On Roots and Race
Reflections on my familial roots and racial identity by Tavi Hawn
Some people want to process racial identity development in therapy. Others want to process confusing experiences and questions related to their race, ethnicity, and heritage.
Here is a collage of family roots, including my great-grandfather and some uncles, aunts, cousins, and sibling. Then another of my great-grandmother and some of her cousins.
Each generation of my family has a range of skin tones and facial features, with myself on the lightest end. This means each person in a single generation of my family might have different racialized experiences, with some being often viewed as "white", some exoticized and others receiving racial slurs.
It can also mean that some are not entirely sure how they're being read at any point in time. On one census, for example, my family is recorded as "mulatto" and another "white". Sometimes people enrolled on tribal records were still listed as "white" on census records.
For someone like me, questions that can come up are things like "What does it mean to have the blood of both colonizer and colonized?" "How do I use my privileges to amplify more oppressed voices, increase access and equity for more marginalized kindred while still honoring my heritage and culture?" "What messages did different family members communicate about their own relationship to and understanding of their roots and racial identity?"
As an adult, I learned more from family elders and cousins who had access to other relatives. This helped me view the incarceration, alcoholism, abuse, and violence in my family through the lens of inherited ancestral trauma, internalized shame and hopelessness, and assimilation into a patriarchal culture from a matriarchal one. Being able to hear more family stories gave me a window into the ways some relatives tried really hard to carry on ancestral knowledge, practices, and relationships in the ways they were able. I realized others hid them, some even from themselves.
I was able to see how for many of my family members, trauma is intricately wound with their identity and this is complicated.
As an adult I came to understand that opinions are like ***holes, (everybody's got one), when it comes to how somebody identifies their ethnicity. For a long time, this was confusing to me, and I would hear from well-meaning folks who had no real relationships with any native peoples or more than superficial knowledge of indigenous history, things like "we all have native ancestry if we go back far enough" (no, we don't), and "what part are you anyway?" (don't ask about blood quantum, that's a whole other history lesson), "so is that like white with a little brown mixed in?" (huh?). It took me a while to realize that most people have not done any in depth study from a range of sources on southeastern history, including many genealogists, archaeologists, professors and activists. This includes people who often have the loudest voice and strongest views.
This monitoring of identity from an uninformed place doesn't help the many people I meet who have been disconnected from culture and roots for any number of reasons: family cut-offs, family rejection or family deaths leading to loss of access to family historical information, family secrets, less paper documentation for those with black ancestry, adoption, immigrant parents who assimilated for safety and security, removal and re-location from homelands, and many more. People of color are often told they are not _________enough based on a million different reasons. Multi-racial and mixed race people can feel like there's nowhere to belong. These questions people have about re-claiming identity, connecting with a culture you were separated from, returning to the circle, or defining for themselves what it means to be ________ are things we can explore in therapy.