Critical Family History

Very likely you haven’t encountered the term “critical family history” before. I’m pretty sure I invented it in relationship to family history. As a white person, I was seeking a conceptual framework that situates individual family stories within a wider analysis of social power relationships and culture. White people, especially those of middle class status and above, tend to think of ourselves and our stories in individualistic terms. But since who we are involves not just the work of individuals, but also how individuals’ lives were shaped by local culture and relationships among social groups, I wanted a framework that would illuminate the social contexts of family lives, and that would help to unearth memories we have lost.

In a review of critical theory, James Bohman explained that, “a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation.” To be useful, a critical theory identifies unjust social relationships, the roots of those relationships, and how they can be changed. In other words, it helps us work toward social justice for everyone. With that in mind, I drew on critical theory, critical race theory, and critical feminism.

Critical theory, as developed by German intellectuals prior to World War II, connects a Marxist analysis of class structure with psychological theories of the unconscious to understand how oppressive class relations are produced and reproduced. Structuralist critical theorists analyze how oppressive political and economic structures are reproduced through the workings of the capitalist economic structure. Culturalist critical theorists emphasize human agency, focusing on the lived experiences of people, how consciousness is formed within class struggles, and how resistance to oppression arises organically. While critical theory can be seen as too deterministic, I see it as offering critical family history two major analytical tools.

First, it directs attention to the capitalist economic structure as a fundamental basis for inequality, and the historic construction of that system. Capitalism is based on the principle of using wealth to amass more wealth by reducing expenditures on things such as resources and labor, by cultivating markets, and by using one´s power to organize other social institutions to support this process. Critical theory suggests that family historians locate their own families within the class structure, asking how family members came to be located where they were, analyzing their participation in the capitalist economy, and examining their vested interests in it. Capitalism and class become a visible part of the terrain in which one’s family participated, and which set the ground rules and possibilities for their wealth or lack thereof.

Second, by situating how people think and see the world within class relationships, critical theory links identity, local beliefs about the social order, and class position. Family stories and belief systems, while very personal and private, also reflect public ideologies within shifting class formations. As Michael Apple put it in the 1979 edition of his book Ideology and Curriculum, ideology refers to “the formation of the consciousness of the individuals” in a society, particularly their consciousness about how the society works. Henry Giroux explained that, as a tool of analysis, ideology “helps to locate the structuring principles and ideas that mediate between the dominant society and the everyday experiences” (Theory and Resistance in Education, 1983, p. 161). Critical theory invites you to ask who your ancestors identified with and under what circumstances, how those identifications shaped beliefs and actions, and what class-based ideological principles undergirded those beliefs and identifications.

Clearly, class and the economic structure are not the only feature of people’s lives, nor the only structure of power. Race and gender relationships are intimately intertwined with class as well as with each other. 

Critical race theory’s main goal is to expose hidden systemic and customary ways in which racism works. Critical race theory emerged during the 1980s as a group of legal scholars of color in the U.S. began to critique the role of the law in maintaining unequal race relations, silence about race in critical legal studies, and the intransigence of racism following the Civil Rights movement. I see critical race theory as offering critical family history at least three analytical tools.

First, since race and racism are endemic to U.S. society (and others as well), and inextricably layered with other forms of oppression, the question is not whether race was at play historically, but rather how it was at play. No one’s family has been outside race relations and racial power systems. Critical race theory demands that, rather than ignoring race, we pay attention to how our families – whether white or of color — have been located within the racial structure, how that location shaped possibilities open to them, and what kind of relationships their own racial communities had with others.

Second, critical race theory examines how, through the commodification of land and people for profit, whites established the basis for whiteness as property, thereby cementing material advantages with race. According to Cheryl I. Harris, in her 1993 Harvard Law Review article, both slavery and seizure of Indian land “established and protected an interest in whiteness itself, which shares the critical characteristics of property” (p. 1724). Whiteness guaranteed legal entitlement to freedom, gradually taking the form of an object protecting one’s personhood, giving whites a vested interest in maintaining it. How did white peoples’ seizure of Indigenous people’s land, enslavement of Africans, and laws deriving from those racial relationships impact on the material conditions of one’s own family? This is a question I trace in my own family in Racism, Inheritance, and Family Financial Aid.

Third, critical race theory gives centrality to experiential knowledge, particularly in relationship to people who have been oppressed by racism – those who are or have been victimized by it everyday, but whose perspective is silenced by the dominant ideology that denies the existence of racism. Family stories — shared in a variety of forms that include stories handed down through generations, interviews, testimonios, biographies, and community documents – these stories are important sources of knowledge. Family stories by people of color usually direct name race and racism, creating counter-stories to the dominant ideology. The entries by guest editor Sherick Hughes provide insightful examples.

In the case of white families, attending to family stories means listening for silences, as race and racism may be “washed out” of stories the same way they are in the dominant ideology. Critical whiteness studies, a subset of critical race theory, focuses on invisibility of racial power to whites, social privileges associated with whiteness, and interpretations of race and ethnicity through which people of European descent minimize the significance of race. I understand whiteness as comprising 1) a set of social relations in which people are categorized hierarchically by race, and those who are accepted as white collectively hold power and control over material resources; 2) an ideology that renders white power and white people’s participation in an oppressive system as invisible to them; and 3) an identity when people of European descent accept these relationships, this ideology, and ways of life lived within this system of relations as “normal.” When listening for silences in white stories, these understandings guide my listening.

Critical feminist theories examine the institutionalization of patriarchy, internalization of gender identity, and how women have resisted oppression based on gender. Although there are different types of feminisms, the range of feminist theories draw attention to the position of women within families, communities, and the economy, and to strategies women used historically to both navigate and challenge a subordinate position. Critical feminist theory offers at least two analytical tools.

First, it challenges us to consider how families embody hierarchical structures based on gender, and how patriarchy is taught and learned within the family. When considering one’s own family generations back, without diaries and other forms of storytelling, it may be impossible to know how gender relations were acted out and “normalized” in everyday life, but one can theorize based on the roles of family members documented in the census, laws in existence at the time governing marriage and the rights (or lack thereof) of single and married women, and historical accounts of gender relationships. What kinds of roles and relationships became “taken for granted” and passed down through family relationships? Since women´s lives tend to show up in family history research materials less than men´s lives do, asking the question of what the women were doing is an important place to start digging.

Second, critical feminist theory directs our attention toward actions women took to challenge patriarchy, which in many cases were organized actions outside the home. For example, if a given ancestor was a member of a local organization of women, to what extent was the work of that organization directed toward gender-related issues? In sum, critical family history applies insights from various critical theoretical traditions to an analysis of how one’s family has been constructed historically within and through relations of power.

This all gets complicated because one cannot simply add up critical theory, critical race theory, and critical feminist theory as separate lenses. For example, feminist work at times embodied racism and class privilege, an example of which I found in an analysis of how a great-great grandmother became white, then later in her life joined an organization to advance the interests of white young women.

It also gets complicated because you are probably starting with a specific history of a specific family, rather than a broad look at the social structure. As you map out your individual family, start asking questions about the context of their lives. As you look into how they were situated within a class system, a racial structure, and a gender structure, then ask how that knowledge might enable you to understand yourself, and how it might help you see how unjust relationships formed and can be transformed, then you are doing critical family history.

The rest of the entries in this blog offers tools, frameworks, and examples for doing the work of the critical family historian. Any contributions you wish to make to this work would be very welcome!

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