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How the slavery-era Ancestry ad is part of a larger problem of race in commercials

This advertisement and others portray a false sense of racial progress

This is just the most recent instance of a company using interracial couples as a hollow vessel to signal racial progress.

That’s what I thought on April 18, when I first saw the now-infamous Ancestry.ca commercial that ignited rage on Twitter and led the DNA testing and genealogy company to pull it. The commercial shows an interracial couple fleeing from so-called anti-miscegenation laws in America to Canada, where they could wed legally.

In the 30-second spot, a white man, James Miller, brandishes a gold wedding band and says, “Abigail, we can escape, to the North.” Abigail, a black woman who may or may not be enslaved amid scenery reminiscent of antebellum America, begins to speak. The white man, however, interrupts her: “There’s a place we can be together, across the border. Will you leave with me?”

After receiving complaints, the company stated its commitment “to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories. We appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.”

Much of the Twitter maelstrom stemmed from the idea that the commercial whitewashed slavery and romanticized a painful era. Many descendants of enslaved people purchase these DNA kits in hopes of capturing a sense of their history that the peculiar institution absconded. The rape endured by enslaved women represents one dispiriting piece of that historical puzzle and explains why the average black American who takes DNA tests learns that about 20 percent of his or her genetic makeup originates from Europe.

These commercials presenting interracial couples reveal that white corporate America believes that the racial progress is about when people of color are allowed into white spaces. True progress, however, is when the space is no longer necessarily white.

The argument that the commercial whitewashed slavery strikes me as an overclaim — it’s a singular story that doesn’t advance a larger argument, and thus it lacks capacity to achieve something that significant. After all, the commercial doesn’t even specify that Williams was enslaved.

The commercial does romanticize a period of American history that we must remember in its heinous complexity. I went on Ancestry.com and found no union that corresponds to a marriage between Williams and Miller on April 9, 1857, in Canada, as the commercial claims. The commercial concocts a fictional account to narrate a maudlin tale instead of recounting a story that more accurately reflects the tenor of the times.

Yet, the commercial is problematic for a larger reason, a reason more relevant to current society. Placing this commercial in the context of the growing number of these commercials with interracial couples helps us understand the fault with it. A few years ago, I began noticing a number of ads featuring interracial couples. Growing up in the 1990s, I don’t think I ever saw a commercial with an interracial couple. Now I spot them all the time, although the couples always include a white person and a person of color and never interracial unions between nonwhite people. A recent Geico insurance commercial provides us a current example.

Joanne Kaufman of The New York Times and Hallie Golden of The Daily Beast have penned recent articles on this phenomenon. Kaufman writes that these “commercials are a way for companies to signal that they’re open minded and progressive.” Golden agrees, contending that “the biggest selling point is they help to attract the broad base of customers whose values align with those portrayed through these ads — inclusion and diversity …”

Ancestry.ca attempted to do something similar, I think, with its ad. Crucial to note: The Ancestry.ca commercial was about Abigail — she’s the main character. To signal diversity and inclusion, the company placed her in an incredibly rare interracial union before the Civil War rather than tell stories that make more sense given the time period. But if the commercial had featured these stories, white people either would not have been included or would have been villains.

And that leads me to my central complaint about these commercials featuring interracial unions: They are faux instances of racial enlightenment.

We see no movement in commercials for interracial couples consisting of people of color. No, the commercials always contain a white partner. The idea that interracial relationships mean racial progress remains on white people’s terms.

These commercials presenting interracial couples reveal that white corporate America believes that the racial progress is about when people of color are allowed into white spaces. True progress, however, is when the space is no longer necessarily white.

Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.