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Claiming My Heritage

by Doug Lipman

Table of Contents:

1. Claim My Identities
Questions for claiming identity
2. Clean Them Up
Emotional processing
Telling the stories
3. Go Beyond Them
Claiming my heritage - of stories and everything else - is a three-part process. I need to reclaim my identities, process the emotional hurts associated with them, and go beyond their limitations to become fully capable of connecting with all other humans and, therefore, with their stories.

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1. Claim My Identities

My first step is to fully claim my identities, which include the (perhaps) faded memories of my ethnic backgrounds, as well as my current identities as a member of the mainstream society.

The quintessential “invisible” identity is that of the middle class, whose hurts and losses can be especially difficult to articulate. Middle class children, after all, are constantly reminded that we have nothing to complain about: we have our material needs met, we have economic opportunity, etc. And our main hurt - separation from other humans, whether physical or emotional - is administered by people who do not perceive separation as hurtful, and who furthermore love us and sincerely believe they are serving our best interests.

In fact, the middle class is formed by separating us from the rest of the working population and offering us relative privilege, so that we will perform the functions of administering and managing. We are controlled through the carrot of privilege and the stick of fear - fear of having our privilege revoked.

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Questions for claiming identity:
I can ponder some questions to help me understand my lost identities:
  • Who in each branch of my family first came to this country or first entered “mainstream” society?
  • Who was the last person in each branch of my family who spoke a language other than English? (Or “standard” English?)
  • Who in my family tree decided that “fitting in” was more important than preserving tradition?

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2. Clean Them Up

Both the acceptance of identity and the loss of it can create emotional hurts. “Cleaning these up” - doing the emotional processing of grief, rage, fear, embarrassment, etc. - frees my flexible thinking. I can’t successfully skip this step!

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Emotional processing
To fully face and recover from the effects of being a member of an identity group, I need to cry the tears, rage the rage, laugh off the embarrassment, sweat my way through the fears, and so on for each painful emotion that has not yet been fully processed. To do so, I’ll need people who are willing to listen non-judgementally and stay with me as I cry, laugh, etc.

Here are some questions to help me focus on what I need to process about having been a member of an identity group:

  • What am I proud of, about being a member of this group?
  • What advantages have I received from being a member of this group?
  • What has been hard about being a member of this group? Embarrassing?
  • What is not okay to mention as a member of this group? What does every member of this group know?

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Telling the stories
I can examine the following kinds of stories to tell, first for my own process, then as possible stories for an audience.
  • My personal experiences.
  • My family’s stories.
  • The oral and written literature of this group.
  • The untold stories: I can begin to unearth the little-known historical and family stories of this group, as well as the stories that are familiar within the group but little-known outside it. For example, if my group has been cast by society in an oppressor role, what are the stories of group members who have been allies to the oppressed?
At first, I will need to tell these stories for my own sake. I will need to face the feelings I have about them, including the negative ones. Are these stories embarrassing? Do they seem oppressive? Boring?

Every time I am tempted to go outside my own groups for a story, I can ask myself, “What would be the equivalent stories within my own groups?” For example, what are the European stories about being in harmony with the environment? If they are not evident, it is crucial that Europeans - not Native Americans or Africans - find those stories and make sure they are told.

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3. Go Beyond Them

Once I have fully claimed an identity, I can ask myself, “What must I feel in order to give up this identity?” For example, I might say, “I have worked hard to claim my stories and my pride in being a Jew. Now, what keeps me from surrendering all claims to that identity?” Such questions will not make sense until I have fully claimed and explored the identity in question. But once I have, they may help me uncover any hurts that keep me clinging to the identity.

Of course, the experience of every human group has a lasting value. It is only the attachments born out of painful emotion that I want to transcend. Am I getting a sense of self-worth from belonging to a powerful group? Do I feel justified in my attitudes toward the world because I am a member of an oppressed group?

When the emotional charge attached to these group memberships is fully drained, then I will be in a position to flexibly claim my membership in the species as a whole. Neither avoiding, denying, nor clinging to any identity, I will no longer be limited by any identity. And other people will no longer be members of a group first; they will be individuals first.

Now, for the first time, it is fully true that I am only myself. I am enriched by the various experiences of my own groups. But all stories are my stories. And I can approach them with respect, compassion, and joy.

This article appeared first in The Storytelling Coach Newsletter.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©1999 Doug Lipman