Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People 




Diane Kenaston

Diane Kenaston

I want to connect my love of genealogy with the work of anti-racism. As a child and teenager, I loved genealogy. With handwritten charts and typed biographies, I had no question about the goodness of what I was doing. I was honoring and preserving the past. What could be better?

Eventually, I went off to college and set genealogy aside. There, I learned a history that was broader than I could have imagined. History is complex and messy, just like humans are. This complexity produces systems of oppression, and it takes humans working together to change these systems. Each system is more powerful than any one individual.

As I learned, I became relentlessly forward-focused. How can I make a difference in the world? How can I shape the future for the better? I chose a career where I thought I could do this, and I forgot about those backward-facing, individually-focused ancestor charts in the basement.

When I received an ancestry DNA test, I was surprised by how much enthusiasm I still had for genealogy. I had not outgrown this hobby! 

With this return to genealogy, however, I had a problem. I was now aware of my privilege. I could quickly list how I benefit from the whiteness of my ancestors:

  • Local, state, and federal governments valued keeping my ancestors’ records and writing down their names.
  • My ancestors bought houses, gained educations, and participated in intergenerational transfers of wealth. These actions left paper trails and also gave me the financial resources to track them down.
  • The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) kept my family trees going back to the 1700s (during an era when the DAR excluded people of color).
  • Some of my ancestors benefited from the Homestead Act, in which the U.S. government transferred to white citizens land stolen from indigenous peoples.
  • All of my ancestors participated in settler colonialism, meaning that they deliberately replaced native peoples. 


These privileges don’t even begin to address slavery. Earlier, I had naively believed that because my ancestors were lower/middle class white Northerners, Midwesterners, and Appalachians, none of them were slaveholders. But this time I double-checked the census records: my ancestors included enslavers.

I began to struggle with whether the very hobby of genealogy was racist/privileged. My European-American genealogy would necessarily center the stories of white people — while ignoring the stories of people who don’t look like me. Further, studying my individual ancestors could reinforce the myth that individuals are in charge of their own destinies by removing them from their cultural context. Is it possible to engage in genealogical research without perpetuating currently existing inequities/injustice? How can I be anti-racist while exploring my white ancestry? 

The answers to these questions began filling page after page. I quickly learned that searching online for “white genealogy” would only lead me to people with the surname “White.” Soon, however, I found a celebrity profile of someone who wanted to hide his slaveholding ancestors. From there, I was off into the genealogical recesses of the internet. Was anyone out there approaching their own family history holistically? I was so gratified when I finally discovered Christine Sleeter’s Critical Family History — this was the kind of genealogical praxis that I’d been seeking!

Genealogy and Anti-racism

Accumulating more and more links and notes (on subjects as diverse as DNA, historical societies, neglected cemeteries, and how the census shaped U.S. definitions of race), I created a google doc with what I found. After seeking feedback from other people engaged in anti-racist work, I linked to my document, Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People, on an online genealogy forum. 

As soon as I posted, the accusations that I was racist started coming in. I had assumed that people interested in history would be interested in all of history. But we white people doing genealogy can have as much white fragility as white people without historical perspective. People in the genealogy forums pretended to be “colorblind,” insisting that the very act of naming racism was “racist.” (To be clear: I’m racist because I participate in racist systems, not because I name that participation!)  

Fortunately, other white people wanted to move beyond “colorblindness.” We wanted to use our genealogical tools to support others — because the desire to know one’s ancestry is not a “whites only” issue. I hope that people who use this resource will do the following: 

  • Share what we learn with other genealogists.
  • Hold our own research with an open hand.
  • Make open-access database contributions and transcriptions.
  • Work up a sweat through African-American cemetery maintenance and advocacy.
  • Name settler colonialism (and thereby change the national conversations on indigenous peoples and immigrants). 


Most importantly, we can 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. Our work as genealogists is to engage this complex legacy. 

Because when we ask, “How can I be an ally?” or “How can I be anti-racist?” we’re really asking, “How can we positively shape what we hand down to the next generation?”

And that’s the best genealogical question to answer.  

Read Genealogy and Anti-Racism: A Resource for White People here.

Diane Kenaston is the pastor of University United Methodist Church in St. Louis, MO, continuing the legacy of her Methodist circuit riding great-great-great-grandfather.

Comments

  1. Gloria Antinoro says:

    You are a nut!!

  2. In what way? Could you expand a bit?

  3. Billie Ansley says:

    You are crazy! I dont appreciate you trying to make white people the bad guys. OMG. Stuff like this has always has happened. Doesn’t make everyone monsters like you are insinuating.

  4. Delbert Calvert Hiestand says:

    The “privilege” you have is a gift earned by your ancestors who hacked a living out of the wilderness bearing their children along the way. What we enjoy is a situation built by those before us who paid the price. Our commission is to keep it going,grow it if we can and be appreciative of their sacrifices.

  5. Linda J Keefer says:

    Some people perjured a line from Last of the Mohicans. However, Many of my ancestors owned slaves. I hated that happened, but I am not to blame. Also someone in my genealogy also had relations with a enslaved person as my dna shows it.

    Life is crazy.

  6. Sue Smith says:

    Great it’s takes people like you to share and help all races fill in the gap of history. Thanks Thanks Thanks.God Bless You !!

  7. Kathleen Williams says:

    Thanks for writing this. I was born in Wyoming and still live in the west. Patricia Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest, is a good starting point for understanding the complexity of manifest destiny, and the myth of the “independent westerner.” It changed my practice of genealogy. Too often family history is merely a faith promoting exercise devoted to a kind of ancestor worship and not an effort to understand the real nature of family history in context.

  8. Participating in “racist” systems? I don’t even know what that means. I think we could go on forever blaming people systems and society. When it really comes down to loving your neighbor. Please don’t judge people or your ancestors on your modern day standards. Appreciate them for the good they are/were. Yes I think we can do more as a society to help the poor and downtrodden while learning what works and what doesn’t in the past. Even bad experiences can be turned for good through cChrist the Lord.

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