silva et al. 2000; Carvalho-Silva et al. 2001).

11. Pena (2002:1) relativizes the concept of "Homo Brasilis" by admitting it is "somewhat irreverent."

12. This includes Pena's earlier research, in particular the "Molecular Portrait" (Pena et al. 2000).

13. For examples of media and Internet interventions, see the "Destaques" section of the website of Pena's Laboratorio Gene at See also Pena's We R No Race project, (Both were accessed February 27, 2014.)

14. Pena has made frequent reference to authors associated with the racial democracy approach, such as Gilberto Freyre and Darcy Ribeiro (Alves-Silva et al. 2000; Pena et al. 2009).

15. This study included the Central West region, not studied in Penaetal. (2011).

16. Interviews with Santos, Bortolini, and collaborators were conducted by Kent between June and November 2010.

17. Kent conducted interviews with black activists between November 2011 and July 2012.

18. Genetic variants causing sickle cell anemia are not exclusive to African regions.

19. In a number of other areas, however, the Ministry of Health did implement differentiated, race-based policies.

20. See, accessed May 29, 2012.

21. See -africa-que-nada-e-mama-europa-mesmo/, accessed May 29, 2012.


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