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Family Tree: Genealogy Is A White Privilege

March 6, 2018
Family Tree image

At this point, my tree is a forest!

I have been researching my family tree almost obsessively since I signed up to Ancestry.co.uk (other sites are available, probably) two years ago and spent 100 hours in one week having masses of fun.  It was Yulemas week off work and my beloved Sooterkin™ was playing with his PS4 (not a euphemism), so what’s a person to do…?

I have found ancestors back to beyond 500 AD on at least one line because I got lucky and hit a line of Scottish nobility which then led to Kings (I come from a lot of second sons, daughters married off and those born on the wrong side of the blanket as t’were).  Apparently those of Viking Ancestry like to trace back to Odin, so I am ‘officially’ descended from his brother/son Baldur.  I have also got a line back to William the Bastard Conqueror, and his line like to trace back to the Christian God, so I have that deity too.  Wahay, I’m doubly mythical!

This addiction was partly inspired by “Who Do You Think You Are?”, a fabulous BBC TV series which traces the roots of famous people and tells the stories of individual experience through history using this medium.  It was a programme about Noel Clarke (series 14 ep. 8), a fantastic actor/director/writer/producer, which stopped me in my tracks.

Noel Clarke is descended from people trafficked into slavery in the United States.  His line, and the line of many, many black people in the UK, United States and across the world, cannot be traced further back than that.  It ends.  This is what it means to people now; I as a white person of privilege in the UK can merrily trace my ancestry back far beyond where I thought I would, and he and so many others cannot.

Researching my family tree and seeing results is a privilege of my skin colour.  Yes, I do have a lot of very poor people in my tree, from the 1700 and 1800s onwards.  But they are recorded in parish registries, they have birth, baptism and death records, they have paper trails, they are human beings with all the individual right to exist that that entails.

DNA test results

Not even a hint of Celt from the west! Although I can trace back to Picts, so there’s that…

I also obtained my DNA history through the site, and received possibly the least surprising result ever, to me anyway.  I am so Anglo-Saxon it hurts.  I am an amalgam of immigration way back when, which confirms my ‘right’ to be and claim to be ‘English’, as I am sure many racists would be insistent upon.  To me, it confirms I am steeped in white privilege.  To others, it should mean nothing at all but it does because of racism; institutional, systemic and individual acts of racism.

Noel Clarke was eventually able to trace his roots back to Ghana, through the music and dance his ancestors on the tiny Caribbean Island of Carriacou would hold onto through the years of slavery, and after freedom was granted.  He knew the location of his ancestors before they were ripped from their lives to become little more than chattels to enrich the white western world.  I know the names of my ancestors because I was lucky enough to be born white in that rich white western world.

Researching one’s family tree and being able to obtain results is a privilege, one that I don’t think would really occur to anyone who is white.  One’s personal family history is a privilege to be able to know and that saddens me.  The effects of slavery are very long-reaching; time does not lessen the impact, just hides it from plain view.

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