About Your Region
You're from [region].
This is where [literary person] wrote [hir] plays and poems. It's home to the legends of [legendary figure]. It's produced some of the world's most adventurous explorers and greatest political and military figures—[examples].
The history of the region is one of periodic invasions and settlements by various groups including [peoples]. [Language] is obviously the primary language spoken. But a few of the older languages spoken by the ancient [other peoples] still exist.
The people of the region have been witness to sweeping political changes and amazing technological progress through the centuries, from [period] to [period]. But despite their penchant for reform and progress, they have always found a way to preserve the past. From [ancient governing bodies] to [modern governing bodies], ancient languages to international diversity, from thousand-year-old [ancient buildings] to [modern buildings], their culture is a fascinating blend of old and new.
On the one hand: I get it. Ancestry.com is selling a product that is largely a luxury good straining to stand out from a broken economy. When faced with the prospect of putting food on the table versus paying for a scientist to analyze saliva in order to place a pin in a map ("YOU WERE HERE"), most people are going to opt for the food. (Which is why I logged into Ancestry.com today; we need to cancel the subscription that I bought for my father a Christmas ago.)
So faced with the fact that their product is not a necessity that sits high on Maslow's hierarchy, the marketing teams at Ancestry need to make their map-pins as compelling and mysterious and exotic as possible. You aren't just from X, you're from a patronizing and essentialized version of X! It's basically Orientalism but applied writ-large to the whole world. I understand the allure, I understand why it works, and I understand the impulse to engage in it. And I additionally understand that in the great, grand scheme of things this is just another drop in the ocean of othering.
But having said all that, I do think that this is almost a template for othering people and places, in large part because it takes statements that are largely true for everywhere on earth -- such as pointing out that old buildings exist alongside new ones, and that the dominant local language isn't the only local language -- and making them sound mysterious and exotic and unusual when they genuinely are not. Which is not to say that those buildings and languages and places aren't special and beautiful and neat -- they may or may not be from a subjective-personal-opinion point of view, and of course objectively-speaking everything is 'unique' in the trite tautological sense of the word. But a large part of othering revolves around exoticizing as unusual things that are actually not unusual at all, such as when we exoticize women of color for doing the same things that white women daily do (gardening, keeping pets, etc.) without themselves being actively exoticized. Or, as I wrote at the time:
The issue is not with the portrayal of their daily life through picture. The issue here is with the words that people use to describe those pictures. As Liss said, no one sees the many pictures of her with her dogs in their backyard and marvels aloud at her deep harmonious connection with nature and the way in which she communes with her animals and her beautiful traditions and [insert various other Othering statements so common that I could type them in my sleep].
If your response to a picture of a woman of color in a garden setting with animals is markedly different than your response to a picture of a white woman in a garden setting with animals, then you need to check why that is and adjust your language accordingly. The issue is not that people of color need to be "de-exoticized"; the issue is that the language you used is actively exoticizing them.
Recently I spoke with a friend about how we express appreciation for other cultural artifacts (language, clothing, etc.) without exoticizing those cultures. Her response, which I thought was very insightful, was that the issue isn't with liking or not liking aspects of other cultures, but how you express that interest. It's one thing to appreciate an article of clothing or a dish from another cuisine; it's another thing to start hauling out words like "fascinating" and "harmonious" and acting as though you've never encountered the concept of food before. (As she put it: "It's a stuffed pepper not deep space imaging!") It's the difference between an appreciative glance at something versus an ogling stare at its supposed otherness -- the difference between appreciating a subject versus reducing it to an object.
I think Ancestry.com means well. I think the people who work there probably believe that they're helping people to reconnect with their roots, and to understand and appreciate a "homeland" that they may never have laid eyes on before. I think they hope that by exoticizing places, they are helping to create interest in the welfare of those places, and helping to build a global community. I think those goals are good, worthy goals to have and to hold.
But I also think there's a difference between appreciating, for example, northwestern Europe and exoticizing it. And I think that difference is worth understanding so that we can modify our own language and work to make sure that we don't exoticize other people and other cultures when we're trying to express our appreciation. Like ableist language, exoticizing language pervades our cultural communication, and we can't effectively avoid it until we learn how to recognize it.
* Original text from Ancestry.com:
About Your Region
You're from North-Western Europe, an area including the modern-day United Kingdom and Ireland. It is a group of islands separated from France and the rest of continental Europe by the narrow English Channel. It is the rolling, emerald-green hills of Ireland, the craggy, weathered peaks of Wales, the rich history of the city on the Thames, and the deep, mysterious lochs of Scotland.
This is where Shakespeare wrote his plays and poems. It's home to the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood. It's produced some of the world's most adventurous explorers and greatest political and military figures—George Mallory, Winston Churchill, Admiral Horatio Nelson. Brilliant scientific minds such as Sir Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell laid the foundations of modern physics. And it's the place where a rainbow can lead to a pot of gold. Maybe.
The history of the region is one of periodic invasions and settlements by various groups including the Angles and Saxons from Germany, the Jutes from Denmark, the Vikings, the Normans from northern France and, of course, the Romans. English, a Germanic language brought by the Angles, is obviously the primary language spoken. But a few of the older languages spoken by the ancient Celts still exist—a rarity in post-Roman Europe.
The people of the region have been witness to sweeping political changes and amazing technological progress through the centuries, from the Glorious Revolution to the Industrial Revolution. But despite their penchant for reform and progress, they have always found a way to preserve the past. From royal families to prime ministers, ancient languages to international diversity, from thousand-year-old cathedrals to glass skyscrapers, their culture is a fascinating blend of old and new.