When writing about an ancestor ‘outs’ their race: can there ever be an etiquette for this?

I’m sitting on the horns of dilemma. As you’d suspect, it’s not a comfortable place to sit. It all has to do with two late 18th Century marriages on my maternal line between white men and free women of colour in one of America’s southern states. And the the years that followed these marriages; which is to say their children and descendants claiming, and then having, a white identity.

Writing about these two couples would mean disclosing that the racial identity of these two mulatto women. So where’s the dilemma?

  1. There is a chance that the descendants of these 2 couples have no idea that (however many) great grandma Jane Doe wasn’t white;
  2. Continuing on from Point #1, this may cause upset; and
  3. Some descendants many know this but not want it publicly disclosed.

Publicly writing about family ancestry and history carries certain burdens. This is one of them. Well, okay, this specific burden largely applies  if you’re writing about American genealogy and family history and your audience is, not unsurprisingly, American.

Which brings me to my question. What is the etiquette in writing about inter-racial marriages in America in general and the Antebellum South in particular?

I know my motivations. There are 2 stories that I would like to share because they offer a very interesting glimpse into an aspect of American history that really isn’t discussed. Why interesting? Well, is the standard view that such marriages were as poorly received by society as we’ve been taught/led to believe? Were they as uncommon as we’ve been led to believe?

Then there is the legal side with inter-racial marriages up to and including the early 1960s. I’m still not certain when inter-racial marriages became illegal in the US. The second marriage in my wider family tree certainly happened when such marriages were illegal. This second couple didn’t hide it – their marriage certificate is proof enough of that. Nor did they immediately leave the town they were born and raised in to get married either – so everyone knew the racial identity of the woman, including the groom’s family (so what on earth did they think and feel about it?).

I’d also like to write about these women simply because their respective families have very interesting histories. Both come from mid 17th Century African American lineages that were indentured servants (and not enslaved) and then free thereafter.

I’m also a professional marketer. And I diligently measure the analytics for this site. I know what stories and themes are  popular and which ones aren’t. My all-time top two posts cover inter-racial relationships and ‘passing’ (Beyond the Pale: Interracial Relations in Colonial America https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/beyond-the-pale-interracial-relations-in-colonial-america/ and Passing for white: ancestors who jumped the colour line https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2012/02/14/passing-for-white-ancestors-who-jumped-the-colour-line/) . To quantify ‘popular, each of the posts cited above get read around 350 times a week. Combined, that’s a lot of reading on these two subjects.

So there’s an obvious interest in both topics. I have two stories that cover both. Naturally, I’d like to add these to the canon of posts I’ve already written on the subjects. Both would provide deeper insights and a new take on both subjects.

Now if I were back home in the UK, and this involved black British ancestors, I’d write these stories in a heartbeat. Believe it or not, there is a healthy segment of British society that would wear black ancestry as a badge of honour. Amongst Millennial, it’s something that would give them ‘street cred’. In short, they’d embrace it. Not everyone. I know that.  However, on the whole, the British are far more chilled on the subject of diversity than Americans.

But I’m in the US. And in the 16 months since I’ve been on this side of The Pond, a ceaseless flow of news stories involving race has stayed my virtual pen when it comes to publishing these two stories. My experience with a few white relations from my maternal family lines  on Ancestry.com and Gedmatch have definitely stayed my hand . To be fair, a small handful of newly discovered white relations from my maternal lines have been superb, stellar human beings; accepting, fun and helpful with my family history questions. The majority, however, have not. They were not pleased to discover a blood connection with African Americans. Could you imagine what others from the another branch of the same family would feel if they were to discover that they were actually descended from a person of colour? These are the things I have to be mindful of.

And before this looks like bashing southern people, I’m merely relaying my own experience. The numerous white relations I’ve met from my paternal Virginian lines have all been incredibly positive and brilliant people.

I suppose if those from my maternal lines had been as overwhelming positive as those from my father’s lines, I’d have my answer. I’d just go ahead and write and publish what I think would be two more interesting and positive stories that provide a glimpse into America’s past.

So what do you think? When sharing family history stories in America, what is the etiquette in outing an ancestor’s race? Leave a comment below.

Note:  We have to screen comments before approving & publishing them. Sadly, suffice to say it’s a necessary policy. So don’t panic if you submit a comment and there’s a delay in it appearing.

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17 Comments

Filed under AfAm Genealogy, AfAm History, ancestry, Black History, family history, genealogy, Race & Diversity

17 responses to “When writing about an ancestor ‘outs’ their race: can there ever be an etiquette for this?

  1. Teresa Sheffey

    My feeling is that we cannot rewrite history to please people. (either by submission or omission). History is what it is. I only wish the history they taught when I was in school had been an honest view of what actually took place. We are one people. And we all are a mix of many races. Some of our ancestors need to step down from their pedestals and relate to us as the humans that they were.

  2. For me, it all depends on my relation to the family. If I am a descendant of the family, then I have no issue with outing an ancestor’s race without first consulting the elders of my family. Now, if it is academic research, I usually lay out a majority of the information, but I would not out the individual’s race without the consent of a living descendant.

    The history of interracial relationships in the Antebellum South is quite intriguing because you have to define the relationship at which you are studying. Will you constitute a white master’s who was involved with his slave with/without consent a relationship? In my research, I have came across intriguing interracial relationships. The Bondswoman Narrative follows the autobiography of a young slave who was the mistress to a black woman who passed as white and married her master (highly recommend this book). Also the history behind the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida. There, the owner married his slave and sent her and his children to Haiti because interracial relationships were forbidden (before Florida even became a state).

  3. Linda Mills

    Please share their stories. Our ancestors and their lives matter because we wouldn’t be here without them. Even if some people are offended, it doesn’t change the truth. Your ancestors had the courage to follow their hearts no matter what anyone else thought so celebrate that strength and courage and tell their stories.

  4. Jeanette Williams

    Hi Brian ……. I’ve been pondering the same question. I have one ancestor on my paternal side in particular who lived as a white man. I would like to write about him but I do feel that I would be öuting” him. He is a very colorful character and is mentioned in several books and publications including Scotts in America. His parentage in the books is all a lie. I keep wondering if I should set the record straight or just let it go. The white side of this line has come to terms with his true lineage.

    Let me know when u figure it out. LOL

    Jeanette

    • Hi Jeanette. Thank you for your thoughts. I’d say that if the white side of this line knows and has accepted his real origins, then it should be ok writing about it. It wouldn’t come as a bolt out of the blue for them. lol the author of that book, however, might not be so happy. i have a feeling that my two stories would definitely come as a bolt out of the blue. I’m not even sure if anyone from these two lines have even had DNA tests , which would reveal this part of their ancestry to them.

      Many within this particular family have always denied that they had any black relations at all. Recent DNA matches with me and another African American cousin wasn’t exactly welcomed by most of them. So I’m treading carefully about dropping the bomb that two lines of this family aren’t just related to people of colour – they are actually descendants of people of colour. Not that it should be a bomb. lol but that would be in a perfect world.

      And if your ancestor had a colourful lief – all the better! 🙂

  5. Fascinating subject for sure. I’m not sure that I am qualified to have a solid opinion on this, but it does seem to me that the only reason not to tell the story is to protect racists. My only caveat to this is about upsetting very old people who are way too old to change their way of thinking. Is it worth it to upset them? Gosh, are they really reading the internet? LOL

  6. Intriguing dilemma. I have mixed feelings on this, but I suppose the overwhelming notion is that these are YOUR ancestors too and you do ultimately have the right to talk about them. I believe that the more we share these types of stories and engage in these conversations, the more our minds and hearts will expand. Best wishes to you and your family– ancestors and all.

  7. I realize that this revelation might bring some pain due to their not knowing anything about the pretense. But, I remember how painful it was when I discovered some of my great, great-great and great-gtreat-great grandmothers were mulatto; not through marriage nor from Native American ancestry. This news brings embarassment to some members to our African American family members. However, as genealogy research and DNA testings become more common place; these revelations will come to surface and we will all have to learn how to deal with them. Therefore, I support writing about the family genealogy sensitively and truthfully.

  8. The NGS (National Genealogical Society) covers this in general in its “Standards for Sharing Information with Others.” Specifically in the last 3 bullets of this Standard, but all can apply in one form or another.

    http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/cs/ngs_standards_and_guidelines

    Regarding ethics and standards for genetic genealogy (DNA), the ISOGG (International Society of Genetic Genealogy) has an excellent page on its Wiki.

    http://www.isogg.org/wiki/Ethics,_guidelines_and_standards

    Would like to see what you think of these standards and how you interpret them as it applies to your situation.

    • Hi Elizabeth. Thank you for your comment and for the links. I’ve read the guidance before but your comment gave me a good opportunity to re-visit them. The majority of them deal with different aspects of ethics and privacy for living persons – which every family historian should familiarize themselves with (so thank you for adding those important links). Or policies about disclosing convictions, mental states, or other kinds of sensitive information about deceased persons. The rules, overall, deal with rational, cut and dried areas of genealogy. So best practice policies are easy to devise and disseminate. Racism, however, is inherently irrational (lol queue extreme right wingers to argue the alternative). So, while I know I have the right to relay the stories of these ancestors from the rational viewpoint…I know there could be an irrational reaction from a segment. These people did nothing wrong. They followed their hearts. I find that admirable only given the times they lived in (it really, really shouldn’t raise eyebrows today). Morally, ethically and rationally I have the right to relay their stories. However, do i really want to receive emails and comments calling these two men ‘race traitors’ or worse? Believe me, it’s already happened in response to some of my posts already. That’s what I mean by irrational responses.

      • This helps. I wanted to see what you thought about the standards and how they apply to your situation.
        Here is my reply to your original question – “When sharing family history stories in America, what is the etiquette in outing an ancestor’s race?” I have to warn you that it is a bit long and probably controversial. Oh, and probably a little too blunt, but that’s just me.
        What I read in your reply to my comment is that you’re concerned with how racists are going to react to *you*. I can certainly understand that, considering that you are new to living in the USA, and especially, as you said, given the racism in the news of late. It still exists. It never went away. And, yes, white bigots are more vocal about it. But it’s more insidious than that. Most people try to keep it hidden and really, a good many younger white people who think they were not brought up racists are actually racist and definitely live in a world of white privilege that they don’t even have a clue about.
        Trayvon Martin, Ferguson, and SAE Fraternity at Oklahoma University (and SAE in general) are three examples of outright racism. You see these things in the news, but they are covered by a white news media and are tainted with a white flair – most likely so that nobody changes the channel. Keep in mind that it is the whites who have the money in the USA.
        The more subtle (to whites) and that which is not covered by the news is, for example, how white folks and those people of color who practice “responsibility politics” (typically not the old, but the young, and not in the south, but actually in “hip” areas of the country) flock to the cities they know (consciously or subconsciously) will (still) keep those barriers up between well-to-do whites and people of color and poorer (bad, trouble-making, “druggie,” “violent,” uneducated, welfare – all I say tongue-in-cheek) Blacks and people of color (see http://blackmillennials.com/2015/02/18/how-white-millennials-rely-on-racist-policing/ for example). These type of racists are not conservative. They are typically liberals and vote to the left, yet they still don’t want “it” in their back yards.
        I have Black ancestry – it’s trace and it doesn’t really show (except in very dark and black eyes in our family, and thick dark or black curly hair) – the DNA shows it, but I just don’t know where it is. I didn’t know it or even suspect it until the DNA showed it. My detailed admixtures at GEDmatch show that some of it is mixed with American Indian and some is not. I’m white, and not an outright bigot (but there is no way that I do not rely on white privilege – I am white), I don’t live in the south, and I’m not really afraid of what people think, so I know what I will do with the information when I find it, and I share what I know as I find it as long as sharing it is ethical. When it’s time. When it’s ready.
        The NGS Standards For Sound Genealogical Research (http://www.ngsgenealogy.org/galleries/Ref_Researching/gssound.pdf) state, in part, that I must “avoid misleading other researchers by either intentionally or carelessly distributing or publishing inaccurate information,” which, as I interpret it, would include disclosing only part of the truth. If I were to come along later and try to use your research, and you left out the Black fact, which would mean that you published inaccurate information, and if I discovered that, then I would know that most likely you would have also discovered that and left it out intentionally, I would consider you an irresponsible genealogist, and I would be pretty ticked off. I would consider what you did as at the very least against standards – at the very most, unethical.
        The other bullet point that I believe applies and that is within this same group of standards is that I must “recognize the collegial nature of genealogical research by making their work available to others through publication, or by placing copies in appropriate libraries or repositories, and by welcoming critical comment.” I see that as meaning even critical comment from people who just don’t like what you wrote (e.g., those racists). I also see that as meaning that if we are going to do it, we are ultimately required to make it available to others.
        So what would I do if I found and have a different truth than what was thought, and if I have evidence/proof of it, even if it’s going to cause people to call me names, not like me, say I don’t know what I’m talking about, or whatever?
        I would either know I would have to move forward and make the research available regardless of my fear and feelings about doing so OR I would have to question whether or not I should be doing this work at all.
        I believe that as a genealogist first and foremost, my responsibility is to the “etiquette” (standards) for the genealogist.
        There is no etiquette for how to tiptoe around racism.
        I told you – long, blunt, but I hope helpful.

  9. Alisha

    They Are Your Family, Too. You Have Evidence. There Is Nothing That These People Can Do Or Say That Can Change That. They Can Deal With It, And Change. Or Keep Living In La La Land. It’s Not Illegal, Not Like You Can Be Sued. A Few Racists Are Mad. A Few Racists Are Always Mad At Something, Lol

  10. And thank you to all of you who have taken the time to leave your well considered thoughts. It’s always helpful to get different points of views and insights 🙂 I’m definitely mulling over how to approach this.

  11. Fontaine J. Sheffey, Jr

    Hi Cuz
    I have been enjoying the various reads.
    Brian, I would divulge the information. Although, it would be a thoughtful gesture to drop a “heads-up letter” to the elders. but, then again, why apologize in a manner of speaking.
    It’s been too often the history of America has been fabricated. (i.e THE WARREN REPORT ) If you don’t tell the truth now, who will tell it later? Besides 200 years is enough time for a “pristine” family to “get over it” especially in today’s society.
    Brian, let’s be real. Everyone in America should know their ancestors came over on a boat. Does it really matter if one or more were of colour?

  12. I don’t regard African ancestry as shameful, and feel no compunction to protect the sensibilities of those who do. My family has a long and complicated racial history in this country. I blog about it all. Would you write about the white ancestor of present-day African-Americans without worrying about the reaction of African-Americans? If you have no hesitation about that, to do otherwise when the labels are reversed is to perpetuate racism.

    • A good point. Our mixed heritage has always been obvious with my lot. And we’ve always been curious. Hence my freedom in blogging about this the other way around. With regards to my question in the post, I’m thinking about people who have no idea they descend from a mixed heritage.

      • It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve got cousins who regard themselves as Native American. Some actively DENY African ancestry. I’ve got other cousins who regard themselves as white, as that’s what their parents have taught them. I don’t blog about THEM, but I do blog about our shared ancestors.

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