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Darcie Hind Posz, CG, “Genealogy Standards Prevent Bias and Presentism,” OnBoard 23 (May 2017): 13–15.
American history, like world history, is steeped in hierarchy, prejudice, and racism, which genealogists encounter in record keeping, immigration, and surname changes. Bias and presentism—defined as “uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts”1—are at the core of the American psyche and are multifaceted problems for researchers.2 Genealogists know that historical documents can incorporate ideals that are no longer the social norm yet are important for understanding, analyzing, evaluating, and compiling evidence of an individual’s lifetime. The implications range from record creation to a genealogist’s selfidentification and can lead to bias in an unwary researcher’s work.
The Board for Certification of Genealogists’s vision of genealogy—“a profession or avocation that is of value to society’s understanding of its history; and requires training, experience, and advanced skills”—calls us to learn from problems of the past while using standards to challenge our inner biases and develop our expertise.3 A genealogist who adheres to standards strives to be unprejudiced. Indeed, by honing skills and practicing traditional methods through the study of demographics and cultural groups outside our own pedigrees, we come to understand that our field’s standards as compiled in Genealogy Standards are not ethnocentric.4
Minority groups are not generally represented in the first 150 years of American genealogy, and the scant portions that are covered are often ignominious, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Executive Order 9066, the Trail of Tears, and Jim Crow (not to mention religious persecution, genocide, and war that led to mass migrations and refugees’ displacements).5 These subjects appeal to our sense of justice or injustice but might cloud our judgment when evaluating the past as the past. Knowing we cannot correct former wrongs, we must objectively evaluate and navigate history in order to understand motivations for the suppression of minority groups.
The master narratives for American history and genealogy—focused primarily on Northern Europeans—have kept most minority nationalities and cultures on the fringes,6 with the possible exception of African American and Jewish ancestry.7 Non-Northern European publications or institutes have been considered either groundbreaking or niche, not necessarily representative of the norm. Non-traditional genealogy courses are often whittled down to webinars or specialized retreats, either by choice or because mainstream genealogical education is typically based on generating membership and income from a financially predictable subset of course attendees and not necessarily on outreach. Case studies, lectures, resources, and education mirror mainstream American history.
This lack of diversity insulates genealogists from a wider range of cultures, prevents them from confronting bias and presentism, and keeps them from acquiring the skills and experience required to understand a more complete American genealogy.8 A broader view of history enables us to forecast which records may have been suppressed, which records or communities were segregated, and which record keepers may have been biased.9
Bias and presentism might partially explain why non-Northern European genealogical education has been neglected in the past. We cannot resolve the abhorrence of a past and are wary of appearing to gloss over portions. Awareness of bias, both in our culture and in ourselves, is essential when we encounter challenging history embedded in documentary evidence.
Genealogy standards dictate that we not tailor evidence to match our preconceived hypotheses. Truth, on the other hand, is malleable and susceptible to our personal experiences; it can become malformed if not managed by standards. Elements of evidence reasoning, such as integrity, discrimination, reliability, and assumptions, rely on genealogists to avoid biases that handicap observation of history and the reliability of evidence evaluation.10
As with Northern European-focused research, evaluation of the records of all ethnic groups must adhere to genealogy Standards 37 through 50 (reasoning from evidence) and hold the researcher accountable to maintain the integrity of the original document without judgment or bias.11 Evidence Explained reminds us to protect fundamentals such as objectivity and truth while guarding against presentism.12 When modern assumptions are applied to historical documents, it permanently distorts any review of the evidence. From the beginning of our report of findings, the entire work becomes prejudiced. This is why standards are important.
Genealogy standards and the Genealogical Proof Standard (GPS) apply to all cultures, ethnicities, and demographics. Issues such as African American record loss and segregation, Chinese paper sons, Japanese illegitimacy in koseki,13 Hawaiian adoption customs, and untaxed American Indians, can be treated using part one (reasonably exhaustive research) and part three (analysis and correlation of evidence) of the GPS. A discussion of findings relevant to any ethnic group requires part four (resolution of conflicts) and culminates in part five (a well stated and reasoned conclusion).
In 1986, Elizabeth Shown Mills discussed racial issues in Southern genealogy, the misconceptions that develop from one-sided methodology and research, and the impact these problems have on genealogical conclusions.14 Mills’s piece illustrates how confronting bias and presentism is not about denying prejudices existed and are still present, but is instead a matter of how we read, study, understand, and plan our research—a foundation that can be made stronger by the array of skills specific to non-Northern European genealogies.
Several case studies report non-Northern European lineages in a non-confrontational manner that welcomes readers to learn while adhering to genealogy standards. In “(De) Mézières-Trichel-Grappe: A Study of a Tri-Caste Lineage in the Old South,” Elizabeth Shown Mills defines the interconnectedness of lineages of multi-racial societies.15 This study, coupled with Mills’s aforementioned chapter, forms the cornerstone of multi-ethnic analysis. In “Namesakes, Name Changes, and Conflicting Evidence: The Search for the Mother of John Little Crow,” Dawn C. Stricklin aptly shows the reader how understanding cultural distinctions and kinship systems of Indigenous and Native peoples of North America and applying the GPS can resolve conflicts in evidence.16 The 2016 study, “Tanaka (田中) and Ishihara (石原) Families of Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, and Papaaloa, Hilo, Hawaii,” applies the GPS to twentieth-century immigrants from Japan to an American-occupied territory and then stateside to establish the biological father of Ned Neki Hind and his kin.17 These three studies treat historical periods when immigration, Native American, and segregation laws influenced record keeping. By adhering to genealogy standards, these cases provide unbiased perspectives of historical truth. Several older published non-European lineages could be reviewed, dissected, and analyzed to see if they meet current standards; if they do not, corrections could be submitted.
American genealogy evolved differently from its counterparts across the pond. In Europe and the United Kingdom, pedigree construction and verification of noble blood meant overt claims to property and heirship rights, whereas American genealogy reinforced a more subtle social hierarchy, created even as migrants fled those same structures in their motherland. What began with the Mayflower settlers now includes the descendants of immigrants from many nations. Yet the majority of lineages represented in peer-reviewed genealogical publications and education are still of European derivation.
Even as non-traditional, groundbreaking examples apply the same standards and methodology as their Northern European counterparts, there are many more opportunities to publish and share. Standards are not ethnocentric and keep us accountable. A more inclusive array of resources will emerge when we ask editors, educators, and organizations for more, and bring our knowledge and work to the discussion.
Websites were viewed 15 May 2017.
1. English Oxford Living Dictionaries (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/presentism), “presentism.”
2. Justin D. Levinson and Robert J. Smith, eds., Implicit Bias Across the Law (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012). This publication explores racial bias in the various aspects of law that can appear within daily life. Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (New York: Bantam Books, 2016). Biases that distort perceptions of all people are explored in this collection.
3. “About BCG,” Board for Certification of Genealogists (https://bcgcertification.org/about/).
4. Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards (Nashville: Ancestry, 2014).
5. “100 Milestone Documents,” Our Documents: A National Initiative on American History, Civics, and Service (https://www.ourdocuments.gov/content.php?page=milestone), for “Chinese Exclusion Act (1882),” “President Andrew Jacksonfs Message to Congress eOn Indian Removalf (1830),” and “15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Voting Rights (1870)”; with images, transcriptions, and discussions.
6. Ronald T. Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, rev. ed. (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2008), 4, 5, 435.
7. LaBrenda Garrett-Nelson, “Genealogy Ethics and the Call for Diversity,” OnBoard 23 (January 2017): 7; specifically notes 16 and 17 show recent publication trends for these two groups.
8. Recent additions of these subjects at the 2013 National Genealogical Society Family History Conference include two lectures on Chinese genealogy, one on Japanese genealogy, and one on indigenous lineage issues.
9. Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace, 3rd ed. (Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2015), 21. Several states kept separate records for African Americans; see Tony Burroughs, “African American Research,” in Loretto Dennis Szucs and Sandra Hargreaves Luebking, editors, The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, 3rd ed. (Provo, Utah: Ancestry, 2006), 251–78. State-by-state comparisons and discussions are provided. For an example of record suppression, see Darcie Hind Posz, “One George Deane or More? Determining an Identity Spanning Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, but not Wisconsin,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 103 (September 2015): 201–208; a divorce not filed with the county was void. For examples of suppression of privately held, compiled genealogies in China, see Charles Hartman, “The Making of a Villain: Ch’in Kuei and Tao-hsüeh,”,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 58 (June 1998): 59–146.
10. Genealogy Standards, Reasoning from Evidence, 23–29.
11. Genealogy Standards, 23–29.
12. Mills, Evidence Explained, 20 for 1.8 Objectivity and 1.8 Presentism, 22 for 1.11 Truth.
13. For Chinese paper sons, see Patricia Hackett Nicola, “Chinese Exclusion Act Records A Neglected Genealogical Source,” Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly 21 (June 2006): 27. For koseki, see Darcie Hind Posz, “Tanaka (田中) and Ishihara (石原) Families of Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, and Papaaloa, Hilo, Hawaii,” The American Genealogist 88 (April 2016): 82–83.
14. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Ethnicity and the Southern Genealogist: Myths and Misconceptions, Resources and Opportunities,” Robert M. Taylor Jr. and Ralph J. Crandall, eds., Generations and Change: Genealogical Perspectives in Social History (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986), 89–108; specifically 94–99.
15. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “(De) Mézières-Trichel-Grappe: A Study of a Tri-Caste Lineage in the Old South,” The Genealogist 6 (Spring 1985): 4–84.
16. Dawn C. Stricklin, “Namesakes, Name Changes, and Conflicting Evidence: The Search for the Mother of John Little Crow,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly 94 (December 2006): 245–58.
17. Posz, “Tanaka (田中) and Ishihara (石原) Families of Hiroshima Prefecture, Japan, and Papaaloa, Hilo, Hawaii,” 81–94.
Darcie Hind Posz, CG®
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