Identity, Diversity, and DNA

Identity and diversity are now at the heart of our political and intellectual debates in both the United States and France. It is as if DNA determines who we are and our individual and collective destinies; biology has taken over from ideology, no matter the social and historical realities.
© Antoine Moreau-Dusault

How to plumb the soul of a people? I recommend that infallible guide, television ads. When I find myself in the United States, nothing informs me better concerning the passions of the moment than advertisements: Cars, as comfortable as lounges, and bodily and household hygiene dominate. A common feature of these commercials is that they all mention price as an attracting factor. Now consider what is seen on French screens: Fashion and gastronomy dominate, from perfume to jambon de pays. The mise en scene is more sophisticated than in the United States, to the point of ignoring the product, and the price is rarely mentioned, as this would be too vulgar. These commercials, characteristic of our two civilizations, reflect the cycle of French-American trade. France seen from the United States is chic and expensive: fashion and perfume. The United States seen from France is popular: Disneyland and Burger King.

Obviously, I am simplifying things to get to the essential: What is popular in America always wins over France in the end. Recall that Disneyland, Starbucks, and Facebook, at first decried in France, have achieved immense success there – despite the initial prophecies of intellectuals. So I invite the reader to consider American television commercials that are not yet in France but that soon will be; our common future is written on these screens. I note that a pervasive kind of advertising has so far spared France: the search for one’s genealogy and the use of DNA for this purpose. In the United States, the proposition is commonplace: Send a saliva sample and a check to a certain company; they, in return, will tell you about your Cherokee or Baltic ancestry. In this scientific knowledge of their ancestors, a customer finds new pride, their identity enriched by so many unexpected great-grandparents. A person who thought they were 100% Irish discovers they are also Swedish or Sicilian. Better than a single identity, your DNA gives you a collection of identities, multiplying pride by a multiplicity
of origins.

This passion for DNA forms part of the contemporary mood and constitutes its dominant ideology. Today, doubtless because of the decline of partisan ideologies, everyone prefers to define themselves by where they come from and sees themselves as the sum of their origins. Thus we have entered into the age of identity and of diversity. Under the microscope of DNA, identity without diversity does not exist, except for someone who descends directly from Adam and Eve.

It is true that, even before the use of DNA, Americans cultivated the cult of roots, as evidenced by administrative documents where one is asked to spell out one’s origins. A hundred years ago, there were white, Black, Asian, and Native American categories; now there are some forty boxes to check, with the possibility of selecting several – multiplicity has become the norm. In France, of course, ethnic origins are supposed to be invisible – but who still believes that? France will not escape this American tendency, since identity and diversity are now at the heart of debates, courteous or vicious, about the condemnation of immigration as the source of all evils. In practice, some are proud of having become French while coming from elsewhere. Others prefer coming from elsewhere without becoming French, and still others claim to descend from the Gauls.

The historical truth is that immigration, from the time the Romans invaded Gaul, invented France. Should one then, for this reason, in order to call oneself authentically French, be integrated and assimilated, or should one cultivate one’s differences? Such is the quarrel that occupies the political parties maybe more than it does the French people. It is on this basis that DNA – and its commercial exploitation, which will reach France from the United States – is bound to spice up the debate. Imagine, for example, that a leader of the far right, a maniac of assimilation, finds that they have Cambodian or Wolof ancestors – which is not unlikely, given France’s colonial past. Would they be able to protest with the same enthusiasm against the migratory “invasion”?

The French, as they really exist, are immigrants, exactly like Americans. Owing to its geographic situation and the wealth of its territory, France has always attracted the dispossessed, the poor and the wretched of the earth. There are no “native” French people as there are original peoples in North America; they simply do not exist. Everyone comes from elsewhere. They did not descend from the Mayflower, but from a thousand Mayflowers, and they have been landing in France for over twenty centuries. They continue to land there, and when DNA tests are authorized in France and have become as popular as in the United States, we will be able to compare the genealogical maps of our two nations and discover in each a comparable variety. In sum, our identity is our diversity.


Editorial published in the February 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.