Ethnic Heritage, Rejection, and Me


A few months back, Julia Rios and I recorded a whole bunch of interviews at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA).  One of those interviews involved a discussion about ethnic heritage and its various diversities with Mary Anne Mohanraj and Cecilia Tan, in which I lightly (and rightly) got called out for referring to my own heritage as “uninteresting” by dint of having descended from “old dead white people.”  Having just edited the episode which contains this interview, I feel I should talk about this aspect in more depth, since I didn’t actually explore my heritage in the podcast in question (me being the interviewer, not the interviewee).

I’ve been known to say two things about my ethnic heritage:

  1. It’s not important (see above)
  2. I’m descended from Saxon Thanes (which I usually utter in an absurd, sarcastically prideful fashion)
Neither of these responses is actually fair to my history.  So I should probably say something about where I come from.  First, both of my biological parents were adopted.  I know very little about my father’s side of the family, except that there is likely some Native American heritage there; I know considerably more about my mother’s side, in part because she became obsessed with figuring out our family tree many years ago and has pages and pages of information.  On my mother’s side, I’m supposedly descended from Saxon Thanes.  No joke.  She traced our lineage back to the 900s.  That’s pretty cool.  Most of my mother’s side is French or Anglo-Saxon (or mixtures therein).  There may be other European groups in there, but I haven’t dug deep enough into it.  Supposedly, my family owned a huge portion of what is now Yorkshire; the Norman conquest of 1066 apparently put an end to that, but I’m not exactly sure how or why.
My heritage doesn’t stop there, though.  In a weird way, being the son of two adopted parents means I have a connection to a lot of different pots.  For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had a right to these pots, since I’m not biologically connected.  I’m not sure that’s fair to my heritage or to myself, as heritage is also cultural.  My mother’s adoptive parents (i.e., my grandparents) are an interesting bunch:  my grandfather was a would-be rancher / thoroughbred Yankee in the Western U.S.; my grandmother is a white South African.  My father’s adoptive parents are equally interesting:  on that side, my grandfather is, as far as I know, a white American (heritage unknown), but my grandmother was a Native American (I don’t know which group or the percentage, but I seem to recall she was very much rooted in her Native American heritage and was herself more NA than anything else).  I still have the leather wallet she gave me when I was a kid (no idea where she got it).  All of this is part of my family’s history and is actually far more interesting than “descended from old dead white people.”  The more I think about this, the more I actually want to know where I come from, biologically and otherwise.  There must be some interesting characters in my family’s past.
I bring all of this up because I have started to wonder why I reject my heritage in such a flippant manner.  Why would I deem my history as less worthy than others’?  Why would I make fun of it when it, in some ways, defines who I am?

I can’t put my finger on the reasons.    The truth is that I probably discount this heritage because of my own insecurities, which seem derived from my past and not from anything happening now.  And that’s got to stop.  My history matters.  My family’s history matters.


About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “Ethnic Heritage, Rejection, and Me

  1. Sounds like a mixture of the fact that your heritage is complicated to explain, or even just list, not to mention the why and the how your heritage is as complicated as it is – you see so many proudly, succinctly sum up theirs and that might give you pause – and then also the fact that you DON'T seem (yet) to take that much pride in it all, but which I guess I mean it sounds like you don't think much about it daily in the way that many who do take that kind of pride in their heritage do. So maybe you treat it the way you do because you sense you can't take pride in it in the same easily demonstrative way that others do. That's what I'm getting from the post, anyway. 🙂

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