Trigger warning: mentions of enslaved people, ownership of enslaved people.
How far into the past can you trace your ancestry? In our last post, Decolonize Your Bookshelf, we examined the systemic racism existing in education and literary publication and the priority that is given to the written word over other methods of recording history. This practice has been, at best, a way to ignore traditional methods of recording historical narratives, and, at worst, a complete erasure of marginalized people’s histories.
As of 2020, the most popular ancestry website, Ancestry.com, has over three million paid subscribers, and a large percentage of those, if not the majority, are white.
With these facts in mind, it is not surprising that there are issues of white privilege in the world of genealogy.
In an article for The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion, the author examines many systematically racist issues found on the website and its affiliate services, such as AncestryDNA and Findagrave.com. In this article, Ancestry.com’s Race Stories: Examining Whiteness on the Genealogy Web, the author describes how the latest updates to the search algorithms actively omit information, such as the ownership of enslaved people and the source of wealth. Features of the site obscure how some people “became white” by changing their names and their ethnic backgrounds in subsequent census records.
In addition to the active white-washing of the results on these sites, companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe dangerously promote the idea that race is designated biologically. However, the fact is, there is no genetic marker for ethnicity in DNA. These tests group certain genetic markers into geographic regions around the world and produce a report with estimates on the chances that your DNA may come from that region.
The assumption that you can quantify whether you are 25% this or that race is dangerous because race is a social construct. Marketing campaigns used by the companies to promote their services further entrench stereotypes by pairing values and personality traits with the ethnicity results. When you consider that 18 million people have taken genetic ancestry tests through AncestryDNA alone, these racist stereotypes and misconceptions are insidiously being rehashed and recycled in a new way.
This is also creating a ripple effect with services and programs that are meant to uplift and help marginalized groups as many effectively white people reassign their racial identities based on these results. There have been reports of white people checking boxes for non-white racial identities in order to benefit from these services and programs.
In his book, How the Irish Became White, author Noel Ignatiev explains that people didn’t just gain access to being white based on their skin colour, they had to earn it by perpetrating racial violence. Ironically, in trying to become less white, modern white people are also perpetuating a new form of racial violence. By accessing programs and services that were not designed for them, white people are taking resources from BIPOC and invalidating their lived experiences. White people are assuming a racialized identity without any of the real-world consequences of living that identity.
It is human nature to want a connection to our past and our ancestral roots. The statistics show that white people are interested in their past with a renewed sense of zeal. This highlights in stark contrast the recent discovery of the thousands of children buried at residential school locations across North America. First Nations children were removed from their homes and families with the express intent to destroy their connections to the past.
If we are to believe that the past doesn’t matter, then why does the popularity of websites such as Ancestry.com tell a different story? Our past tells us who we are, where we came from, gives us a sense of belonging, and can shape our future path. How can we know where we are going if we don’t know where we’ve been? This ancient traditional knowledge is embodied in many Indigenous teachings that refer to the 7 generations of the past and 7 generations to come. They honour their ancestors and plan for the future of their children and grandchildren. As many people have recently been seeking to rediscover their heritage, Indigenous peoples already knew the importance of remembering and honoring the past.
As allies, we must be aware of all our history, even the painful and shameful parts. We cannot move forward and plan for a better future if we ignore those parts of our history. If we don’t, we will and do end up perpetuating new forms of racial violence and oppression.
Ways to check your privilege:
- Since it is a privilege to find your ancestors on popular genealogy sites, use that privilege to connect with your past and examine the ways that your ancestors participated and benefitted from racial injustice. Look closely at wealth accumulation, the opportunities your ancestors had to advance financially and to be educated. Don’t gloss over the painful parts of your past. Acknowledge them and heal from them.
- Spend September 30 reflecting on the tragic history and ongoing legacy of residential schools.
- Do not use your genetic results to “justify” your appropriation of another culture or to access benefits and programs designed for minorities.
- Examine why having racialized results may give you a greater sense of identity when you are part of the majority.
The dark side of our genealogy craze by The Washington Post