Soon after Ancestry.com pulled their racist “Inseparable” ad depicting an antebellum African American woman being proposed to by a white man who offers to take her a place where they can be together, someone in the genealogy community whom we respect quite a bit got into a Twitter argument over the ad. The person who was essentially trolling our friend was both not American, and trying to be confrontational, so it turned into one of those Internet lost causes. After further reflection however, it got us to thinking about how could this controversy be explained to someone who didn’t understand it, but actually cared enough to learn.
For full disclosure, and clarity, the voice/pronoun we use in this blog is “we” because no matter who’s at the keyboard, in a house full of children it’s a team effort when one of us gets 3 hours to put together a blog post. Plus, this is our journey as a family. But today, this is written by Michael’s father, a white American raised and living in the Midwest. This is written from this one person’s perspective, education, experience, and opinion.
Racism v. bigotry
Anyone who doesn’t understand the complete offensiveness of “Inseparable” is likely white. This is both understandable, and a huge barrier to any discussions about race in the United States. People identified as white in US have both a blind spot on race, and a defensiveness, which combines to make it almost impossible to discuss constructively. Their defensiveness is largely because they don’t have hate/prejudice in their heart, and thus they can’t imagine anyone else does. This seems like the culmination of the little black boys and little black girls being able to join hands with little white boys and little white girls as sisters and brothers, but instead the myopia of “I don’t see race, so there is no racism” is a corrosive force in American society.
Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.
What is often missed in these discussion is that bigotry isn’t required in racism, and well meaning white Americans can fully participate in racist traditions/concepts/assumptions/systems, without being bigots, and in fact without carrying any ill will against anyone.
Bigotry is not the same as racism, in that bigotry is much more about the active hatred/subjugation of races by people who tend to define themselves as being separate/superior to others. Racism is much more about the systematic exclusion of African Americans from majority American culture, and the systems of maintaining that exclusion.
These systems are so deeply embedded in the United States, they are almost impossible to be seen/understood by white Americans. However, the African American members of our family understand these systems of control/oppression very well. They are obvious to them. But even as a person who understands many of these issues, it’s impossible for me, as a white American, to recognize just how deeply and completely these systems are ingrained in our country. It will never be obvious to white people.
Understanding that racism isn’t about individual acts of malice/prejudice, but about the blind acceptance by white people of the systems/beliefs in American culture that prevent African Americans from full freedom and rights in this country, helps explain why this ad is so blatantly racist.
So, what’s wrong with the ad?
This ad was horrible on so many levels, even accepting how invisible racial suppression can be to white America doesn’t help explain just how completely stupid it was that “Inseparable” was allowed to see the light of day. There are so many ways to understand how completely racist this ad was, it’s hard to see it as anything but intentional.
Our first reaction on seeing it was that there was a 99% chance she was owned, and that not only could there be NO romance there, it’s almost for certain she was either talking to her owner, or her owner’s son. She had no power in this, no agency, no decision making authority. She could only be told what to do, not choose. Entering into a “relationship” when you’re property, when you’re a prisoner, is always rape. Even if she was a freedman, her rights were so limited in southern culture there’s no way she could make a free choice with an equal of hers. This situation is so unbalanced, it’s almost guaranteed to be a story of a powerful man who is forcing a woman into a situation she can’t refuse. The can be no romance here, there can at best be someone doing what they needed to do to survive while being equal to a mule in the eyes of this country.
These are just the most obvious points, and we could list probably 10 more troubling messages in this ad, and all of these should have been so obvious that the commercial never aired. However, it’s not the most damaging, disgusting aspect of what Ancestry.com put out there.
Ancestry played into the narratives put forth by bigots, and legitimized their bigotry
On reflection, this is the point that really drives home just how disgusting Ancestry.com was in releasing this ad. Since 1877 (the end of Reconstruction), there has been an ongoing campaign of oppression against African Americans in this country by groups who are sometimes very overt (Klu Klux Klan, governments, etc.) and sometimes very covert (United Daughters of the Confederacy). “Inseparable” may as well have been written by them both.
Racism is about the systems that exclude African Americans from society in profound ways, and this country has found ways since the first Europeans arrived on this land to ensure that exclusion. Even after over 600,000 soldiers were lost fighting the Civil War to destroy the institution of slavery, the South spent the next 100 years effectively re-instituting slavery, and the North did next to nothing to stop it.
Jim Crow prospered in no small part by the work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s concerted efforts to change the notions of what the Civil War was fought over. Soon after they were formed in 1894 they set out to soften and legitimize the treason of the South, and through their “Lost Cause” campaign sought to portray slavery as a benevolent institution that cared for people not as able as whites to care for themselves. They first made up the myth of the Civil War as a fight over “State’s Rights”, insisted that the war was not about slavery, popularized the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia as the “Confederate Flag”, and built 100’s of monuments to the heroic leaders of the Confederate cause.
This subterfuge has largely worked to soften the view of the South’s renunciation of the United States and our Constitution. There are serious conversations about the ludicrous notion of States Rights being a cause the South fought for, we all know the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia, and we have 3 times as many of Confederate monuments as Union in this country. This whitewashing of history continues to this day to influence and justify the mistreatment of African Americans in this country.
So, when Ancestry.com produced this ad, it was another brick in this revisionist, racist narrative that the institution of slavery wasn’t so bad. It further papers over the truth of how brutal we treated African Americans over our history. White men who were intimate with African American women were rapists. African American women who were fighting to escape North weren’t going with white men, they were going with their black husbands. These escapes weren’t for love, they were for their lives and the risked their lives. There was NOTHING romantic about these moments, and their were born not out of choice but out of the deep human right to be allowed to make choices to control their own lives.
But Ancestry glossed over this brutal reality and concocted a totally false romantic narrative. Instead of this powerful voice in our culture helping foster a conversation on the lingering effects of slavery, they chose instead to further this racist notion that’s been so doggedly pushed by groups like the UDC and the KKK: that the antebellum South was something other than dehumanizing. Their ad not played into this bigoted rewriting of history they helped further mainstream it, normalize it, and allowed even more people to minimize the impact of the brutality that’s continuing against our fellow Americans. We continue to have issues with race today because enough people can raise doubt on just how deep our racism goes, and Ancestry chose to enhance that doubt.
Ancestry made this worse by not apologizing
Apologies are pretty simple if you regret making a mistake. It has 3 parts: honest regret, ownership of your mistake, and a commitment to learn from your mistake. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done what I did, and it won’t happen again. It’s easy, but incredibly powerful.
Ancestry had a powerful chance to make amends, but they instead issued a very complicated non-apology apology. Instead of just saying they regretted their ad, they instead said “we apologize”…which is a clever PR way to make us think they said they were sorry. One makes an apology, but saying they apologize perfectly avoids any statement of regret. Ancestry then followed that up with the classic “[we] apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused” which both avoids any regret or ownership of their actions. They shifted the blame to us if we felt offense, and they dodge even more by only admitting their ad “may” have caused offense.
We’ve written previously about Ancestry is straying from their partnership with the genealogical community, as they transition to a data mining firm sitting on the largest collection of DNA tests on the planet. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, but that doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed.