The Ancestry.com Ads Are Case Studies In Racial History

The cultural and genetic histories of people in the United States are so diverse. Different racial and ethnic groups have long had very different experiences in terms of their lineage, keeping records of their ancestors, and having concrete ways to confirm from where and whom they descended. Ancestry.com is one of those sites that promises to help people find their foremothers and forefathers (for a fee of course). And, while I usually ignore their ads, two that have been running recently make me question how people really think about race in this country.

The first commercial from Ancestry that had me pondering about our racial understanding in the US features a set of Black twin men named Idries and Jamil. They explain in the short ad that they started their search for their ancestors in 2008 just by looking up their grandparents’ information. What they end up saying is that they were looking for people to feel connected to, like they were less aware of their cultural grounding before joining the website.

At some point, the first twin (assumed to be Idries) says, “I wish I could get into a time machine and just go back 100 years or 200 years and just meet these people.” This line is so confounding because going back 100 years would have placed them at a time when blackness meant the risk of being hunted down and lynched by lawless mobs in the South and systematically excluded from an honest day’s work in the North. Going back another 100, these men would have likely been enslaved. These two very phenotypically Black gentlemen would not fare well in either of their eras they seem so eager to go back to.

Then, the second twin (assumed to be Jamil) says, “Being on Ancestry just made me feel like I belong somewhere.” This line made me sad because it reflected the all to common feelings of anchorlessness many people of color, especially Black American descendants of chattel bondage, express in this country. Not only that, it underscores how effective White Supremacy has been in disconnected today’s Black Americans from their African predecessors and countries of origin.

The interesting thing about Ancestry is how differently they market their service to non-Black people. For example, in another commercial, they foreground ethnic differences rather than this notion that they can help people find their place in the world.

Take the commercial with “Kyle.” The middle-aged White man isn’t looking for a place to “belong” like the Black twins. Instead, he just wants to check to make sure he is actually who he already knows he is.

He starts the ad by saying, “Growing up, we were German.” Then, he starts listing off cultural aspects of German people like their dances and traditional clothing. But, through Ancestry, he found that he wasn’t actually German; he was mostly Scottish. That’s his whole story. They do a cute little thing at the end where he changes into a kilt just to drive the point home that he isn’t a part of the original White ethnic group, now he’s a member of a different White ethnic group.

I laughed out loud at both commercials but for different reasons. The thought that two Black men wanted to go back to Jim Crow or the era of slavery was ridiculous to me. Comparatively, the idea that Kyle’s story of learning he wasn’t German only to learn that he is Scottish seemed so trite and unimportant.

If we take Kyle as any indication, being White in this country raises the chances that one will have been socialized to know where they belong, even if they are off a bit. It increases the chances that one’s existence won’t feel like a random, unnecessary, or outlying event. This is important especially when we think about how we engage on race and ethnicity across these social groups.

This might mean that we just aren’t talking about the same things. For many Whites, who have been privileged not only in public spaces but also in their private lives, the idea that Black people are still putting the pieces of our family histories together after the centuries of devastation inflicted on our predecessors by their’s probably seems like the plot to a movie rather than real life. But Ancestry figured it out in their marketing campaign.

What was very clear in both of these stories is that race and ethnicity in America are deeply related to our long struggles with White Supremacy and institutional racism. That the Black folks go to Ancestry to find where they belong while White folks go to make sure they are wearing the correct ethnic uniform says so much about the long-term impacts of intergenerational oppression in the United States; namely, it says that Black Americans were long denied access to their ancestors, intentionally barred from speaking their original tongues, and forced to assimilate into a violent culture which depends on their closeness to whiteness as confirmation of its own superiority.

Perhaps I am over-thinking things. I’m sure someone will say I am taking these commercials a step too far. However, it is worth considering that companies like these know precisely how to market their products to folks from different racial and ethnic groups precisely because many of us simply don’t know where we come from. For many of us (Black people), our lineage goes back only a few generations. For many Whites, though, this is just not the case.

This isn’t an anti-Ancestry article. I won’t use the service because I know I’m Black and finding out that I am other stuff too won’t change that. In the end though, confirming my race independent of knowing my true ethnic history and having somewhere to belong are things I have had to fight for. They are privileges most Whites are born with that I am challenged to maintain everyday.

At its core, this is one of the reasons why racial dialogue in this country doesn’t work across the White-Black paradigm, or at least it doesn’t work well. We are literally never talking about the same thing. I think most Black folks have already figured that out though.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Co-Founder/Editor-in-Chief
Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

1 Response

  1. TopherDL says:

    Thanks for this write-up. I’ve actually had similar thoughts about this in the back of my mind while watching these ads but never took the time to process and articulate them. It really is a bizarre realization when you take moment to think about how white supremacy permeates even the most innocuous of things for Black Americans. Something as inconsequential as a commercial can cause you to think about how this country has actively dismantled connections to our ancestry. For most Black Americans (who are descendants of slaves), there simply isn’t an ‘old country’ for us. And while I don’t think it is necessary to know where exactly where you came from to move forward in this world or to have a strong sense of ‘self’, there is a certain level of comfort that comes with being able to establish some kind of continuity about who you are.

    As for the actual website — I’ve used Ancestry.com to limited success, but cancelled once I hit a wall and there simply wasn’t anymore information for me to mine.

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