The Race Palimpsest: Examining the Use of Ancestry Testing in the Rhetorical Construction of Identity

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Race is a palimpsest or layered rhetorical formulation that imbricates competing interpretations of human diversity. Efforts to understand the race concept and intervene in the effect of systemic inequity have been premised on the treatment of race as a social construction. However, the ascendancy of genetic ancestry testing and related biotechnologies have spurred the reiteration of biological categories, rivaling, or supplanting the constructivist perspective. In this dissertation, racial constitution is a rhetorical process that determines how novel understandings of human diversity are interpreted and integrated into the racial palimpsest. This project proposes a theoretical model for understanding the discursive interaction between genomic testing and current racial categorizations. Three case studies were conducted to demonstrate the operation of Kenneth Burke’s positive and dialectic terms for order in this process. The cases examine the genetic test reveal genre and situate their discursive circulation in digital media ecologies. The findings elucidate the operation of rhetorics of genetic certainty, heritability, and narrative invention through which publics process genetic test results and integrate them into understanding of human difference. This dissertation identifies the need for more accurate discursive terms to make sense of ancestry testing and disrupt the integration of genomic data into the palimpsest of race.