In a misty pre-dawn scene in a town in America’s Deep South in the 19th century, a breathless white man offers a wedding ring to his (presumably enslaved) black love interest. “Abigail,” he says. “We can escape, to the North. There’s a place we can be together, across the border. Will you leave with me?”
Titled “Inseparable,” the ad by the genealogy company Ancestry was clearly intended to be a romantic dramatization of how a person taking a DNA test ended up with mixture of geographic origins in their heritage. But it proved an embarrassing gaffe when critics pointed out that the “forbidden love” narrative was a mischaracterization of a dynamic that was largely defined by the brutal sexual exploitation of slave women by white slaveowners. The genealogical website, which is said to be prepping for an IPO, pulled the ad and apologized for the spot.
The commercial is only the latest from a major DNA testing company that conflates ancestry with race and identity in a tone-deaf way. 23andMe’s 2018 “Root for your Roots” World Cup campaign was criticized for suggesting American soccer fans should root for a team based on their DNA. As the bioethicist Arthur Caplan put in it in an op-ed for Leapsmag, the campaign was “built on bogus science about the genetics of how we define nations and ethnic groups” and “reinforces racial and ethnic stereotypes about human behavior and nationhood that are rooted in history, culture, economics, colonialism and prejudice, not ancestry, genetics or biology.”
Many online asked how Ancestry’s “Inseparable” ad was approved without anyone objecting, and suggested that if people of color were involved in the decision-making it probably wouldn’t have happened. Indeed, the ad—and much of DNA test kit marketing (including another Ancestry ad asserting that “Everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day because the Irish have all the fun”)—seems designed to appeal mainly to white people looking to assert some idealized, interesting, or “exotic” identity.
And it has also led to appropriation of non-white identities by those who move through the world with the privilege of being white. Last year a white man whose DNA test showed that he’s 4% black legally filed claims to qualify as a minority business owner. And senator Elizabeth Warren has been criticized for using a DNA test to support her Native American ancestry claims, displaying a profound misunderstanding of how tribal identity, and race in America, work.