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Tracing Your Ancestral Roots Is Easy When You’re White

I’m currently awaiting the results of a DNA test. I’m not looking to discover an unknown rich relative, because I’m not delusional. I’m not hoping that I’m 1/64 Cherokee, because I’m not Elizabeth Warren (Timeline). My saliva’s en route for genetic testing because I have no idea about my predisposition to any hereditary diseases as an adoptee. When I fill out the intake form at a doctor’s office, I skip the family medical history section entirely; I don’t know about my ancestral roots and I’ve never actually met any of my relatives. I’ve decided that if I’m likely to develop a severe medical condition, perhaps one I’d know about if I were acquainted with a relative or two, it’d be best to get some advance warning to take precautions — or at least get my affairs in order. 

TAKE ACTION

• White people should find out if their ancestors were slave-owners. Those whose family’s wealth was built on slavery can pay reparations without waiting for Congressional action.

Consider: How much of your family’s history has been preserved or erased? How about for other people you know? What sort of privileges or oppression did your ancestors enact or face? Who is encouraged to be proud of their history, and what does that imply?

Genealogy is said to be America’s second-favorite hobby with a long history in the United States (Time). Members of the Daughters of the American Revolution tracked their family history to certify the “purity of [their] Caucasian blood.” In the 1970s, Alex Haley added fuel to the genealogy fire with his bestseller Roots, which told the story of his family from when his ancestor Kunta Kinte was taken from the Gambia (Time). Many tried to follow in Haley’s footsteps by identifying their ancestors and imagining their lives. 

Though Haley conducted genealogical research on his family and the book was sold as non-fiction, he was clear that Roots was a fictional account. There are questions about the accuracy of how he traced his ancestral roots (Bustle). When tracing family history, many Black people can’t go any farther back than 1870. The names of enslaved people weren’t listed on Census documents. White people’s ancestors, however, are comparatively easy to find. The fact that public family trees don’t mention whether or not they owned enslaved people allows their descendants to ignore an uncomfortable piece of family history (Daily Dot). 

There are other reasons why, when it comes to researching ancestry, white people from privileged backgrounds have a distinct advantage. Forced relocation, immigration, and premature death all blot out the histories of families of color. 

“This expectation of knowing my genealogy used to hurt me a lot. Like Cleo in the movie Roma, my grandmother was an Indigenous girl taken to Mexico City to ‘help’ in a house without pay. Every time someone asked me why I don’t know more about my history, I’d feel my grandmother’s pain at being ripped from her community,” María Soledad Hernández Vega, a first-generation immigrant, told The ARD. “Now it makes me angry more than anything. Who has the privilege of knowing where they came from? Who bothers to write the genealogy of people who are not supposed to be here in the first place?” 

And racial disparities even infect the supposed objectivity of genetic analysis. Companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe determine your background by comparing your DNA to the DNA in a “reference panel” of people of different ethnicities. Most of the DNA in that data set is from European-descended people, meaning results are significantly “more detailed for white people” (PCWorld). 

We need to understand the racial politics of history and ancestral roots. The contemporary genealogy craze has been described as a “white ethnic revival.” Many white people in the U.S. now celebrate ancestors who arrived at Ellis Island. Tracing an immigrant history provides “white ethnics with a language of historic oppression and struggle that functioned to minimize, trivialize and dismiss the contemporary demands of marginalized racial groups, like those celebrating Black Power, Chicano rights, and American Indian sovereignty” (Washington Post). 

Many marginalized people had their family legacies obliterated forever by white terror and time, a system that considered them: 

“Nobodies: the children of nobody, owners of nothing… 

Who don’t have culture, but folklore 

Who are not human beings, but human resources

Who don’t have names, but numbers…

Who are worth less than the bullet that kills them.”

Eduardo Galeano, Los Nadies (Poem Hunter, Poeticious)

We should be proud that we and our ancestors survived a system that tried to erase our existence. And those who can trace back their family histories should reflect on what those histories mean: their ancestors were the beneficiaries of a system that erased the existence of so many others. 
Stephen Jay Gould wrote, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops” (Forbes). The fact that their names are gone does not erase their talent, just like it doesn’t make Einstein’s achievements any greater.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Many marginalized people can’t trace their ancestral roots. White people are at an advantage in both DNA testing and genealogy. 
  • The uneven erasure of familial and historical knowledge is the result of structural violence.
  • White people have used genealogy to affirm their whiteness or minimize their contributions to white supremacy.

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