Pocket watch from Grandma Bea, 2018.
history pragmatic historian

The Search to Belong

Pocket watch from Grandma Bea, 2018.
Pocket watch from Grandma Bea, 2018.

This blog post has been rolling around my head for a few weeks. As I sit down to write it, I am recovering from the flu, which has given me sore leg muscles that make it difficult to stay in one position for long. If this seems distracted or all over the place, that is the nature of both the topic and my physical condition.

In case you haven’t noticed, identity politics has heated up in recent years, in no small part because politicians want the masses arguing amongst ourselves over identity so we can’t see what they are up to, but also because we have some grave injustices to address in American society that fall along the lines of identity.

As a white woman, I’m acutely aware of the privilege of quietly going about my life without anyone hassling me for the color of my skin. Living in a county that is an estimated 97.1 percent white and 49.5 percent female, blending in is no issue for me. I don’t have to worry about systemic racism that actively keeps me from participating in various aspects of society, like home ownership or serving on boards of directors.

We have serious work to do to right the wrongs built into our systems that hold back people of color, Native people, immigrants, those who practice religions other than those that are Christian-based, or anyone who belongs to an identity group that has been seen as “other.”

Carving Up Identities

Because of the intense work required, it seems reasonable to simplify the situation by carving up identities into a few readily-apparent ones: female/male/transgender, black/white/people of color, Indigenous/past immigrants/recent immigrants, LGBTQ/cisgender, Christianity/every other faith practice, etc.

Even with that short list, the complexity of identity quickly reveals itself. Each one of us belongs in several categories of identity, with many people belonging to identities that appear to be opposed to each other.

William Whipple Warren, author of History of the Ojibway People, was of Ojibwe, French and English descent. According to his Wikipedia page, “because [Warren’s] father was white, he was not considered Ojibwe, but an Ojibwe “relative”, because in the Ojibwe patrilineal culture, inheritance and property were passed through the paternal line.” Yet, Warren felt so close to his Ojibwe heritage that he interviewed Ojibwe elders, collecting stories that would become his book.

Each of us has this multitude of ancestry, a lineage tracing back thousands of years, though we may only be concerned with a couple hundred of those years.

Where Do I Belong?

In my own family, my mother came from Polish and French-Austrian heritage. Grandpa Stan was 100 percent Polish because both of his parents were born in Poland. Grandma Florence had a Polish mother and French-Austrian father. Knowing how often Germany and Poland overtook each other’s land, that 100-percent Polish is likely not 100 percent.

My father’s mother, my Grandma Bea, was Swedish, from Varmland in Sweden. His dad, my Grandpa Jens, was Danish. In rereading letters my grandpa wrote to me, I discovered that his family was from the Isle of Fyn in Denmark.

Here’s what’s interesting about identity. With all of this background, where do I feel I belong? As William Warren had a great affinity for his Ojibwe ancestors, my great affinity is with my Swedish and Danish ancestors. Why is that?

Even though Stan and Florence lived in town and we visited them often, while Bea and Jens lived in another state and we rarely saw them, somehow I bonded more closely with my father’s family. Part of this may be because Bea and Jens were artists and I am an artistic soul. It could also be that Jens wrote me so many letters and Bea made sure I had the family history (along with sending me books, which I love!), thus making me feel cherished. It could also be that I resemble this side of the family, so much so that people have remarked how much I remind them of my dad’s sister Judy, who died before I was born.

My Husband’s Research of Sami Culture

My husband is doing some investigation into his heritage, which is far more mixed than mine. He’s got English, Irish, Bohemian, Swedish, Danish, and several other nationalities in his background. One that we aren’t yet sure of is Sami. Erik’s parents had a calendar with images of Sami people in it and they looked just like his Grandma Lillian … like she could have walked into the calendar and fit right in. Grandma Lillian’s family came from northern Sweden, close to the Arctic Circle, which is where the Sami are from. The Sami are indigenous to Scandinavia, like Native Americans are native to America.

While we can’t confirm Erik has Sami heritage, he has been curious about the culture and done some research on it. We watched a movie called Sami Blood on Netflix that shows the discrimination of the Sami in the 1930s. It’s an excellent film and we highly recommend it. We may never be able to confirm that Erik’s mother’s family has Sami heritage, but the exploration is worthwhile, not only because we are learning about another culture but because in considering whether there is a relationship, we can’t help but feel more sympathetic toward the Sami.

This is how we build bonds with identities that may not be our own. We look for our common humanity by considering what it would be like if we were in a particular group.

Identity is a huge topic, one that I have barely touched on here. These are just a few of the things I’ve been thinking about in regards to identity lately and figuring out where I belong.

I’ll leave you with an article from The Atlantic called “Unraveling Race: Thomas Chatterton Williams wants to discard traditional racial categories,” that grapples with the complexity of racial identity.