Last Tuesday night, a friend sent me a video of a commercial framed as a short film titled “Inseparable.” It was set in America during chattel slavery and featured Abigail, an enslaved black woman, and her love interest, a white man who was seeking to entice her to run away with him to presumably engage in a legal love affair in Canada. The short film then cuts to black, leaving Abigail’s story a mystery. It ends with a narrator insisting that the viewer complete this love story by signing up for Ancestry testing. I have questions!
The first of which is …
What in the Caucasity?!
There are so many problems with this commercial, but I will start with the obvious. Any ad that romanticizes slavery should never exist in 2019. PERIOD. To be clear, problematic white executives didn’t just up and decide to air these sort of ads after the 2016 presidential election. These ads have always existed, but today we have the agency, via media like Black Twitter, to influence their removal. Simple questions appeared to not have been asked during this process. I learned that not a single black woman—or person for that matter!—was involved in the production of the ad (aside from the actress who played Abigail).
The commercial’s intention was for the viewer to complete this story, substituting Abigail’s story for one’s own family history. To learn that when searching for your great, great, great, great grandmother Abigail and discovering she was SO in love with your white great, great, great, great grandfather that it would somehow produce an overwhelming euphoria and encourage you to send in your DNA! In other words, learning that you are white or having some European ancestry would be an enjoyable experience.
Now for the real. Because whiteness is often tied to romantic, pleasant, and positive thoughts, Ancestry never considered how such an ad could be traumatic to its black and brown audiences. This ad re-victimizes black and brown folks who seek their Ancestry results by optics alone.
That’s the bottom line. It’s a slavery commercial—and absolutely nothing about slavery was positive! Nothing!!! Let me say this again, THERE WAS NOTHING POSITIVE ABOUT SLAVERY! Unfortunately, even as a black woman, it took me many years to truly understand this. Internalized white supremacy has allowed me, and many others, to imagine positive angles when examining this horrific institution.
For example, common phrases said about the positive angles of slavery:
“Well he was a slave owner, but he let his slaves read!”
“Well, they let the enslaved children play with the slave owner’s children—see? integration!”
Every single phrase is associated with simple human acts that should be normalized, not praised.
So first, we are victimized by the memory of slavery in the backdrop of the commercial. Oh, but we aren’t done. Abigail is in love. If you made it to this part, you’re now watching this romance between Abigail and her white love interest. Even in the event that consensual love stories did exist during chattel slavery—most interracial romances were impossible as there was such a stark power differential between the enslaved black woman and the white man. As such, sexual abuse against black women was infinitely more commonplace. A white person reading this might ask, well, how do we know this?
Let’s examine this from a scientific and social standpoint.
If sexual violence wielded against black women was not the main reason for partial European ancestry in black communities, then the distribution of African ancestry would be comparable across the entire genome. However, population geneticists have observed an increased amount of African ancestry on the X chromosome in African Americans, suggesting involuntary mating between European-American men and African-American women.
Now that the science proves having European ancestry is not a random act of love, we know that the possibility of interracial love was rare. Perhaps black women just liked white men a lot, right? Which brings us to the social aspect—if this were true, what would be the possible reason?
To drive home this power dynamic let’s take race out of the equation and parse out historically why women got married and fell in love. Before women had the privilege to vote and work (for less pay), their value was typically determined by who they married. Now think during slavery, what would be the benefit of marrying a white man or even just being his mistress? Well, you ostensibly got treated better, perhaps you didn’t get beat as often if you just mustered up the strength to lie on your back without a fuss. Then you bear this man’s mixed-race children, and they too start to benefit from the dynamic of colorism over the other slaves who didn’t have this same relationship.
But even if the young white man in the commercial wasn’t Abigail’s owner, his white privilege in juxtaposition to her oppressive position disrupts all possibility of genuine love. Power dynamics matter—they did then and they do now. So how can we prove that Abigail loved this man knowing the power dynamics between white men and black women during chattel slavery? If this was such a normal thing, I would suppose Ancestry has a similar commercial where a black man falls in love with a white woman and they flee together to get married. Now imagine that optic for a moment— seeing a black man romantically with a white woman during slavery. Does it elicit butterflies of romance in your mind?
I’d bet it doesn’t because that scene evokes nothing but fear. Fear for that man’s life. And the fear of a black planet.
This ad was always intended for a black audience. “Inseparable” ends with ghost typing Abigail’s name in a search box, suggesting the viewer wants to learn more about Abigail’s ancestry. But perhaps this commercial was for the many white people who would be ecstatic to learn Abigail was their black grandmother, right? Not so much.
If you still need more justification with why these optics of whiteness continue the legacy of white supremacy, let’s discuss the white savior trope. Forcing white saviors into our narrative reinforces the idea that whiteness is the only conduit for black/brown survival.
We saw this in award-winning Oscar movies like Greenbook and Hidden Figures, where a white savior is being human with a black person for the first time in their life. Then after this human interaction, they become conscious of the injustices they, and people who look like them, created. The strategy in showing this type of heroic Anglican angle is calculated as it explicitly disregards an entire system of oppression which warrants a savior in the first place.
The insensitivities of these ads (see other recent marketing flubs: H&M, Dove, Shea Moisture and Gucci) shatter trust with black/brown communities and their much-needed engagement with science research. It creates skepticism around why these ads are centered around our traumas and played when we are vulnerable (these Ancestry commercials aired during the Roots television series). The idea that a black woman with partial European ancestry might be specifically reminded of the rape of her ancestors as evidenced in her DNA is not met with adequate sensitivity.
I have yet to get my ancestry results despite receiving several free kits because companies often have free campaigns for non-white communities (see 23 & me pinned tweet.) The reason why is layered and too much to discuss here. But being conscious enough to know whiteness is a social construct made to create self-loathing and colorism in the black community, the thought of having European ancestry is a traumatic memory of generational rape.
Yet despite the traumas and anxieties of being a black woman in America, and as a human geneticist, I understand the dire need for diversity in research. Specifically, in genetics, I understand that the < 1 percent that varies between humans is full of complex information which can advance medicine.
African genomes are the oldest genomes to exist and as such, they have had the most time to accumulate variation. Our rich genomes contain the missing piece we as scientists need for personalized medicine. As of today, the field of genomics is largely white both by the discoveries and the scientists making these discoveries. Disease-causing mutations in European populations largely do not translate to non-European populations. As a consequence, there is a lack of understanding of genomics in non-European populations, leading to misdiagnoses and sometimes unnecessary treatments that do more harm than good.
How do we change this? How do we rebuild the trust with non-European populations so they can equally benefit from the power of the genome? I am not here to offer solutions for free; because as tempting as it is, meaningful and sustained inclusion would never happen if I did. However, depicting the truth behind our history is a good place to start. Acknowledging our pain and our past with every conversation you start about race automatically creates a safe space to begin the conversation. This will require whites to accept our pain without putting their own guilt first.
So, “Inseparable”—more like completely detached—needs a lesson learned in history, science and decency.