Is Genealogy Racist?

Image calls attention to a Resource Guide for White People in the study of 'Genealogy and Anti-racism.'

“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!

Image of cover to “The Best of Reclaiming Kin” Blog Book.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:

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. 

RevDianeKenastonThe 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. 

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Posted in Finding documents & doing research, Slavery & its legacies
10 comments on “Is Genealogy Racist?
  1. This is what I did with my genealogical research – all proceeds from the book go to CTTT and The Slave Dwelling Project:

  2. Kelly says:

    I’ve just browsed through your Genealogy and Anti-Racism document for the first time. What a great resource. I’m adding books to my reading list right now!

  3. Thank you for this article and information. I have been trying to find out if my working class northern ancestors were enslavers for some time now. I only recently found some information from their wills. But I have also seen the discrepancies in race identification between different years of censuses for a while now.
    I will be sure to contribute when I can.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This was beautifully written without bias
    Thank you.

  5. Prinny Anderson says:

    Thank you, Diane Kenaston, for the thoughtful reflections and the huge collection of tools and resources you’ve shared. A member of my local, Chapel Hill, Coming to the Table group has recently shared a link to them.
    With the Linked Descendants, you are among like-minded folks. Your work is a confirmation of all that we know and continue to learn, about the biases built into the white supremacy culture we live in. For European Americans, like myself, it’s a constant effort to push aside and question assumptions and all that is presented as “fact,” as well as constantly asking ourselves “what’s missing? who’s missing?” I can’t speak for people of African heritage, but from what my friends have said, their research into family histories and family trees is the mirror image – pushing aside assumptions, digging beyond bias, looking for ways to get past lies and uncover or reclaim missing or distorted information. Indeed, as Robinson wrote, sharing and restoring documents and stories would be a form of reparations.
    I hope so much we will hear more from you! Prinny Anderson

  6. I do believe that slaveholding was a sign of that particular time. That is something we personally did not do and might or might not have done had we lived in that time. It is past.

    After reading and listening and living in the Southwest, What I do feel is that while we worry about our slaveholding ancestors, we do not worry about the genocide perpetrated on our native Americans. So many deaths and injustice. At least our ancestor fed the slaves, we starved our natives. Did war on them, made laws to their disadvantage.

    • La Peregrina says:

      I think that it needs to be a both/and, not an either/or. Dismantling white supremacy requires us to address the legacies of both slavery and settler colonialism. (And we can explore the ways in which Western European notions of property/possession undergird both systems). The linked document tries to approach both. You may be particularly interested in the sections “Native Americans & Genealogy” and “Confront Settler Colonialism.”

  7. Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves. Frederick Douglass, 1855

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