This is NOT Genealogy's Dark Side



The blog I write today was not the one I planned and I want to make clear this is my OPINION.  

I blog about genealogy because it is my passion and I have found that it pairs wonderfully with my first interest, psychology.  I often start the day reading the news and today was no different.  Having just about finished my second cup of coffee, I was flipping through the stories on The Washington Post when I came across an article published yesterday, “The Dark Side of our Genealogy Craze” by Honor Sachs, an assistant history professor at the University of Colorado – Boulder. 

I beg to differ with the author’s main premise.  In paragraph 1, “…But the rise of genealogy may also, paradoxically, exacerbate the virulently anti-immigration fervor propelling President Trump’s policies and increase racial inequality…”  As the thesis statement, the article continues to present the author’s justification of  her views that researching one’s family history is dangerous for the future and the interest in learning this information is short-lived, per her word choice in the title. I strongly disagree.

To prove her point, the author cites the beginning of the growing interest in finding one’s lineage to Alex Haley’s Roots.  The book and television series without a doubt, gave rise to genealogy in the late 20th century.  Yes, the story was about an African American whose ancestors were enslaved and those of European ancestry did use the methods Haley outlined to begin their own research.  I am one of them with two of my European lines entering through Ellis Island.  I am also a Boomer. 

How the author connected Roots, Boomers and Ellis Island to this statement, “The exploration of this heritage provided a language through which the baby boomer generation could safely distance themselves from the mandates of the Civil Rights era without sounding explicitly racist.” is unclear.  

As a historian, I would think the author would know that the Boomers were deeply affected by the Civil Rights era since we were born in the 1950-60’s and were the product of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka.  Boomers are of all races with many of us attending integrated schools as a result of the Supreme Court decision.  While some of us are racist, most of us are not.  Racism is not tied to a generation; it permeates all ages and races. Many Americans of European descent supported (and still do) Civil Rights.  Some even died because of their involvement. Many Boomers raised children to be global citizens in integrated schools.


I believe the real threat to a rise in racism is not genealogy but through online usage and I’m not talking about a subscription to Ancestry.com.  Check out the study, “Measurement invariance of the perceived online racism scale across age and gender.”[1] 

Racism today is not the result of the Boomers or any other generation of Americans with European ancestry interested in genealogy.  Unfortunately, racism will not die with the Boomers but will continue to grow as youths buy into the propaganda they are reading online.

Here’s another problem I have with the Post’s article; the author states “While European immigrants faced significant historic struggles, their descendants mobilized such hardships to dilute the claims of historically persecuted groups that remained marginalized with their own narratives of past immigrant oppression.”  She then goes on to cite Richard Nixon and his “coded language.”  While I agree that Nixon’s word choice were coded for his base, so are every politician of every party in every nation.  Generalizing that all descendants of Europeans who researched their heritage resulted in marginalizing persecuted groups  and “resonates with our modern-day genealogical revival” is just wrong.  Show me the data!

The author continues that although genealogy can benefit those members of historically persecuted groups, it can also “empower those who seek to divide, deny and disenfranchise.”  DNA with the Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” debacle is mentioned, along with others of primarily European descent attempting to gain access to programs for underrepresented people.  Let me be clear – it is wrong to try to gain entry to a privilege that was not established for you.  In my genealogical experience, people who have taken DNA tests typically do not take them for the purpose of undermining the system.  Most take them because they want to know who their birth parents were for health reasons, where their immigrant ancestor originated, or to compare their results with family members to determine which got what genetic material from each parent.

Native American ancestry is a family story for many Americans of all races.  I wish I had a buck for every time I hear it!  My own family had a version but long before DNA, I was able to prove what the true story was; distant cousins were kidnapped by a tribe and held for several years.  One escaped and the other was released after a truce. 

Knowing that information does not make me want to hold an indigenous group today responsible.  It was wrong to steal children then, just as it’s wrong to separate children from their immigrant parents today.  Learning this occurred in my family’s past makes me even more vehemently opposed to what is happening at our border.  Understanding what my immigrant family members were fleeing in the old country makes me more empathetic with today’s people who are seeking asylum.  Remembering that my grandparents were targeted by the KKK and my father’s WWII Army placementwas made due to his German sounding last name (DNA now shows more French then German but who knew back them because there was no DNA tests!) allows me to listen to the message from historically disenfranchised groups to gain their perspective. 

Historian George Santayana got it right, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Correlating genealogy with racism is wrong.  I know my family’s past because I am a genealogist.  My ancestors made mistakes just like every human does every day.  I strive to learn from their mistakes and follow their examples for what they did correctly.  

No one inherited a racism gene.  Racism's root is fear of not being in power, of losing privilege status and therefore, of becoming indigent.  My definition of poor has nothing to do with money; I define poor as those who lack a moral compass.  I've met poor wealthy people and rich poor people, as I bet you have.  Interesting that the fear of having no money sometimes results in those who have it in become overly controlling at the expense of others to keep it and those that don't have it, trying to differentiate from another group to make themselves feel superior.  Those kinds of people unite in their shared biased worldview and make it bad for all the rest of us.  It leads to a closed mindset and a regression to what we see happening with leaders across the world - derogatory name calling, ostracizing, categorizing, and segregating.  Communication ceases which only separates us further.

Please, let's stop dividing ourselves by age, race, gender, place of origin, religion, sexual orientation, education level and career choice.  The Human Genome Project showed that we all share humanness, we are all one.  Our search for our ancestors isn't the problem.  Finding your family's story and relating it to the world today to make for a better tomorrow is imperative.  


[1]Keum, B., & Miller, M. (2018). Measurement invariance of the perceived online racism scale across age and gender. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 12(3), article 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5817/CP2018-3-3.

Comments

  1. Thank you, I read the article also and had some of your thoughts. You have written an excellent response.

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  2. Sounds so much like the other "stuff" we are being fed. I have to wonder at her political party affiliation.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment. I don't even want to speculate on party affiliation. IMHO, the far extremes on any side often merge in their desire to insist their view is the only way and disregard of the consideration of others input.

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  3. Thanks for your post...I agree with you and did not see how Dr. Sachs came to the conclusion she did. I research my family for the love of history and knowing where I came from, not to marginalize others.

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  4. Kudos to you! I believe that's why most of us research our families and intend to continue doing so. We are the majority and speak up to stop all this divisiveness.

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