It's Problematic to Accuse Ancestry's Interracial Ad of Whitewashing Slavery

The existence of one story does not discount terrible atrocities.


To ignore the countless slaves who were victims of rape would be a travesty. To say that Ancestry is doing that very thing with their latest slavery-era ad is reaching.

Ancestry is a popular genealogy website based out of Utah. For years, people of all backgrounds have used the information to learn more about lost family histories. Recently, Ancestry thought to advertise its services with a commercial depicting an interracial couple escaping from the South.

A white man is seen trying to convince a black woman named Abigail, presumably a slave, to run away to the North with him, so they can be married. Abigail begins to question the idea before he tells her that there's a place "across the border" where they can be together. After asking her to leave with him, the screen cuts to pictures of the couple and a marriage certificate.

The website was quickly accused of whitewashing history and romanticizing sexual exploitation. The outrage over the commercial was so severe that the ad was removed altogether.

"Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories. 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," the company tweeted.

Let me start by saying that I share the same sentiments about cutesy depictions of slavery. Far too often, the uncomfortable parts are glossed over in favor of a good Hollywood story. Just watch the slave scenes in The Patriot or Brad Pitt, whose studio produced 12 Years a Slave, grace the screen.

However, the mere existence of past atrocities and bad storytelling does not mean that the Ancestry ad deserved the outrage that it received.

For one thing, there's no possible way a viewer would assume that the commercial is showing exploitative sexual abuse. At least one user questioned if Abigail belonged to the man trying to get her to run away with him. It's a safe assumption that the characters are forbidden lovers and nothing further.

Others criticized the commercial for having the white love interest suggest that they run north, either to another state or to Canada, to be together. While it's true that northern states enjoy a sort of ahistorical absolution for their imposition of segregation on free blacks, it's also not completely far off to have this couple look for hope in the North. After all, we praise the bravery of Harriet Tubman and other conductors of the Underground Railroad, which was designed to help slaves in the South escape to the North to access better and freer lives.

Most importantly, there is no universe in which a single romance discounts the very real suffering of rape victims. Had the commercial insinuated that many historical rapes were actually just romances, then this point would be legitimate. But it's also likely that consensual interracial relationships existed in this climate. These are no less worthy of a story. In fact, The New York Times did a profile on the descendant of this very kind of union in 2018.

Social media brigades like this one have led to some pretty big blunders.

Only two years ago, the world was doubled-over in laughter when a young girl waltzed right into her dad's live interview. The dad giving the live interview was a white professor named Robert E. Kelly. Once the internet was given enough time to whip up some hot takes, social media users criticized Kelly as a father and employer after assuming that the Korean woman who frantically rushed into the room after the young girl was his terrified nanny. As it turns out, the "terrified nanny" was actually Kelly's mortified wife and mother of the young girl. Critics were soon called out for relying on poor stereotypes to deny even the slightest possibility that this was a legitimate family unit.

When critics went after black British filmmaker Amma Asante's Where Hands Touch, a fictional love story between a biracial German girl and a member of the Hitler Youth, Asante maintained that the accusations of Nazi romanticization were unfounded. Not only is their violence and bigoted rhetoric quite present in her film, but Asante has also made it known that she is on a professional mission to highlight untold black stories in her work, like the existence of biracial Germans during the Holocaust.

"When stories are hidden, and they haven't been told, I think that when we hear about them, we have an expectation that they should sit more firmly with experiences that we know and we recognize," she told IndieWire amid the controversy. "I interviewed people who have experiences, and those experiences weren't necessarily comfortable ones, but it's their truth, and it's not our right to challenge that."