Ancestry Bias

Thomas Leth-Olsen
Family Walk

My daughter gifted me an Ancestry DNA Kit after my husband’s results solidified my in-laws’ insistence they were of almost pure Irish decent. My tube of saliva connected our children to the other 50% of their family history. It confirmed I was a bloody boring European mutt. My ancestry disappointment was greater than my children’s whom I had feared were bitter that I diluted their concentrated Celtic blood.

I admit I want a worldly background. With stories of ancestors who improved society, even in a small way: an artist, scientist, grass roots organizer, unsung underground railroad cooperative. And why is my lineage so blandly achromatic?

My biases against relatives I never met changed when ancestry research specialist and librarian, Barbara Walker Capoferri, started tracking my genealogy. She confirmed that relatives of my father owned a florist shop. It excited me to know that I had small business owners in my family who possibly benefited their Philadelphia neighborhood.

That wasn’t enough for me, though. I perseverated on mistakes relatives had made that kept our family in poverty. I even questioned Providence why my family history is riddled with early death, physical and other challenges, and health issues which disabled those who laid the foundations of my financial situation as a child. I couldn’t understand how my family could be so unlucky. After being in America for generations, they hadn’t grounded themselves enough to create a building block for generations to come (me) to spring board off to college.

No family vacation home. No property that is handed down with an attic of treasures for my children to look through and know that they were used by actual people they’re related to. We have few photos, and no jewelry.

What all this whining means is that I’m jealous of other families who boast these things. Do they deserve them more than me?

Barbara enabled me to turn around. I had thought of myself at the end of my genealogy on tip-toes looking back. Facing forward on my blood line, I see my responsibility to my children and grandchildren. I’m the one who must create/do something in which they and future generations can boast, “I’m related to Dawn Byrne.”

From my point on this line, I turn back again. My mother is behind me. Family know her as the 28-year-old widow who raised five children amongst poverty with dignity. As she passes on the story of her coal mining grandfather caught in an explosion who died from black lung, or the one about her disabled mother who learned to play the piano by ear, those people fade into Mom’s shadow. They can’t compare to her story of childhood poverty and her amazing self-empowered adult life. She is part of a lineage of marginalized, single mothers who raised families by leaning on each other.

Thanks, Mom, for setting the bar high. Future family researching us to complain about people who’ve tried their best, in their specific situation, during their historic setting, and who may have just wanted to survive, will find you. What will they see when they hit me?



  1. They will see and come to know you as Dawn the tale teller and writer.

  2. They will see you as the family historian who kept the story alive, so they do not have to do so much research! (And they will be grateful!)

    1. Thank you, LCBENNETTSTERN. Barbara did the work. And inspires me not to be so hard on my family. I certainly don't want relatives now or in the future judging my life.


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