It seems we humans carry the genetic markers of untold generations. The horrors of ancient genocides and brutal bloody battles, of distant famines and plagues, of abuses private and public, have left their smears on the genes of me, of you, of us. Perhaps ancient joys and triumphs have likewise left their fingerprints.
Since the mapping of the human genome, companies that trace lineages have proliferated. We are delighted to learn about ancestors, to see how they moved from this country to that, how that line married into this other one. It seems we crave a sense of connectedness with a tribe, of personal history, of ancestral meaning.
But even with genetic testing, the lines are often blurred. The African American knows her ancestors were stolen from somewhere in Africa, but where? Colonial powers invaded, tribes were displaced, countries carved up, customs and languages obliterated.
His father was estranged from his family of origin. Who were they? From whence did they come? What kind of people were they? What traumas did they survive or succumb to?
She knows her maternal ancestors immigrated from Austria, but why did they leave die Heimat? Were they fleeing wars or economic hardship? What had they seen? Did they support or fear Kaiser Bill? Hitler? How did they feel? What were they seeking?
His mother’s people – ah, the glorious old south, where everyone was easy and friendly, where the slaves were just like family, and all was peaceful before the Yankee invasion! And before that? England maybe?
Descendants of chattel slaves are likely imprinted with trauma. Are the descendants of slaveholders and southern sympathizers genetically scorched as well? Is it more traumatic to be traumatized or to perpetrate trauma? We speak today of moral wounds, which occur when we do things we know to be morally wrong and unjust.
All these ancestors whose wounds, and maybe triumphs, have left their mark on the codes of who we are – who were they, really? Were they brave warriors or cowardly deserters? Faithful spouses or manipulative cads? What did they face in their lives? Wars and famines? Peace and prosperity? Sickness and loss? Robust flourishing health? Were they deprived or advantaged? Which end of the overseer’s whip cut them? We know we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but what did they witness?
To whatever degree we can uncover the past, we can connect with the larger tribe from which we came, but it is imperative that we not romanticize our heritage. My mother did a bit of genealogical research and decided, based on almost nothing, that she was a descendant of Henry IV. Even if she was, who cares? Understanding the traumas of the past is more valuable in discerning what ancestral threads have me, Lilliputian-like, tied up.
That is not to imply that anything that happened down the family tree determines who I am. It is only to suggest that we are interconnected and feel the distant past in our bones. We have free choice. Change is always an option.
Even without an historical tribe connection, most of us know something of our ethnic heritage, and can from that surmise probable influences. If you’re Irish, you likely have some potato famine in your background. It would be hard to be English and not have a few ancestors indoctrinated in imperialism. The legacies of slavery and oppression don’t just go away when a baby is born.
Stereotypes are dangerous if we use them to label or pathologize people. Not all Japanese are industrious workaholics. If you dig around long enough, you might even find a Canadian who isn’t all that nice.
Nevertheless, ethnic heritage may in some cases give us a starting place. How are Germans, Norwegians, Ugandans, or Laotians typically seen? For those of us who are mixed-up mutts, what generally characterizes northern Europeans or sub-Sahara Africans?
If you’re from an oppressed culture, you must be careful not to adopt racist stereotypes. Don’t let anyone tell you Mexicans are lazy or Africans are less intelligent. And if you’re from an oppressing culture, don’t assume elitism has seeped into you by osmosis. Ethnic characteristics are not a description of you. They are not a description of any individual in your lineage. They’re simply a place to start looking for the threads that tie you up.
Do you recognize any general ethnic traits in yourself? Are you loyal, faithful, laid-back, a go-getter, a rule-follower, or a rule-breaker? Punctual or chronically tardy? Superficially hospitable? Do you lean towards hoarding or minimalism? Would you rather watch an exciting movie or read an awesome book?
Is there known trauma in your family’s past? Suicides? Wars? Victimization? Genetic illness or weakness? Alcoholism or other addictions? A propensity for marrying abusers or enablers? Mental illness? Depression? Oppression? Suppression of others?
What achievements can you identify with your ancient ethnicity? What things did your people invent? What were they good at? What sets them apart? What are (or were) their redeeming qualities?
What does your ethnic heritage typically value? Family? Clan? Accomplishment? Sacrifice? Loyalty? Individuality?
Make some lists.
Now, look over your lists. Where do you see yourself? What in the long, mostly unknown, ancient lineage that led up to you might still contribute to the spiritual knot that hinders further growth, that keeps you from being fully human and fully alive?
Maybe together we can untangle some of that.