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What Was Ancestry.com Thinking With This Insane Commercial?

Earlier this month, DNA testing company Ancestry.com unleashed an ad so bizarrely miscalculated you could be forgiven for wondering how it ever made it out of the pitch meeting. The ad features a distraught couple in what appears to be the Civil War south, with a white guy mansplaining the North to his one true love, who is evidently a slave.

It’s easy to read this as an example of good intentions gone horribly wrong. As nice as it might be to imagine that a kindly white, lovesick white man might want to rescue the girl he loves from a life of chattel slavery, the brutal reality is that this is a baldfaced whitewashing of one of slavery’s ugliest legacies, in which the sexual dynamic between white men and black women was one of coercion at best, exploitation and rape at worst.

A recent study found that around people who identify as African American are, on average, about 24 percent European according to their genome. History would suggest that this points not to a long legacy of lovestruck Civil War-era runaways, but the very dark and painful trauma endured by past generations of black Americans, the lingering effects of which continue to resonate today.

Harvard phD activist Clint Smith tweeted that the ad was an “irresponsible, ahistorical depiction of the relationship between white men & black women during the period of chattel slavery that completely disregards its power dynamics & the trauma of sexual exploitation”.

“You are literally romanticizing the surprise DNA results many black folks will get due to the rampant sexual assault of black women during slavery and Jim Crow,” tweeted New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. “This is so trash.”

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In response to the outrage, Ancestry announced they would be pulling the ad.

“Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories,” said a statement distributed by Ancestry spokesperson Gina Spatafore. “We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.”

In 2016, the New York Times reported on a team of geneticists dug deep into the genetic history of black Americans and found long tails of European DNA that had been introduced just before the Civil War. “Dr. Gravel and his colleagues believe this variation is explained by European men and African women producing children — in other words, slave owners raping the women they held captive,” wrote the Times.

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