In 2018, self-proclaimed trans-racial activist Rachel Dolezal’s appearance in South Africa for a talk on nonracialism caused quite a furore. In her memoir she narrates her story about identifying as black even though she was born to white parents.
This year German model Martina Big decided to follow this path of fantasy blackness. She has melanin injections, has had massive breast implants, is learning Swahili and is considering other surgeries to make her skin tone dark. In January, she announced that she (and her melanin-injected white husband) would be giving birth to black babies. Media and social media pounced on this statement with comments ranging from “blackness is in your DNA” to “cosmetics can’t change your genetics”.
Sensationalist reportage aside, what these news reports highlight is one of the biggest paradoxes of our century: although social scientists continue to argue that race is a social construct, new technologies intensify race consciousness at the molecular and genetic level, reinforcing the concept of race as a biological category.
Genomic science and biotechnologies are reinventing race in biological terms, new racial science is being built into biomedicine, pharmaceutical products and diagnoses of illnesses. Race-specific drugs are developed and tried on black patients. In the industry of assisted reproductive technologies (ART), race and reproduction take on high-tech avatars, especially when gametes (eggs and sperms) need to be chosen.
In clinics and banks across the world gametes are stored in colour- coded vials, with utmost importance placed on racially matching recipients with gametes. Black parents get black eggs and sperms, and white parents get white gametes and no one raises an eyebrow. It’s only when black women choose white eggs or a white woman gets wrongly inseminated with black eggs and colour lines are crossed that the topic is deemed newsworthy.
I previously highlighted another aspect of the fertility industry — “egg safaris” and white South African women travelling to other parts of the world to “donate” their eggs. I pointed to the gendered nature of the ART industry, in which not only the burden of infertility and the responsibility for treatment falls on women, but now even the responsibility for providing the resources (eggs and wombs) for these new technologies are borne primarily by women.
Critics of these technologies have focused on gendered forms of exploitation in the industry and others have highlighted the differential access to these services and technologies by class and race. Much of this criticism conflates race and class.
The argument seems to be that white people are the primary users of ART because they can pay for private-sector treatment and facilities, and these treatments and facilities are seldom state-funded. But the intersection of race and assisted reproduction is not a matter of class, nor can racial disparity be measured merely by differential access.
I have observed how these new and emerging technologies can reaffirm race-based inequalities. The human egg industry in South Africa is inherently white, and black women are mostly invisible, whether in donor websites or clinic adverts.
In my interviews with egg bank owners, agency managers and egg providers, there was ample evidence of this inherent whiteness. In many egg banks, most ads and online photos of current egg providers are exclusively of white women. Most agencies preferred not to recruit any “disadvantaged donors”.
The invisibility of black egg providers is even more stark when we look at egg providers considered desirable by the international fertility market. In my research in top fertility clinics in India, Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal, which assist clients from all over the world, I am yet to meet one black egg provider.
Clinic professionals give two reasons for the whiteness of this industry: white clients want a racial or phenotype match and “mixed-race” and Asian clients prefer to whiten the next generation. Black clients are mostly absent from these discussions.
Most recipients and professionals talk about these choices and desires as obvious, but the questions raised by the inherent whiteness of the industry must be debated. Why is it that, in the age of alternative families, adoptive parents, adoptee children, families with single mothers, single fathers, two fathers, two mothers and foster parents, when it boils down to assisted reproduction, many parents desire a race match? Is familial bonding determined by resemblance and race? Why is it that some mixed-race and Asian parents desire whiter babies? Why is fertility still entangled in notions of eugenics and racial purity?
We might want to believe that the days of eugenics is over. The state no longer determines our reproductive behaviour; we are making a personal choice about the characteristics of our desired child. But these choices are deeply shaped by race-based hierarchies and (post)colonial ideas of white desirability. Let us not depoliticise questions about genetics, race and whiteness by labelling them as natural and obvious individual choices.
Amrita Pande, author of Wombs in Labour: Transnational Commercial Surrogacy in India (Columbia University Press, 2014) teaches in the sociology department at the University of Cape Town