An advertisement by a DNA testing company that depicted a mixed-race couple during the era of slavery was widely criticized for whitewashing the brutality that marked interracial sexual relations at the time.
The ad was published by Ancestry earlier this month but began to draw attention Thursday after it was noticed by some social media users. It depicted a black woman running to an apparent suitor and a white man who held a ring out to her.
“We can escape to the North,” the man said. “There’s a place we can be together, across the border. Will you leave with me?"
The ad was seemingly targeted at people who might be curious whether they have any mixed-race heritage.
“Without you, the story stops here,” the ad noted. “Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.”
Social media users were quick to point out what they said were fallacies put forth by the commercial.
Studies have shown that African Americans are more likely to have more mixed DNA than European Americans. A report looking at 23andMe’s customers found that self-identified African Americans were, on average, 24 percent European according to their genome, while European Americans were only 0.2 percent African.
Slavery was marked by sexual relations that played out over a fraught power dynamic between slave owners and their slaves, raising questions about consent even in the best circumstances and outright rape in the worst.
Clint Smith, a PhD candidate at Harvard, tweeted that the ad is “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.”
New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones said that, while it was true that many black people found they had European ancestry, “it ain’t because of no d--- slavery love story.”
“Reprehensible,” wrote historian Alexis Coe.
Others pointed out that the ad positions the white man as a “savior.”
Noel Voltz, an assistant professor of African American history at the University of Utah, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the ad was “incredibly problematic.”
“It’s messy,” she said. “They’re hinting to something that’s really a history of sexual exploitation and disempowerment.”
As attention on the video grew, Ancestry announced it was removing the ad from television and YouTube.
“Ancestry is committed to telling important stories from history. This ad was intended to represent one of those stories,” said a statement distributed by spokeswoman Gina Spatafore. “We very much appreciate the feedback we have received and apologize for any offense that the ad may have caused.”
Spatafore did not answer a question about the television channels that played the ad.
Bloomberg News reported earlier in the day that Ancestry is planning an initial public offering in the near future.
The prevalence of rape and sexual violence during slavery has been documented in accounts of historians and writers such as Frederick Douglass, who was born to a slave mother and whose father may have been one of his white masters.
In 2016, a team of geneticists including by Dr. Simon Gravel of McGill University found evidence of such accounts within the DNA strands of an African American population it studied, according to the New York Times. Scientists can use stretches of DNA to date when it was added into the genome. Most of the Native American DNA that researchers found — about 1.2 percent on average — was in tiny chunks, indicating the mixing had taken place a long time ago, around the time the first slaves were brought to the American colonies.
But the European DNA in the population was found in longer chunks, leading researchers to estimate its introduction to the period before the Civil War, according to the Times. There was one more genetic tell: X chromosomes, which are inherited in higher percentages from women, had greater African ancestry than other chromosomes.
“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,” the Times wrote.
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