The Lens of Colonization by Ian Firstenberg

     The Ancestry DNA test results did not shock me. It mostly confirmed the ethnic story my parents had told me. As suspected, most of my lineage, 93 percent, traces back to Europe. We are primarily Irish—over 40 percent—with mixes of other Eastern European ethnic groups.

While I may have known this lineage through family stories and word of mouth, it’s an entirely different feeling to see the proof first hand. What was very unique about this project was that the test results made everything tangible and personal.

Another component of this whole that became powerful for me was the idea of connections. Within hours of getting my results in I had a message from someone claiming we were cousins of some sort. I’m rather hesitant to pursue this end for a variety of reasons, namely because it’s a struggle to maintain healthy relationships with the relatives I already know. I don’t think adding another person into that web will be beneficial. However, this is a stunning example of the power these tools have.

Not so long ago tracking down your family tree meant scouring over public records and court documents until your eyes began to boil. Part of the beauty of technology is the connection it promotes. The ability to follow a family tree and connect with someone who may be a long lost cousin is powerful. However, it’s not all great, with powerful tools can always come human abuse.

This last election cycle showed the public many things about communication and representation; one of the lasting themes seems to be the idea of Internet isolationism. The idea that you can insulate yourself in online groups that vehemently agree with your opinion, and thus creates an unrealistic vacuum in which your ideas go relatively unchallenged. That is part of the catch-22 of the web: it’s ability to create subcultures and communities is unmatched but that doesn’t mean those subcultures can or even should be that isolated and shouldn’t continue discourse with one another.

On a more historical level these DNA results seem to show what I had assumed about my family history. That for the most part we came from white European immigrants like Irish who had and continue to have strong cultural identities within the States; in the U.S. we celebrate St. Patty’s Day, many metropolitan areas have strong Irish communities, and from a larger historical perspective the Irish have fought for a relevant standpoint in the American swath of cultures.

All this underpins the fact that over the long haul of history white Europeans, Irish included, have been the dominant culture often through force. White Europeans have an extensive history of both colonization and imperialism that extends not just to people of color in other continents but even within Europeans, an example of British and Irish comes to mind. The legacy of white European colonization is long lasting, disturbing, and can be culturally eroding.

European imperialism has had debilitating consequences for so many people across the globe and through history and as such it cannot be ignored or even understated. With that being said, at this stage in history it seems beneficial to recognize the lasting negative effects of colonization. It also seems pertinent to analyze it on a deeper level, from a psychological perspective, in the hopes of understanding how and why humans feel that we can simply take land/property/artifacts that are not ours.

Are humans simply hyper intelligent animals that, left to our own devices, do nothing but lust for power and resources killing anything that stands in our way?

Maybe that was the case at an earlier stage of evolution but it seems barbaric now. How could humanity create such beauty like renaissance art, powerful classical music, and touching stories if we solely fulfilled this craven need for power and possessions?

Focusing again on our project, these DNA results while not surprising are very telling. In many ways my history comes from an entitled and dominating swath of cultures. This is not to mean that numerous other cultures have not been dominant or powerful but merely that White Europeans, as mentioned above, have a long history of unjust, immoral imperialism. I’m not yet sure how this changes my idea of family history or my understanding of my relation to my family history but it is certainly relevant.

As someone who, at least personally, identifies with the principles of racial equity and justice it’s a frustrating sentiment to realize that all of your familial history is tinged with the lens of colonization. This does not, in any way, compare to the atrocities experienced by those who were colonized but it certainly shapes how I feel about my family history.

I think this project was vastly insightful for me. Although I may have known much of this history before, seeing it first hand promoting far more reflection about what it means to be white European, what kind of history that legacy holds, and how it can effect me today. Another component of this project that was extremely revealing is the powerful connection it promotes. As I discussed above tracking down your family tree was once a longwinded and nearly impossible activity but in today’s world you can connect with long lost family at a rapid pace.

The connection and reflection that this project is unique and I think exemplifies the benefits of this class as a whole. In order to achieve the equity and equality that most of us want we must reflect on our own history. This project certainly helped do that.

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