Guiding Question: How Do I Fit into the Story?

An opportunity to:

  • Place your own story in the context of our nation’s history
  • Consider how your family is reflected in present day patterns, and what family stories and traditions have persisted
  • Practice talking about what is similar and different across group identity, and how your American identity has become what it is

Exploring race and identity is complicated work that is only made more complicated and nuanced when you center the conversation on either family OR history, and even more so when you center the conversation on family history. But an important part of our journey together is to continually connect what we are learning to our own experiences, both past and present. It is important to consider the role of family legacy.

How are we shaped by the history of our families and country? What role have our families played in our national and regional stories? What evidence do we have of those narratives in our homes, habits, and self-conceptions? And, given all that, what traditions do we want to continue and carry on with our children? What pieces may we chose to acknowledge but shed? How might the sense of legacy be more nuanced in blended and adoptive families?

This work can be joyful and painful, and carries with it both pride and loss, perhaps even trauma, if we have a family history of enslavement or persecution. We believe that the “both/and” experience is important to embrace and model with our children and communities. Many of our ancestors will have been victimized or exploited. Many of our ancestors will have victimized or exploited others. Many of our ancestors will have willingly shed important cultural rituals and markers in exchange for privilege and status. Many of our ancestors will have required the shedding of those rituals and markers by others. We are not our ancestors, but our realities and identities are shaped by them. That process and tension is, in effect, the cultural creation and maintenance of whiteness.

Questions to Consider about the Past:

  • What are the hallmarks of your family? 
  • What reminds you of your family - turns of phrase, habits, heirlooms or beloved objects, traditions, do's and dont's, values and beliefs? 
  • How do you celebrate and share these hallmarks with your children?
  • What are key stories that shaped your family's relationship to American identity? To whiteness?
  • What are the losses your family has sustained? What may have been sacrificed in order to be “white?"
  • How may have past trauma resulted in legacies of perseverance and survival?

Questions to Consider about the Future:

  • What new traditions might you want to consider starting? 
  • How can your family build upon a new practice or value that is important for your shared story and identity? 
  • How does your creation of tradition allow for the fullness and uniqueness of your family today?
  • Ask your children what they think the hallmarks of your family are. What special routines and practices do they see as part of your family legacy?
  • Are there stories about your family you haven’t yet shared with your children but would like to?  Are there heirlooms or traditions that have meaning to you?

Additional notes on “culture”

** Many white folks at some point feel “cultureless,” and may feel like only other racial groups, or more recently immigrated families, have “culture.” This is not true, but in fact it is a byproduct of whiteness and racism. 

** For some of us whose families have been in the United States for a long time, there may be additional elements of shame or confusion about our families’ legacies and history. Much may have been sacrificed in order to conform to many, many generations of assimilation and whiteness. Family identity need not be shaped by traditions that are traceable to other countries, and as a result you may have more history and artifacts available to you, precisely because there haven’t been as many recent geographic transitions. Push to consider how your family legacies and identities manifest and what parts or places in the US you have deep connection to; ask yourself, “how does this shape who we are?”

Some resources:

"Stories of Family Legacy" Stories

“These Hands”

by Margaret Mason

“This is the Rope”

by Jacqueline Woodson

“Ellen’s Broom”

by Kelly Starling Lyons

“The Two Mrs. Gibsons”

by Toyomi Igus

Click here for the complete printable and downloadable list of "Going Deeper" book bundles


Ashley’s Sack

Poignant story about real artifact given by mother to enslaved daughter who was sold away. Will be displayed in new Smithsonian Museum.

White People Want Heroes in their Past

The Ancestry industry and how available data intersects with history and oppression.

Finding Your Roots PBS

 Scores of stories about celebrities unearthing their ancestry.

White Benefits? A Personal Assessment

Narrative example of how whiteness has helped one family across the generations.

NYTimes Op Doc Latinos on Race

Powerful short video about being Latino/a. Highlights tremendous within-group difference and the losses endured during assimilation.

Pinkney Family

Tremendous portrait of a family’s legacy as it relates to the arts and children’s literature.