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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 !!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Brenda Coleman says

    I find the nature of White Privilege
    Shameful and disgusting. Whites didn’t earn
    anything in this country. They took and killed for
    what was handed over to them freely. How can you feel justified in ” owning ” that which your
    Ancestors did not pay or work for? The Blacks
    worked the fields, gathered crops, cleaned your
    homes, washed your clothes, cooked your food
    and took care of your children. Tell me who’s descendants deserve to be called “Americans ”
    and deserves a hell of a lot more than poverty?

  8. I’m deeply involved in family history research, in a mixed-race family. It is hard to keep an objective view toward the subjects of research with any degree of resentment or judgement. Your article speaks to this. History is, or should be, truth. Thank you for your courage in an area of controversy and ignorance. I do believe knowledge can be a force to heal and unify. Nice work.

  9. Genealogy is NOT racist and I am sick and tired of people trying to drag down any one who is NOT BLACK just because something bad may or may not have happened to some BLACK person 200 – 300 years ago even at the hands of another BLACK…. because BLACKS ALSO owned BLACK slaves…. I REFUSE to be blamed because my people were slaughtered at the hands of BOTH BLACKS and WHITES…
    Get over your self and STOP with the Blame game… BLACKS have been handed the keys to the castle for FREE and still they REFUSE to apply themselves except as gang thugs and other criminal activity because they can play the victim card and get away with murder…. I WILL NOT tolerate your type of anti-white propaganda

  10. Wow, White privilege is what I see on the comments, and how they still benefit yet have no feeling to be responsible after finishing this article! The meanest and most racist people I have ever interacted with were White Women! So for this White Woman to write this, and challenge other white people is truly phenomenal!

  11. The woman who wrote this is part of the problem. Many black folk harbor hatred toward whites, who had nothing to do with nor could help what happened before our time. I had no privilege being raised by a single mom. Sometimes we only had soup for dinner. I have an extensive amount of instances of black racism and hatred toward whites. Let’s also address this.

  12. Frances Johannison says

    This conversation is interesting and the author
    absolutely speaks the truth about racism. We are all racist because it’s what we’ve inherited as Americans. These conversations are difficult to
    have as long as there are people denying the fact that black people have always lived by a different set of standards in this country. You don’t have to take the blame for mistreatment
    of blacks by whites 200, 300 years ago. Just acknowledge the fact that it happened and you to realizing how those inequalities manifest themselves in society today. America has to have those courageous conversations. Truthfully, no mother or father, black or white, dreams of their child growing up to be a ” thug.”
    “Thugs” come in all sizes and colors from every neighborhood. Black children who grow up to be
    thugs are called survivors. I am not sure what white thugs are called or why they become criminals. However, I wish I could understand that phenomena. I do understand white privilege
    and so many instances of it everyday. There are many cultures in our country and everyone expects equal rights and respect. Most of us realize that the majority of whites including poor
    mountain people, those in the thousands of trailer parks, back in Appalachia and inner city dwellers on welfare are afraid that they are loosing something politically.

  13. Its absolutely shocking at some of the hysterical and truly unthinking responses within this thread. The author of the article brought up some important points which sentient people, will find necessary to talk about and think about particularly during this time in America. We dont need to necessarily take responsibility for our ancestors actions but we sure as hell need to understand and recognize that white people have since colonization have been the ones who primarly profitted off the backs of others. Yes millions of whites didnt have slaves and they worked hard everyday of their lives but they were afforded so many priviliges and rights over everyone else that their climb to the top was far more managable. We need to recognize that white people who have been in this country for centuries have inadvertently benefited from our ancestors use of slaves and their appropriation of Indian lands. White people are still afflicted with white privilege in America today but i dont think it can be compared to the padt. Nevertheless i believe we owe a debt to the decendants of slaves and the Native American peoples because white people did kerp them from moving forward and enriching themselves thereby their descendants didnt have the same opportunities as whites. I grew up poor and white with no roof over my head for a winter but we were able to rise out if that poverty eventually. Imagine being a person of color for centuries who is surpressed and is never allowed to escape poverty because of society and rules and lack of privilege? Its time to wake up and think about the big picture instead of turning defensive and hysterical check out any lecture by Parham of UC Berkeley on Youtube maybe a little education is all you need?

  14. Im blk and I found this interesting. We need soo much more talks om this and more to finally get to the point that, it just shoukdnt matter. Its bias is rooted on negative impulses: greed, auperiority wrath and hatred.

  15. I think the biggest problem I have with the ideology of “white privilege” is the focus on group identification over the individual. Is it important to understand the history of shameful oppression of those with darker skin tones in our world? I believe all history should be studied in order to understand ourselves better. The huge conundrum here is in what should be done about it. Should a black person be ashamed of their blackness? Should a white person be ashamed of their whiteness? Should we be ashamed of where we come from? More importantly, is it okay to associate an individual you know nothing about with “privilege” based on the color of their skin? Feels like just another way for white people to assert that they are better than other people just because of their whiteness. Sanctimoniously bestowing the gifts of their privilege on the lesser folks. I think that those who sit in lonely gated communities trying decide how to best help the “under privileged” are perfectly welcomed to give of themselves, go ahead and give your illegal house servants large Christmas bonuses. Just stop thinking you know everyone else’s values, needs and wants.

  16. Kaarli Makela says

    Lucky that I grew up in Detroit in the 1960s … the knee-jerk reaction whites have to any mention of privilege and racial dominance always stands out like a painful hang-nail … whites owe the rest of society to take a step back and gain some blankety-blank perspective! It would be a healthy thing.

  17. Lynne Tipton says

    Thank you for sharing this blog. There is of course, White Privilege and no matter how many hawkers and parrots like to push it under the rug it’s there. Thank you again for opening the eyes of some, and attempted to open the one’s with closed eyes and ears.

  18. Genealogy is the study of history -what someones ancestors did is not their fault -was there once a condition of white privilege – yes – so what to do about it -repetitions ? Should all the white people who had absolutely nothing to do with past history be forced into poverty because of their ancestors actions.A recognizaton of our history is essential to this conversation -and ECONOMIC EQUALITY for all Americans is the answer.

  19. Kim Leeman says

    This article was something I was very intrigued to read. I am surprised none of the commentators truly grasped what the point of the article was. Genealogy is passion of mine. I am bi-racial, half white and half African American. I have actually dealt with exactly what this article talks about. Tracking my white ancestors back to the 1600’s or early- piece of cake for the most part. My African American ancestors- I freaked out when I was able to find one of them in 1848 in Alabama on a tax list as property and again as registered voter in 1870 in Alabama. This was my 3x great grandfather. Other than him finding anyone on that side of my family before 1880 or 1900 is next to impossible. The point of this article is to say as researchers of history we should be documenting all of our family history not just the parts that don’t look bad. We should be transcribing all the records we uncover, we should be documenting and preserving the cemeteries of African Americans. These are the things that non-white people are missing when trying to do their own family research there aren’t a lot of records prior to 1870. A lot of births and deaths of slaves may have been recorded in the Bible’s of the slave owners. These should be documented and shared not ignored because it is uncomfortable. That is the whole point of this article. The only way the privilege comes into play has to do with the retention of such documents and the tracking of family lines over the centuries and the paper trails those ancestors left that neither slaves nor native Americans had any reason or ability to leave.

  20. The hate needs to stop. If you hate, you choose to hate. History is good and bad, ugly and pretty. The purpose is to learn and NOT repeat the mistakes and ugly behavior of those who went before us. I am not responsible for what people did before I got here. Each person should be judged according to THEIR actions. Whites and blacks had slaves. The Irish and Chinese were also treated as slaves, their lives had little value. We cannot treat anyone better unless we acknowledge there is much blame to go around. Acknowledge it and move on! Choose to be better. Choose to make a difference and most of all choose to stop being a victim. That is the one thing that makes me angry, people who continually keep the suffering and victimization alive instead of giving encouragement and WANTING their people to rise above and conquer what history might have given our ancestors.

  21. Jeni Rhinehart says

    I dabble in genealogy when I have the time, and I often look up other people’s genealogy simply because I enjoy the search. I especially enjoy finding records that others have failed to locate. Several times I have stumbled onto a historical person who was of dark ancestry in a white family. Sometimes I am contacted or I contact one of the current members of that dark-skinned family and we converse briefly about this historical person. Each time it has opened my eyes to a wealth of families with darker skin who lived in a different cultural context from white society. Such as the self-named Melungeon people’s. A neighbor has melungeon ancestry, but did not know it until I told him. I attended his family reunion a few years ago, and one of his relatives asked him as one of the oldest surviving members of the family to speak about his memories of their now-deceased ancestors. The subject of the genealogy of their melungeon ancestor was brought up, and I was almost shocked to realize that all of these living people do not know that their grandmother / great-grandmother was of Melungeon ancestry. Evidently her family had never passed this information down. The majority of their family at the reunion looked very light skinned, but there were a few scattered here and there who had darker skin. These individuals did not stay for long, and by the middle of the afternoon they were nowhere in sight. They left, leaving only the white-skinned people. It made me realize that I know so little as a white-skinned person about dark-skinned people in this country. They live separate from us white people, almost exclusively because of the different color of their skin.

    Another man I conversed with and do not know personally was interested in the fact that I had begun researching one of his ancestors. He spoke to me about his ancestor’s name change. That intrigued me, so I started searching local newspapers, and I found numerous articles about this man when he was young having grown up in a poor section of town and lost two sisters at a young age and then his father died and then his mother died leaving him basically on his own in a city. He got into a lot of trouble, he seemed to have lived with a bootlegger who evidently got him into illicit whiskey making where he met a woman whose husband was killed in a situation where alcohol was involved and they ended up getting married a few years later after the newspaper informed me that they had both been arrested together at a brothel. A couple of years later, he was arrested for raping his stepdaughter. The charge was eventually dropped because the mother got out of jail where she had been serving time for selling whiskey and refused to let her daughter, who was said to be slightly retarded, to cooperate with the police any further. By the time this man was in his early twenties, he had been arrested many times mostly for breaking and entering and once for attacking a man on a bridge and robbing him. At which point he soon escaped from the chain gang with another man who was eventually caught but this person was not caught. His descendant said he moved out of state with a circus and he found him listed for the war draft traveling with the circus under his real name, then he showed up in another town under a fake name where he lived for the rest of his life and had married a melungeon woman and had a half a dozen children. His great-grandson said the rest of the family did not want this ancestors’ past to be made public, they were afraid it would ruin their lives today.

    This was the first time I had run up on anyone who wanted to deliberately hide their ancestry. I did not remove the information from my tree at his request, although at one point I removed some of the references to the rape. I told him that when I am researching, what I find about my ancestors may not be to my liking, but I do not believe they are me. I am my own person. But this made me take another look at how we look at ancestry, and why we research our ancestry. If we find someone in our past history who’s bad, how does that affect us as living people? Do we identify with that person or do we reject that person? I came to realize in my own searches that we cannot dissolve our genetic ancestry, even if we don’t like it. But we are not them.

    I don’t know all of my ancestry back beyond a few generations on one line because one person’s ancestry was not passed down, and I suspect that was because his descendants disapproved of him. It made me thankful that most of my ancestors were not ashamed of their ancestry, but it also made me realize we are a chain of people, we all descend from other people, we have roots in history, roots we cannot pretend don’t exist. And The Roots have helped to create who we are today. The Roots helped to make us who we are, but we are in the process of being formed at this moment, so we do have a say in where we go from here. We cannot put too much emphasis on who / what our ancestors were. In one way they are just simply interesting historical figures, and in another they are genetic kinfolk. They make history interesting, like when I read that I was kin to both Thomas Jefferson and his wife Martha Wayles. But they are not me. So, what my great-aunt told me: we shall be known by our fruits not our roots, is true. But I am also kin to some interesting people, even if they’re not in the news or prominently recorded in history books. I think everyone has something of interest about them, and that’s why I love genealogy.

  22. Bonita Hobbs says

    Does “this country need an enema”, or what? A hard working, educated white person has 100% more of a chance here than any other race!!!! BELIEVE THAT!!!!!

  23. Mike Sullivan says

    I am adding links to your website on the Ancestry.com profiles of people in my trees who owned slaves.

  24. Hi, I’m confused. You can’t add links to my website, I’m the only one who can. Are there links you’d like to see added? If you wish to contact me by email, my email address is csleeter@gmail.com

  25. Mike Sullivan says

    I am adding links from my Anecetry.com profiles of slave owners in my family to your website.

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