“Is genealogy racist?” I typed into the search engine.
I had just received results from an ancestry DNA test. No surprises there — 99.9% northwestern European genetic heritage. I immediately wondered how many neo-Nazis use DNA tests to reinforce racism and claim racial purity.
As I typed my question in to the search engine that day, I was excited to find Coming to the Table. But it didn’t seem to apply to me. I come from a lower middle-class background: my ancestors were preachers, teachers, and laborers. None of my ancestors were slaveholders!
I later learned that I was wrong. Months later, once I knew where and how to look, I did discover slaveholding ancestors — among my working-class northern ancestors! But I didn’t make that discovery that day.
On that day, I began accumulating notes and links to answer my initial, “Is genealogy racist?” question. Each answer led to more questions. These areas of inquiry began filling page after page. I created a Google Doc with what I found: Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People.
My ever-growing resource covered subjects ranging from genealogy’s history of exclusion to differences in how people of different races approach heritage family histories. There was so much to learn, so much to uncover.
The tools that genealogists use are racialized. For example:
- the U.S. census changes the definitions of race and ethnicity,
- DNA exploits indigenous communities, and
- cemeteries are preserved or neglected based on the race of the people buried there.
Emphasizing immigration in the U.S. celebrates settler colonialism and homesteading, while appropriating indigenous histories and failing to connect contemporary immigration issues like “legality” and favoring people from some countries over others.
Those links are just a small sample of references I included in Genealogy and Anti-Racism.
But all of this information is useless if it doesn’t lead to transformation. What was I going to do with all that I learned? How would my genealogical practice change?
Here is a broad outline (details here) of actions we white genealogists can do:
- Learn with humility.
- Do your own emotional work. Question your assumptions. Decenter whiteness.
- Expand your genealogical methods and outcomes. Engage critical family history.
- Address the history you’d rather ignore.
- Confront slavery.
- Confront settler colonialism and homesteading.
- Confront immigration restrictions.
- Correct historical whitewashing.
- Promote alternatives to Confederate monuments.
- Educate others on “Lost Cause” historical revisionism.
- Use the Transforming Historical Harms model from Coming to the Table.
- Face history. Make connections. Heal wounds. Take action.
- Contribute data.
- Invest your money.
- Only patronize organizations and researchers committed to inclusivity.
- Support reparations.
- Change your narrative.
- Change the national conversations on indigenous peoples and immigrants by naming “settler colonialism.”
- Change the narratives within our own families. Our ancestors were works in progress, just as we are. They, like us, sometimes participated in oppressive systems and sometimes resisted them. Engage this complex legacy!
I am eager to hear more from BitterSweet readers about how you have learned to use genealogical tools to challenge racism. When you read Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People, I share ways for you to add suggested resources. You can also comment below!
The answer to my search engine question that day — Is genealogy racist? — is that genealogy is only as racist as we are. The tools and discipline of genealogy can be used to uphold white supremacy — or we can name and dismantle racism. The answer is up to us.
The Rev. Diane Kenaston is pastor of University United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. She graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and previously served churches in West Virginia, where she is an elder in full connection. She is married to the Rev. Dr. Adam Ployd, and they have one son.