By Eve Higby
Many of us are looking at our stations in life — where we have privilege and where we lack it. Our society has various power structures that define those privileges: patriarchy, racism, capitalism, cisheteronormativity. As a white woman, I have some power in a group of mixed races due to the forces of white supremacy, but less power in a group of white men and women due to the forces of patriarchy. Within a group of white women, my class standing will play a role in how much power I have. The way that each of our identities is positioned within those structures and within certain social contexts form the basis of a critical self-analysis. This type of analysis helps us to think about our privileges and where they come from, considering race, ethnicity, gender identity and expression, age, immigration status, and socioeconomic status.
What is critical family history?
A critical self-analysis is useful for understanding how we navigate society and experience certain privileges and are denied others. But our circumstances and even our identities are also a product of our ancestors and the circumstances that they went through. By completing a critical family history, you can start to understand your family history in the context of larger social relationships of power, such as racism, colonization, patriarchy, and social class. You may even discover how your own family members participated in, helped to construct, resisted, or simply experienced these forces.
A critical family history involves not only unearthing details about your family but also constructing a larger story of the past and its links to the present. You can understand how that history has shaped your life circumstances and contributed to your understanding of power structures and how they affect your life. Critical family history draws on critical theories such as critical race theories and critical feminist theories.
Critical family history as an expansion of genealogy
Genealogy research has become popular in recent years, opening up the possibility for many people to explore their family histories. Typically, genealogical research focuses only on individuals and facts such as birth dates and locations, marriage dates, etc. This approach isolates the individual from their sociopolitical context, when in fact the circumstances of that person’s life are highly intertwined with the social climate, policies, norms, and power structures of their place and time. To understand where we came from, including the climate our ancestors lived in, the opportunities that were given to or denied them, and the choices they made, we need to provide a critical context for those family members.
How does one conduct a critical family history?
The first step to conducting a critical family history is to identify an individual or family unit to focus on. Gather demographic data and identify any sources of when and where they lived, who they lived with, what their occupation was, whether they owned property, etc. Much of this information can be found through genealogy websites, U.S. census records, other governmental records like birth certificates and marriage records, church records, newspapers, and other media.
Next, begin to identify the context in which they lived. You might be able to draw on family oral histories, interviews with family members, photographs, videos, letters, or other family history books or records. Use the following questions to guide your exploration of the social norms, practices, and policies that existed in the time and place in which they lived.
Completing this type of contextual analysis across several generations can help to weave a story about your ancestors’ circumstances and their effects on later generations.
Connecting to the present
A critical family history should identify threads that flow across generations to the present. What happened to your ancestors in generations past affects the circumstances of your birth and life. This type of understanding gives historical depth to our understanding of the patterns of privilege and oppression that occur in our own lives. A series of questions that can help you connect the critical family history with the present include:
What is the payoff?
Locating historical documents and interviewing family members in order to piece together one’s family history is time-consuming. Is this big investment worth it? We spoke to two individuals who engaged in this project to find out what it meant to them. Alexandria Tollast found that it brought a deeper level of awareness of the sources of unconscious bias. “A critical analysis of my family’s history facilitated in-depth awareness that surpassed a typical examination of my own culturally responsive behaviors. It allowed me to discover unconscious beliefs or morals that were embedded within the structure of my family and relationships. An in-depth critical reflection of my family’s history opened my eyes to thoughts and behaviors that impact my interactions both professionally and personally. It has cleared the way for me to become more consciously aware of different economic and social power structures within my daily life.”
Jiana Brandt also gained insights from digging into her family history from a critical perspective. “Researching my critical family history helped me understand my ancestors’ influence on my social and economic class standing and life circumstances today. I learned how some of my ancestors have benefitted from power structures and historical events, and others have been suppressed.”
If you are looking to take the next big step to understand your own social position as it relates to systems of privilege and oppression, the in-depth study involved in a critical family history analysis will be a worthwhile project. It can provide a deeper, more nuanced, historical understanding of the intersections of various social systems and their legacies across generations, shedding light on the circumstances of your life in ways that are not captured by only looking at the present. Working alongside someone else who is conducting a critical family history can also be insightful, as Brandt says “everyone’s history is multifactorial.”
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