Trying to Understand My Heritage

I’ve been doing a lot of personal work this past year around the various aspects of my positionality, particularly the places where I have systemic advantage. One of the things I read in How We Get Free, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, has really helped me put into words the thoughts and feelings I have on this topic.

During the interview with Barbara Smith she talks about setting up Kitchen Table Press. Barbara Smith says: “… when we talked about who qualified as a woman of color, we came up with, after much discussion, that our definition of woman of color was any woman who identified with the indigenous people of her respective nation or land. One of the reasons we put it that way is that there are people of European heritage in Argentina, for example, Jewish women. Are they Latinas or not? Well, I think that we could argue that indeed they are, because of where they were born, and the language they speak, and the culture that they’re a part of. So, we made that decision that we were not looking for photographs of people. We just wanted to know if you identified with the indigenous people of your respective nation or country.” (pg 47-48)

Long before I read this I’d embraced the term “Celt” to describe myself because otherwise when I talk about my heritage it looks like this:
1/4 Welsh
1/4 Irish
1/4 Scottish
1/8 German
1/8 god only knows
And in that last 1/8 there are two family myths, one says Blackfoot and the other Romani. So ya, total mutt.

I really don’t like the term ‘white’, and the next alternative is the term ‘Caucasian’ (meaning “of the Caucasus Mountains”) doesn’t seem to fit all that well either. Thus, at the time I was sorting through how I describe myself to myself, Celt seemed to fit best. Since making that choice it’s been very rewarding studying the history, folklore, and myths of the Celtic peoples and has helped me become comfortable with my place in the world. It has also shifted my seeking for self understanding from “what am I?” to “what does it mean to be what I am?”

Like I already said, I really don’t like the term “white.” Here’s a few of the reasons why:

Due to racism and colorism in America, I am coerced into the category of “white,” was socialized “white,” and am expected to uphold white supremacy through the oppression of anyone not “white” and the rejection of my cultural roots. Because of this, only a small fraction of my Celtic heritage was given to me by my parents and grandparents mostly through music and holiday traditions. I only know that those traditions are apart of my Celtic heritage because of all the studying I’ve done. Culture is not meant to be passed on through the dusty dry tomes of academia. Traditions are meant to be living breathing things. The category of “white” robbed me of that cultural self understanding.

Furthermore, as a “white” person I am expected to stay within the confines of the “white islands” which spontaneously emerge in public and private space due to “white” people separating themselves from everyone else. This sets isolating limits on who, how and when ‘white’ people can interact with those outside their “whitewashed” social sphere. Isolation and the destruction of personal identity are the primary tactics used by abusers and totalitarian governments. This same mechanism is used by Colonial Empire to reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy and all the oppression which comes with it.

Because I am in America and am of Celtic descent, I am a settler. However (and this is a point I am still trying to figure out. Feedback would be awesome!), if I were to relocate to one of the modern countries which were once a part of the lands of the Celtic peoples (Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and parts of continental Europe) then I think I would be considered indigenous. In any case (back to things I know), by identifying with my ancestors who were oppressed by Empire, I have found I have a better understanding of some of the issues indigenous people and people of color in my life have talked to me about as a part of their experience of racism. While I don’t think I will ever completely understand all of it, just like I don’t think I will ever completely understand anyone’s life, including my own. I do think this has helped me understand these issues as more than just intellectual exercises or some feeling of nebulous undefined empathy (which is what I generally think of when I hear the term “white liberal guilt”). It in turn allows me to show up in a much more genuine way when I notice white supremacy or settler colonialism impacting my relationships or interactions. Because, at the end of the day, all the intellectualism in the world doesn’t matter when it comes to trying to being a better person in my day to day life. The way I treat people matters.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten with it, but it’s a lot more than I had last year and I’m hoping to have a much better idea of what all this means next year as well. We’re all in process right?

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