White people want to find heroes among their ancestors and this shapes marketing campaigns, archival practices

American celebrity Ben Affleck was invited to be a guest on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,”  but the slave-owning ancestory the genealogical researchers discovered in his lineage got scrubbed from the show at Affleck’s request, leaked emails have revealed. The show’s host, Harvard Professor of History Skip Gates, along with the show’s producers, acquiesced to Affleck’s request, saying they chose to focus on “the most interesting” aspects of the star’s background including “a Revolutionary War ancestor, a third great–grandfather who was an occult enthusiast, and his mother who marched for civil rights during the Freedom Summer of 1964.” It was these elements of Affleck’s life that were part of the fall 2014 episode when it aired. The show would have easily slipped from popular attention and memory except for the leaked emails charting Affleck’s attempt – and Gates’ complicity – in hiding these facts. In a statement released in the aftermath of the leak, Affleck said he regrets the move and said  “I was embarrassed” by the revelation of slave-owning ancestors. (A subsequent report quibbles with the claim of ‘ownership’ – but the overall facts of Affleck’s ancestors’ involvement in the slave trade remain unchanged.)

The reality that Affleck couldn’t face personally scales to a social level. In the U.S., there are hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of people alive today who are the direct descendants of slave-owners and millions of others who benefit from this architecture of inequality. In fact, as a growing field of historical scholarship demonstrates once more that slavery gave capitalism its start. All of our lives are shaped by the legacy of slavery in this country, as Heather McGhee recently pointed out.  The legacy of slavery also shows up in how we approach ancestry work, in how it is sold to us, and in how ancestry archives are created.

The Business of ‘Roots’ 

Make no mistake, once the domain of hobbyists genealogy is now big business. People spend upwards of a billion dollars each year at sites like MyHeritage.com, FindMyPast.com, and Ancestry.com.  Affleck, like many non-famous people, wanted and perhaps expected to find heroes among his ancestors. Marketing campaigns for genealogy firms help perpetuate this mythology of heroic white ancestors, whether for ancestry-themed television shows like PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” or TLC’s “Who Do You Think You Are,” or for the online databases themselves. The television program “Who Do you Think You Are,” is actually produced by Ancestry.com, making it, in effect, one big commercial for the online database. (For scholarship on “Who Do You Think You Are,” see Kramer, 2011, and a more extensive, but still partial, review of the ancestry literature here.).

‘Discover Your Family Heroes’ 

The marketing from the online genealogical juggernautAncestry.com encourages people to “find the heroes in your family” by searching publicly-available analog records that have been digitized and locked behind the proprietary paywalls that Ancestry.com engineers have created. Scholar Graeme Davison wonders if this transformation in family history research may be subtly changing what was once a kind of secular pilgrimage into a series of financial transactions. But the pursuit of family history in these online databases are not the same for everyone. In the Australian context, the iconography of their advertisements suggest that would-be researchers “Discover your family heroes” in honor of ANZAC Day, an Australian and New Zealand commemoration of World War I.

"Discover your family heroes"

Ancestry.com ad: “Discover your family heroes”

Such an ad assumes the prospective researcher is a white person and aligns the “heroic” past with the settler-colonial history. At the same time, it excludes the indigenous and aboriginal Australians and New Zealanders from the pursuit of this digital genealogical quest.

There are similar ads for U.S.-based audiences, which feature exclusively or mostly white images of soldiers, alongside the caption, “Discover the heroes in your family.” As with the Australian context, this kind of image suggests a heroic past of settler colonialism that denies the indigenous experience of Native Americans.

‘Ancestors Worthy of a Status Update’ 

As Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang have pointed out in “Roots and Revelation” (2012), genealogical research was once predominantly the pursuit of older people, but social media status-sharing is driving renewed interest in searches that are then shared online. In their work, Nelson and Hwang focus on the “revelation” on YouTube, similar to the “reveal” in reality-based television program, when African American roots-searchers share their DNA results suggesting where their ancestors where from. Savvy marketers know this and are leveraging this connection in ads like this one:

Find Status-Update-Worthy Ancestors

Ancestry.com ad: “Find ancestors worthy of a status update”


But, as researchers at Stanford have found — and probably anyone with a Facebook account can attest — there is a skew toward “happy news only” on Facebook, that has a negative impact on us. This kind of tilt toward happy-news-only is also built into the archives that online databases like Ancestry.com draw on for their service.

‘The 1870 Wall’

The business people behind online genealogical tools also want to market to researchers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, but these researchers are confronted by gaps in the historical record. For many African Americans, genealogical research that relies on official documents is difficult, if not impossible, because there simply are no records. Their ancestor were not regarded as full citizens – nor fully human beings – worthy of record keeping. This painful past presents a marketing dilemma for online databases like Ancestry.com.  They are undaunted, however, refering to this gap in records euphemistically as  ‘The 1870 Wall’ – by which of course, they mean that prior to that time African Americans were enslaved to other Americans and there was often incomplete data.

Ancestry ad - African American face the 1870 wall

Ancestry.com ad: “African Americans face the 1870 wall”

Given the history of very real history of material oppression and diaspora, finding documentation and crafting stories out of those documents can be a form of resistance by reclaiming some of what has been erased. Stories like the inspirational Delaney sisters memoir Having our Say (later a Broadway play), draw on oral history to re-tell the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation through a retrospective lens of triumph over evil. But there is much that is missing from the digital archives at online genealogical databases.

The Wall Hiding White (heterosexual) Supremacy in the Archives

The archival practices that form the basis of the popular genealogical databases help perpetuate a one-sided retrospective reading of history, in which white people are configured as paragons of virtue.  Missing from most of these online databases are any systematic records of slave-owners, of Klan membership, organizers of lynch mobs, or bank executives that decided on red-lining and racial segregation. It is possible to create searchable online databases from existing records for these kinds of records.

Legacies of British Slave-owners

Source: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/search/

The University College of London has done precisely this with their Legacies of British Slave-ownership, but this database is not integrated into any of the main genealogical services, nor is there a U.S. counterpart to this. It could be different – Ancestry.com or other services like this – could develop these databases or acquire them, but it’s unlikely given the desire to “find the heroes” in the family. It’s many ways, it’s similar to narratives of the Holocaust, in which everyone imagines themselves to be the descendants of the heroic Schindler, of  “Schindler’s List,”  rather than descendants of an SS officer. (And of course, Spielberg’s version of this history is an altered and sanitized version that ignores Schindler’s collaboration with the Third Reich.)

The default genealogical researcher invited to create a ‘family tree’ at the LDS-created Ancestry.com is also heterosexual. Within the past few years, a growing series of complaints have noted that people who want to record marriages of family members who are the same sex cannot because the software won’t record the union. Which is to say, the family tree database won’t allow users to report a marriage unless it takes place between a man and a woman. In addition to offering a very heteronormative view of our current times, it makes it impossible to find queerness historically.

What this lopsided collection of material in the commercially available genealogical archives means is that the casual individual (white) researcher is unlikely to stumble upon any “bad news” about their ancestors. To find those connections to slave-owning ancestors – or Klan members, or organizers of lynching mobs or bank executives drawing red-lines on a map, that is, to find the legacies of how white ancestors contributed to building the architecture of white supremacy, you really have to dig deep. Or, in the case of celebrities like Ben Affleck, have someone else dig deep for you. Pity he wasn’t able to face up to what a team of genealogical researchers found for him.

Facing History, Facing our Families

With rising popularity of genealogical research, and the increasing availability of digitized databases, it is likely that even if they are hard to find for the individual researcher, we will have more revelations of prominent people with slave-owning pasts and their connections to descendants of people once enslaved by their families. Recently, reporters learned that the slave-owning ancestors of the actor Benedict Cumberbatch are also the ancestors of NYC Commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch. This brings discussions of slavery, rape, ownership, colonialism and racism front-and-center into contemporary politics and popular culture, and in general, we are ill-equipped to deal with these discussions. One news outlet ran a Cumberbatch-related story with the headline, “Should Benedict Cumberbatch say sorry for the slave-owners in his family?” 


Stacey Cumberbatch

Stacey Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

In 2007, the news carried a number of reports that genealogical researchers uncovered a connection between the families of Rev. Al Sharpton, African American civil rights leader, and Strom Thurmond, former U.S. Senator and ardent segregationist. While Sharpton was open to and intrigued by this revelation, Thurmond’s descendants’ response has been denial and, then ultimately, silence. In the wake of his discovery that his family had once been owned by Strom Thurmond’s family, Al Sharpton said: “I wrote my name and … had to come to terms with the fact that this was a name given to me by slaveholders.” The Thurmond family issued no similar statement reflecting on their slaveholding past. The different responses from Sharpton and Thurmond’s family reflect the asymmetry in excavating the racial past.

It’s incredibly rare to see a white person who looks this history in the face and tells the story. There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Ed Ball traces his family lineage to their slave-owning past, in his Slaves in the Famiily. Tom DeWolf and members of his family do it in the documentary Traces of the Trade, and Mab Segrest does it in her book, Memoir of a Race Traitor.

Even on Gates’“Finding Your Roots,”  CNN Anchor and New Year’s Eve bon vivant Anderson Cooper learned on the show that his family, the Vanderbilts, were slave owners. Unlike Affleck, Cooper allowed producers to leave this fact in the show, which they highlighted as a “discovery of a dark past”. Cooper, for his part, said that he was “ashamed” to learn this.

Given the history of racial oppression and white domination, doing ancestry work is an asymmetrical process that has a differential effect in the present depending upon one’s standpoint. For those who were victims of oppressive systems, revisiting history as Weems does in her work, reclaims those lives and resituates them in a different context. While for those who have been architects and benefactors of oppressive systems, such as Affleck, revisiting a history of unearned privilege based on racial inequality may result in shame at what their ancestors perpetrated as white slaveowners.




Research Brief: Ancestry, Race and Genealogy

  • Bolnick, Deborah A., Duana Fullwiley, Troy Duster, Richard S. Cooper, Joan H. Fujimura, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman et al. “The science and business of genetic ancestry testing.” SCIENCE-NEW YORK THEN WASHINGTON- 318, no. 5849 (2007): 399. Abstract: Commercially available tests of genetic ancestry have significant scientific limitations, but are serious matters for many test-takers. (OA)
  • Kramer, Anne-Marie. “Mediatizing memory: History, affect and identity in Who Do You Think You Are?.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (2011): 428-445. Abstract: Along with Australia, Canada and the USA, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry. Drawing on recent work in memory studies which attends to the relationship between individual and collective historical experiences, this article analyses the celebrity genealogy BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as viewers’ and critics’ reception of it, to problematize genealogy as a form of mediated or mediatized memory practice which mobilizes traces of the past through the idiom of family. It asks: what is the role of genealogy in facilitating the relationship between identity and memory, both for celebrity participants and viewers? How does television make memories remotely accessible, and how do viewers engage with such modes of accessing the past? (locked)
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Bio Science Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry.” Social Studies of Science 38, no. 5 (2008): 759-783. Abstract: This paper considers the extent to which the geneticization of `race’ and ethnicity is the prevailing outcome of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. The decoding of the human genome precipitated a change of paradigms in genetics research, from an emphasis on genetic similarity to a focus on molecular-level differences among individuals and groups. This shift from lumping to splitting spurred ongoing disagreements among scholars about the significance of `race’ and ethnicity in the genetics era. I characterize these divergent perspectives as `pragmatism’ and `naturalism’. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, I argue that neither position fully accounts for how understandings of `race’ and ethnicity are being transformed with genetic genealogy testing. While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, `race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated `objective’ and `affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their `genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science. (locked)
  • Tyler, Katharine. “The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of interracial identities.” The Sociological Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 476-494. Abstract: The aim of this article is to examine ethnographically how ideas of descent, biology and culture mediate ideas about the inheritance of racial identities. To do this, the article draws upon interviews with the members of interracial families from Leicester, a city situated in the East Midlands region of England. The article focuses upon the genealogical narratives of the female members of interracial families who live in an ethnically diverse inner-city area of Leicester. Attention is paid to the ways in which the women mobilise and intersect ideas about kinship, ancestry, descent, belonging, place, biology and culture when they think about the inheritance of their own and/or their children’s interracial identities. The article’s emphasis upon the constitution of interracial identities contributes to the sociological study of race and genealogy by exploring the racialised fragmentation of ideas of inheritance and descent across racial categories and generations. (locked)
  • TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 412-424. Abstract: In its quest to sample 100,000 “indigenous and traditional peoples,” the Genographic Project deploys five problematic narratives: (1) that “we are all African”; (2) that “genetic science can end racism”; (3) that “indigenous peoples are vanishing”; (4) that “we are all related”; and (5) that Genographic “collaborates” with indigenous peoples. In so doing, Genographic perpetuates much critiqued, yet longstanding notions of race and colonial scientific practice. (OA)
  • Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. “Your DNA is our history.” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-S245. Abstract: During the nineteenth century, the American School of Anthropology enfolded Native peoples into their histories, claiming knowledge about and artifacts of these cultures as their rightful inheritance and property. Drawing both on the Genographic Project and the recent struggles between Arizona State University and the Havasupai Tribe over the use of Havasupai DNA, in this essay we describe how similar enfoldments continue today—despite most contemporary human scientists’ explicit rejection of hierarchical ideas of race. We seek to bring greater clarity and visibility to these constitutive links between whiteness, property, and the human sciences in order that the fields of biological anthropology and population genetics might work to move toward their stated commitments to antiracism (a goal, we argue, that the fields’ antiracialism impedes). Specifically, we reflect on how these links can inform extralegal strategies to address tensions between U.S. and other indigenous peoples and genome scientists and their facilitators (ethicists, lawyers, and policy makers). We conclude by suggesting changes to scientific education and professional standards that might improve relations between indigenous peoples and those who study them, and we introduce mechanisms for networking between indigenous peoples, scholars, and policy makers concerned with expanding indigenous governance of science and technology. (OA)
  • Wagner, Jennifer K., and Kenneth M. Weiss. “Attitudes on DNA ancestry tests.”Human genetics 131, no. 1 (2012): 41-56. Abstract: The DNA ancestry testing industry is more than a decade old, yet details about it remain a mystery: there remain no reliable, empirical data on the number, motivations, and attitudes of customers to date, the number of products available and their characteristics, or the industry customs and standard practices that have emerged in the absence of specific governmental regulations. Here, we provide preliminary data collected in 2009 through indirect and direct participant observation, namely blog post analysis, generalized survey analysis, and targeted survey analysis. The attitudes include the first available data on attitudes of those of individuals who have and have not had their own DNA ancestry tested as well as individuals who are members of DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In a new and fluid landscape, the results highlight the need for empirical data to guide policy discussions and should be interpreted collectively as an invitation for additional investigation of (1) the opinions of individuals purchasing these tests, individuals obtaining these tests through research participation, and individuals not obtaining these tests; (2) the psychosocial and behavioral reactions of individuals obtaining their DNA ancestry information with attention given both to expectations prior to testing and the sociotechnical architecture of the test used; and (3) the applications of DNA ancestry information in varying contexts. (locked)
  • Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the unsettled past: The collision of DNA, race, and history. Rutgers University Press, 2012.GeneticsUnsettledPast


    Abstract: Genetics and the Unsettled Past considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these trends lend renewed authority to biological understandings of race and history. This unique collection brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines—biology, history, cultural studies, law, medicine, anthropology, ethnic studies, sociology—to explore the emerging and often contested connections among race, DNA, and history. Written for a general audience, the book’s essays touch upon a variety of topics, including the rise and implications of DNA in genealogy, law, and other fields; the cultural and political uses and misuses of genetic information; the way in which DNA testing is reshaping understandings of group identity for French Canadians, Native Americans, South Africans, and many others within and across cultural and national boundaries; and the sweeping implications of genetics for society today. (locked)

This brief review just barely scratches the surface of this area of research but gives you some key names in the field to continue reading. Would you like to see your research featured in an upcoming research brief? Drop a note using the contact form.

Happy reading! 😉