How Researching Your Family Tree Can Help Heal Our Racial Wounds

The ability to dispel cultural conditioning and ingrained beliefs arises when you remain open and intentional about your family history and are committed to honoring their stories.
Family stories
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Interest in genealogy is on the rise. With increased accessibility, thanks to all information available on the internet more and more people are getting interested in their family's stories as well as their genetic make-up and where they came from. 

Digging into the life stories of our families' past can offer many gifts to us as individuals, but it also can bring trauma, and adversity to the surface. By allowing these deep ingrained beliefs and values created out of our ancestors experiences to light, it offers the opportunity to heal and shift bigotry and hate, allowing us to pave the way for the bias and racial divisions to dissipate for future generations.

There are several articles out there that describe the many benefits family research can bring to our lives. They talk about benefits such as helping us learn our identities, discover how we fit into this world, and bring an increased sense of belonging. 

All these are indeed gifts we can receive by actively researching our family tree, but let's not glorify it too much. There is the ugly side of uncovering family stories that one must be willing to recognize too. Failure to do so is a great disservice to the whole process and will cut it short of revealing its greatest value. If we ignore the lessons, we miss the opportunity of change.

Where do our bias and hate come from? 

One can argue that Racial wounds are created out of misunderstanding and ignorance causing fear. When we don't fully understand something we create stories to help make sense of it based on our own experience, something we ourselves identify with rather than seeking to understand the experiences of others.

Bigotry and hate stem from identifying with one particular race and holding onto those values and beliefs so tightly we will fight hard to protect them. It is fueled by the fear of being persecuted for your beliefs and cultural practices as have so often happened in history, and no doubt directly to one or more of our ancestors.  If we use our research only to find our identity we can fall into a nasty trap of continuing the cycle of separation.

Fear and ignorance are interconnected. When we don't understand something often we attempt to translate the unknown by making up stories in our head to try to make sense of it. Quite often that self-made story is so far from the truth, yet it sticks and causes such big separation between people having disastrous consequences. There are so many different ways of looking at things so many different interpretations it would be completely unrealistic to expect everyone to understand and everyone to accept and acknowledge them all.

Bigotry and hate stem from identifying with one particular race and holding onto those values and beliefs so tightly we will fight hard to protect them. It is fueled by the fear of being persecuted for your beliefs and cultural practices as have so often happened in history, and no doubt directly to one or more of our ancestors.  If we use our research only to find our identity we can fall into a nasty trap of continuing the cycle of separation.

These rifts have been built up over thousands and thousands of years. Bias and hate can be inherited through our parent's genetic imprinting.  By learning the stories of our ancestors it can help us identify the bias encoded in our own DNA and how they may have been created.

The study of epigenetics

Epigenetics is a science dedicated to studying how our genes may carry our experiences. 

"Epigenetics is the study of how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change your DNA sequence, but they can change how your body reads a DNA sequence." - CDC

So our experiences can in fact leave a mark imprinted onto our very DNA which in turn can be passed down through generations. We may carry bias and hate in our genetic makeup that has nothing to do with our own personal experiences, but the experiences of our ancestors hidden from our consciousness.

There's no way we can unravel all biases and prejudices that exist in the world in a mere lifetime but we can start the process by examining and challenging our own beliefs using family research as a guide. Get interested in your family and their stories. 

Can changing our thoughts change us on a chemical level?

We must be willing to travel through the discomfort of our ancestors' path to gain access to true healing and become the catalyst for change. To be a catalyst means to change things on a chemical level. When we actively work towards changing our thoughts it affects us on a biochemical level.

'When we change our thinking, we change our beliefs. When we change our beliefs, we change our behavior.... Everything exists as a ‘Matrix of pure possibilities’ akin to ‘formless’ molten wax or moldable soft clay. We shape them into anything we desire by choosing to do so, prompted, dictated (consciously or unconsciously) by our beliefs. The awareness that we are part of these ever-changing fields of energy that constantly interact with one another is what gives us the key hitherto elusive, to unlock the immense power within us. And it is our awareness of this awesome truth that changes everything. Then we transform ourselves from passive onlookers to powerful creators. Our beliefs provide the script to write or rewrite the code of our reality."  - The biochemistry of belief 

I believe it was Louise Hay who said "Change your thoughts change your life" This soulful and spiritual practice is now being backed up by the science in the biochemistry field. It is this very practice that I have been working on to help heal some of my own demons, and we all have them. It is this very understanding that is underlying the idea that re-examining and uncovering our ancestor's stories can be healing to the world.

Sure it may be a bit of a romantic notion that researching your family tree can heal wounds for the greater good but I truly believe that if we can heal things within ourselves that is a step towards healing at a larger level. Familial patterns repeat themselves. That whole saying 'the apple doesn't fall far from the tree' also applies to racial wounds and cultural conditioning. It is the work we do independently, through our own self-discovery which will bring about the shift. By working on the person in the mirror, we can shift the conversations. Heal the parents, and we can heal the child. 

Becoming a keeper of the family history

There is more to being the treasurer of the family stories than just filling in the names on the proverbial family tree. Understanding the terminology of family research and genealogy is important to know because it helps us to clarify the relationship between the research and our personalization of it. Important research terms include;

Anthropology is the study of cultures and societies among the human race. It is how we research others groups from the past and the present. It excludes emotional attachment or identity from the research.

Genealogy is the investigation and study of one's personal family lineages and then collecting information about the life journeys of our ancestors through the passing down of oral stories, historical documentation, and genetic analysis. 

Ancestry refers to our personal origins or backgrounds, stemming from our lineage or descendants. In essence, it is where our family members came from. We may or may not feel a connection with our ancestry. 

Ethnicity refers to the group of people we Identify ourselves to be a part of through our shared values, beliefs and culture, and our sense of belonging within that group. 

Kinship is the weaving of familial relationships and our connection to that network of people. As humans, we are innately wired for and require connection with other human beings. I would argue that one can feel a kinship with people outside of their family units.

To tie it all together, when we start by being curious about our genealogy, we can follow the clues and it will lead us to our ancestry and help us define our ethnicity. The journey this takes us on brings us a sense of kinship and belonging. It may even bring forth a sense of advocacy for our ancestral lines whether it is part of our ethnicity or not.

It takes work and dedication but being aware that family research has the potential to teach and heal through generations is the beginning step. So the question is then can you remain open and intentional about your family history and are you committed to honoring their stories? If your answer is yes; Here is how we can turn our family research into practice for self-growth and generational healing. 

1. Be intentional in your practice

When you first start out on your Genealogical journey get a clear picture in your mind about what it is you are doing it for. Is it because you wish for a greater sense of belonging? Is it because you are curious about your family's past? Is it because you are fascinated with history, and to see how your family played a part in it? Is it simply because you wish to discover you are a royal descendant?  Ask yourself to what purpose am I doing this first. 

"Genealogy’s historical association with elitist and racist claims shows that it is too easy to slip into tribalism, eugenics, racism, rabid isolationist nationalism, and us-versus-them-ism. If we focus solely on our own identity, it is easy to myopically think that only our ancestors matter. We become all “manner of -ites,” to borrow a phrase. A genealogical understanding based solely on personal identity inevitably leads to excluding others’ identities, whether they are based in race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, DNA, nationality, or any other category." - Amy Harris

What if your intention from the beginning was, I wish to learn about who I am and the stories in my lineage so that I can learn the lessons they did through their experiences. What if your intention was I am looking to find the resiliency and the perseverance of those who came before me. What if your intention was I wish to embrace all that my family history has to teach me. How would your family research look now?  If we use our research only to discover our own identity we can fall into a nasty trap of continuing the cycle of separation created by our ancestor's experiences.

I realized for myself that my love for history and my family was the driving force behind my intention for looking to my genealogy. However, as I progressed in my research I discovered that I had only been interested in half of my family. There was a whole side of my makeup that I had completely ignored. I realized that to ignore this side of my family was to ignore another side of myself. In the end, I investigated more fully into the side I knew very little about. I became more curious about the hidden side of my family, and it has to lead me down a road of feeling more whole. I love embracing the side that I was unaware of and it has actually given me quite a few insights into some of my own quirks and traits along the way. 

Get serious about becoming the role of the family storyteller. Once you have uncovered the stories it is your job to keep them from being hidden once more. This means that you must embrace all sides and angles of your family's past. The good the bad and the ugly must be heard and acknowledged. If you aren't open or willing to acknowledge what you may uncover, you may not be ready for the journey. Each story has a lesson and that lesson will get lost again if you bury the story once again by not sharing it. It also means you may have to let go of some of those stories you have already established about your own identity, so be prepared. 

2. Be open and honest with yourself about your cultural identity and where you may have gotten it from

Learning where you came from and all that it took to get you here, living at this time in the space can truly be enlightening. Everyone identifies themselves as one particular ethnicity or race. Racism happens when you identify yourself as one particular race and become defensive and protective about it to the point of losing perspective of the other races and ethnicities around us. 

I am Canadian, and Canadians are funny when it comes to identity. When asked what we are, we almost never answer I am Canadian first, we say French, or English, or Ukrainian, etc. We almost all answer the question with our heritage rather than our nationality. I have no understanding of why other than to speculate it is because Canadian identity is embedded with our mosaic pride. To be a Canadian itself is to embrace all backgrounds in theory, of course not in practice as separation exists here too. In fact the only time Canadians will immediately answer I am Canadian! Is when they are mistaken abroad for an American. This is grossly biased in the world's view of what an American is because I have some beautiful women in my life who are American. 

All of us, there is no way that we can escape this, will identify as a particular geographical area of the world based on where you were raised, where your parents were raised. The people who are closest to you are the ones who help shape this identity. Knowing your understanding of yourself and how you fit into this world is necessary and one of the ways we do this is by identifying with a certain group based on where we were raised and who's raising us.

It is also based on our outward appearance and the color of our skin and our belief systems. 

"Because a person’s skin color is an irrefutable visual fact that is impossible to color will continue to serve as the most obvious criterion in determining how a person will be evaluated and judged" - Lori L Tharps

 I met my husband and within the third week of us being together, he said what is your heritage? Knowing my ancestry I asked him to guess. He said I was French or German. The funny thing is even with knowing my ancestry I was a bit disappointed that my outward appearance presented itself this way. I strongly identify myself as British because the people closest to me are in fact of England descent. But guess what. The other side of my family is, you guessed it German and French. And when I did get the results back from my DNA testing through 23&me genetically I was predominately showing French and German traits. Take it or leave it, it's in me. 

When you find what is in you might be the very thing you have been fighting against for so long, there is an internal struggle that goes on within you. A tug of war as to what you believe yourself to be a part of and who you really are. There is the confusion that begs for clarity. 

You cannot move forward and heal racial bias and cultural differences unless unravel how you yourself identify and closely examine the role your upbringing played in shaping it. The goal is to come to your own conclusions about who you are and your place in this world. It can be earth-shattering to find out some of what you have fought against for so long might be embedded in your very own DNA.

3. Be open and curious about the stories that are about to unfold on the journey

Family research connects us to our unknown bloodlines/ancestors whose wounds are innately in us lying dormant but are still very present. Some of these stories may be triggering to you in ways you never expected. If we linger in the emotional triggers we can end up in victim mode. Be very aware of the triggers and reactions that you may be experiencing from the stories you uncover. Getting curious is the key ask why to ask what happened asked how did this get resolved, did it get resolved. If you remain curious and open you are less likely to fall into the trap of getting hung up on the victim thinking that might surface along the way.

There is both rape, adultery, abuse, neglect, and genocide within my family's history. Some of my family are the victims, and others are the perpetrators. These are very ugly topics indeed, but I refuse to sweep them under the rug. My French side dates back to the forming of this country, colonization at its finest folks. My Native side intermingles with my French side because of the process of colonization, and it is nasty. So much so that my Metis Grandfather (both his mother and his father have Metis lineage) refused to identify himself as a Metis person. "I'm not one of those people, I'm a Frenchman." he stubbornly and aggressively would proclaim.  

It was hard in his youth to have the ethnicity of Metis, so he refused to be part of that group. His life was not easy, he was the strongest most self-sufficient man I know. He had his addictions too but I loved him to pieces, and he loved his family deeply. His struggle was immense, but he rose up from the place he was born in. The lives his children lead are living proof of how far he made it out of that life. And for me, the Granddaughter, the life he once lived is virtually unknown to me. I have so much to thank him and my father for. To not share his story would be killing his legacy. 

Realize that those who raised you and influenced you are one very small piece of the puzzle that created you. It is these ingrained teachings that may in fact be what is causing the triggers to occur. Investigate those thoughts and feelings, ask the hard questions. Do your research and travel into the unknown. Stay curious. Once you find out all the backgrounds in your DNA it can open your mind and connect you to people in your bloodline that you have never met before. Have conversations with those ancestors who are here, and even with the ones who are no longer. 

Family research has great potential to expand our minds, teach us resiliency, encourage compassion, reduce hate, and find out where we truly stand on some pretty big moral questions. But we must be open to receiving it.

"The benefit of family history is that we get to view an entire lifetime in summary, giving us an overview of how the choices a person makes changes the course of their life and the legacy they leave. That perspective is harder to gain in our own lives as we live day by day in the moment. But, as we study those who came before us, we start to broaden our view of our own life and the potential we have" - Melissa Findlay, genealogist 

4. Practice Genealogical Consciousness

Realize that finding your DNA reveals you are of a certain ancestry does not entitle you to automatically enter into that group. Genetic testing can not determine your ethnicity, it can only determine your genetic makeup.

I have Metis blood in my veins. I actually love that. There has been an innate sense of spirituality not to mention music, that connects me to this group of people in my heart. I do have my Metis card. However, I will not abuse it. I do not flash in places to receive privileges with it such as bumping the line to get a job interview or get vaccines quicker because I have not lived that life. I have attended elder meetings to learn more and because I am curious about how I can honor my grandfather and especially my great grandmother in ways they would recognize and appreciate. I am not however labeling myself a Metis woman. There is empathy required to create a balance of knowing when or when not to use or flaunt cultural symbols, practices, ceremonies, and other attributes that pertain to ethnic groups. 

We must keep within the space of compassion when we are the family investigators. The ugly bad stories we uncover could have been created out of desperation, a means of survival, an act from fear. Keeping compassion in our minds will create greater understanding and uncover even larger truths.

"Learning the history of our ancestors helps us gain a greater understanding of the challenges they faced, and it often inspires greater love and compassion for their flaws and mistakes. This compassion can easily translate to our relationships with the living, within our families and outside them." - Rachel Coleman

Genealogical Consciousness is an ethical practice defined as "a moral way of behaving based on seeing oneself and one’s actions as inextricably linked with past, present, and future people’s lives and hopes." - Amy Harris

Practicing Genealogical consciousness paves the way for Transgenerational thinking. "When we think about doing good in the world, almost all of us think about doing it sometime between our birth and our death. But with transgenerational thinking, you can expand how you think about problems, your role in solving them, and the consequences." Ari Wallach. Here is the beginning of the ripple effect and how this practice has the potential to seep into the community at large. Thinking multi-generationally how we wish to carry what we have learned forward into the world. 

5. Honour your ancestors in some way

"Genealogical consciousness is merely a label meant to underscore those relationships with other people in the past, present, and future are durable—built for the eternities—and that from them we can access previously untapped mines of divine power" Amy Harris

The whole idea of kinship, creating bonds with the intangible is truly magical to me. The best and most honorable way we can pay tribute to our ancestors is by passing down their stories and keeping them alive for generations to come.  When my beloved Grandparents died I made a photo book to honor their stories. I took photos of each stage of their lives and tried to compile a visual timeline to show my children of their relationships, passions, humor, and what they went through during their lifetimes.

"The history . . . of the dead is a history of how they dwell in us—individually and communally. It is a history of how we imagine them to be, how they give meaning to our lives. . . . It is history . . . of how we invest the dead . . . with meaning." Thomas W. Laqueur 

Do we not all want our life to have some meaning? Do we not all long for a legacy to be passed on in some way? There is a saying that everyone dies twice, once when our bodies die, and once when our name is no longer spoken off. How can you give meaning to the dead? Tell their stories and make sure their names remain being spoken about. "What you appreciate, appreciates." So, appreciate and honor those that came before you, and there is a greater potential for you to become part of that circle. There are other more spiritual or ceremonial practices that you may or may not feel resonates with you, just honor in the way that feels respectful to you. 

Ways we can honor our ancestors 

1. Write down and keep their stories alive

One way we can do this notion of investing in the dead and giving their lives meaning is by passing on their stories and the lessons we can learn from them. Take a hard look at what they went through to deliver you to this moment, and honor that by writing their stories down in your family history book, or simply passing them on.

2. Take a lesson from the Chinese

The Chinese culture was deeply rooted in their forms of what we refer to as Ancestor worship. It stemmed from the belief that our family members could protect and help us even from beyond the grave.  Behind this practice was the shared cultural understanding that there were three goals in life worth most attaining - Prosperity, Happiness, and Longevity. The association they had with Longevity (Shou) and immortality was part of the base of their ancestor worshiping practices. Remembering the dead and reverently treasuring their name perpetuated the person's shou. Ancestor worship was reduced with the Edict brought forward by the Vatican in 1692 banning the practice but it was such a strong sense of their identity that it was not eradicated by any means. 

3. Tell your children about them

There is another benefit to honoring your ancestors by passing on their stories along, to your children. Family research can help our children and increase their self-worth.

"Teens who knew more stories about their extended family showed "higher levels of emotional well-being, and also higher levels of identity achievement, even when controlling for the general level of family functioning," - Study from Emory 

Transgenerational thinking comes into play again here. Do you have the strength and imagination to move beyond your comfort levels and envision what this might bring into the future even after you are no longer here?

Because of the jigsaw puzzle of backgrounds that fit together and fashioned me, I feel a strong sense of advocacy to teach my children about how to better treat people regardless of their backgrounds. It is through sharing the stories of our families I hope will encourage empowerment and strength into my children's spirits.

In conclusion

Learning where you came from and all that it took to get you here, living at this time in this space can truly be enlightening. I realize that not everyone's a history buff, and nor am I expected everyone to have the courage or resolve to dig so deeply with the opened minded attempt to extend this practice out into their communities. However, when we know better we do better and family genealogy can be an exciting way to get our feet wet and experience the healing opportunities it brings forward. 

The key to this is realizing the work must be put in and is done by the individual. Once we understand we as individuals are the connection between the past and the future, we can make the choice of what we wish to pass on to the next generation.  By taking our place as the next link in the ancestor chain we can choose the attributes that will carry on through that link. We can intentionally choose the lessons and knowledge of the past that created separation causing fear and hate among us and what we wish to carry on. 

Mother of four. Nature lover, Gardener, crafter, and certified soul coach.

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