Recently, my mum has taken to a new hobby: compiling her family tree. It’s a dynamic document, regularly updated with annotations about siblings of great-great grandparents. It lives on the kitchen bench (I suspect so that it can be easily accessed in the event that some new tidbit about a distant relative materialises unannounced).
Much of the hype is lost on me — I appreciate the significance of finding out that a descendant was married with children, but because I’m adopted, the relevance of these sorts of facts is diluted somewhat. Nevertheless, I continue to entertain my mum’s fascination — it evidently means a great deal to her.
The accessibility of genealogy is inextricably linked with white privilege: one needn’t look any further than the systemic destruction of documents pertaining to racial minorities — a historical reality that transcends temporal and social contexts. In the United States, attempts to dehumanise slaves were strengthened by changing their names to distance them from their ancestors. Closer to home, the Stolen Generations produced a generation without birth certificates or other official records that sites like Ancestry.com tend to rely on.
It would be misguided to suggest that AncestryDNA — the genealogical DNA testing periphery of Ancestry.com — is unaware of this fact. The company offers discounted DNA testing kits on dates such as Australia Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Anzac Day. It’s no coincidence that interest in genealogy peaks in the vicinity of dates that are rooted in or entrench white privilege.
Genealogical DNA tests make themselves irresistible to my mum’s demographic: white (a relevant factor for reasons already discussed), middle class (because DNA tests aren’t inexpensive), and already relatively clued in regarding their descendancy (because in isolation, genealogical statistics don’t offer a great deal).
Unsurprisingly, my mum was lured by one of the aptly timed AncestryDNA sales. Such great value was the sale that — in classic Oprah Winfrey style — “you get a DNA testing kit! You get a DNA testing kit!” The entire family was gifted a kit.
Spitting into a test tube is a brand of family bonding I’d not anticipated. I dribbled away under the watchful eye of my mum and with the enthusiastic support of my sister and my dad. Who knew genealogy could be so unglamorous?
For my mum, the results were relatively unsurprising: she descended 96% from various Western European nations.
What was surprising, though, was the access to distant relatives who’d also done DNA tests. Here, the link between whiteness and genealogy reared its ugly head once more: my sister and I had less than 30 “fourth cousins or closer” while my mother had 94.
I don’t have a heavily annotated family tree. I don’t have one-click access to 94 fourth cousins or closer. Instead, I have an erratic assortment of documents, the contents of which fail to work synergistically to depict the life I could have been living. I have a picture of a 17-year-old woman. It’s a passport-sized image, and it captures an unsmiling but not unhappy face. It’s only a headshot, but she was clearly very small. It’s in black and white, but her skin clearly radiates a vibrant, deep brown.
It is an incomparable feeling to know your mother only in a photograph and as somebody younger than you. I don’t say incomparable to elevate the status of this emotion. Plainly, no other emotion bears any similarity. Ancestry.com and its peripheries claim to be able to fill in the gaps between an image and its reality; between oral histories and their origins. But there lacks an awareness of how white privilege operates to prevent this in many cases.
Moreover, AncestryDNA attempts to break the cycle of darkness and mystery surrounding lineage and heritage. Instead, it propagates a simplistic understanding of race. After a matter of weeks, I discovered that my saliva proved I’m 19% Native American. Upon reading this, I suffered cringeworthy flash forwards: “You can wear a headdress now, hey?”, my #woke friends would ask.
Genealogy operates as something of a microcosm: as in the world more broadly, people of colour are placed at a disadvantage. However, in the same way that a man’s home is his castle, sometimes, a passport sized photo and a pie graph detailing your ethnic make-up can mean as much as a detailed family tree. For me, each segment on that pie graph will function as a reminder of descendants who have resisted colonialism or faced oppression. Each segment will serve as a reminder that I, too, am taking part in a history marked by white privilege, and that I — as a future segment on a pie graph — have the responsibility to combat that.