Slavery, But Make It a Bodice-Ripper: Ancestry.com to Pull Offensive, Ahistorical Ad

Screenshot: Twitter (Ancestry.com)

The DNA testing company Ancestry.com says it’s pulling an ad depicting a mixed-race couple during antebellum slavery after a furious—and well-deserved—backlash accusing the company of romanticizing and whitewashing the reality of interracial sexual relationships during that period.

The ad, called “Inseparable” (Funny how hard it is to be separated when the circumstances are, uhmm, literal bondage. But moving right along...) was released on the company’s YouTube page earlier this month, but began circulating across social media platforms this week after users noticed how laughable—and downright ahistorical—the ad was.

The ad insists on showing what’s essentially a slavery love story. In it, we see a black woman running to her white lover, who is holding out a ring to her.

“We can escape to the North,” the white savior man tells her. “There’s a place we can be together, across the border.”

When the black woman attempts to respond, her beige beloved interrupts: “Will you leave with me?”

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First of all, whomst is this “we” you’re referring to, good sir?

The ad appeared to be aimed at people wondering if they have any mixed-race heritage. In an American context, that would primarily be black people and people of color.

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But the ad gleefully ignores the power dynamics of interracial sexual relationships, particularly during the era of Southern chattel slavery depicted in the commercial. Rape and sexual trauma were pervasive in the South, affecting young, single enslaved women, and women who were married to other enslaved men.

In a thread on Twitter, geneticist Janina M. Jeff pointed out ancestry companies frequently tootle over how shocking learning about these histories can be for black people who take their tests.

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But if the Ancestry.com ad stands out for it’s complete disregard for historical fact, it’s certainly not anomalous. America has been papering over the reality of slavery-era interracial relationships for a long time—among the country’s most prominent myths is the “love affair” between former President Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman who was literally his property.

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Frequently cast in historical texts as his “mistress,” writer Britni Danielle noted in the Washington Post that such language “elides the true nature of their relationship, which is believed to have begun when Hemings, then 14 years old, accompanied Jefferson’s daughter to live with Jefferson, then 44, in Paris.” Also erased in the “mistress” narrative: the fact that Jefferson owned the children Hemings bore.

A “relationship” with someone who owns you, or is at least capable of owning you, is coercion. It’s rape. And for people coming to terms with that kind of history written in their bloodlines, it can be traumatizing.

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In a statement made to CBS News on Thursday, Ancestry gave a “whoops, our bad” and announced that it was removing the ad.

“Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history,” the company said.

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“This ad was intended to represent one of those stories,” it continued. “We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused. We are in the process of pulling the ad from television and have removed it from YouTube.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?