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Critical Family History Theory

What is the theoretical basis for critical family history, and what can it reveal when used to interpret specific family histories? After listing themes that emerged from an analysis of my own family history, I discuss how critical family history draws on the various critical theoretical traditions.

Insights into US history from a critical analysis of my own family history:
  • Many of our ancestors were given privileges by elite powers as of a politics of "divide and conquer."
  • Many European immigrants and their descendants built wealth on a playing field the U.S. government established for whites only.
  • Some European immigrant groups, especially but not exclusively the Germans, built and maintained bilingual and bicultural communities.
  • European immigrants learned to become white and take on white privileges.
  • White people have some history of activism against racism, even if this isn’t our dominant history.
  • Racial categories were socially constructed; there is no such thing as racial purity; laws and behavior based on the assumption that there is have presented huge problems for people including people primarily of European descent.
  • Women have used creative strategies to navigate sexism and patriarchy.
  • White women often work to keep racial privileges even while challenging sexism.
  • In the process of becoming middle class, families have hidden parts of their own stories, and the nation itself has lost funds of knowledge that isn’t deemed “scientific” or “modern.”
Family History and Historical Memory

Family history research is becoming increasingly popular with the burgeoning availability of historical and genealogical research tools on-line. Family history and genealogical research has been practiced in the U.S. for a long time, although as Jacobson (2006) observed, “Heritage is best understood not as memory, but as a model of cultural production in the present” (p. 56). Gardner (2003) describes three waves of family history that constitute different models of cultural production. The first wave, characteristic of much such research during the 19th and early 20th century, had the purpose of establishing elite pedigrees. Members of the social elite would trace their genealogy to an idealized heroic immigrant (“always male, always white, and almost always English” (p. 149), typically characterizing him and his descendants in a very positive light, largely for the purpose of establishing the legitimacy of one’s own societal position (see also DuLong, 1986).

The second wave, inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots, has the purpose of exploring family heritage (see also Lambert, 2006). Heritage studies, while also commonly tracing descendants of a heroic progenitor, foreground “ordinary” people. These family histories tend to characterize ancestors more complexly than the first wave since their purpose is not to cement an elite social standing. Further, rather than serving private interests only, they are often used to prompt a public examination history. Heritage studies by people of color make visible how racism played out in the family’s story, inviting public discussion of racism in the larger society. However, Jacobson (2006) argues that the post-civil rights European ethnic revival movement that began with white people searching for diverse ethnic roots ended up as a homogenizing narrative of heroic and downtrodden European immigrants who triumphed through hard work. That narrative dismisses racialized privilege, as well as drowning out the civil rights narrative that challenged racism. As Jacobson put it, “Ellis Island remembrance. . . has perhaps entailed an even more portentous forgetting of the gradual and violent history of this settler democracy in the making long before the first immigrants” (p. 9).

The third wave of genealogical research that Gardner (2003) discusses builds on the second wave, consisting of family histories published over the last fifteen years with the intended purpose of prompting public discussion about race relationships and additional social issues, linking private stories with larger public issues past and present. Critical family history is a term I am using to examine this third model of cultural production.

Commonly, people of European descent approach family history much like pedigree research in that the main objective is to produce a personalized, private story of the family. To the extent that the family’s story is interpreted, it usually omits reference to demographic characteristics such as race or ethnicity, and adopts a dominant societal narrative (Rosenzweig & Thelen 1998). For example, Waters (1990) found that many middle and upper-class European Americans have engaged in family genealogy projects (especially in elementary school) in which they generally traced individual family members, using a mythologized European immigrant story as a backdrop against which to interpret them. Parham (2008), on the basis of observations of two groups – one primarily of African descent and the other primarily white – who were researching their Haitian/Dominican immigrant family history in New Orleans, noted a distinct difference between how each group navigated their family’s position in slavery and racial oppression. The genealogists of European descent used the past only as a background context in which to locate their ancestors; they focused mainly on identifying and tracing individual, personalized ancestors. For those of African descent, the historic context was much more prominent: they linked their own family’s story with a larger narrative of racial oppression and progress, weaving details of their own ancestors into a larger story that raised critical questions about the nature of the social order, past as well as present.

Commonly, when asked to describe themselves in ethnic or cultural terms, Americans of European descent draw a blank and have difficulty applying the concepts of race, ethnicity and culture. For example, Frankenberg (1993) found American women of European descent to be aware of but uncomfortable discussing racial inequality, lacking knowledge with which to examine it. Drawing on the language of culture, they could describe “others” as cultural, but their own identity remained “amorphous and indescribable” (p. 196). Gallagher (1997) found that ethnicity no longer has much meaning to young white Americans. Describing themselves as “plain old American,” “mutt,” or “nothing,” many young whites turn to race as a source of identity in opposition to Black identity (see also Perry, 2002; Wellman, 1993). But it is an identity framed around who one is not, who one has oppressed, which, if left unaddressed, breeds anger and backlash. As Roediger (1994) pointed out, if whiteness denotes an absence of culture, then European Americans face the “terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back” (p. 13).

As a white teacher educator, for years I worked to help teachers (both preservice and inservice, and mainly white) to understand themselves as culturally and historically located beings, and to understand and work to change institutional discrimination. But when I used family history and cultural autobiography as a learning tool, many white preservice teachers decontextualized their family stories, adopting the “heroic individual” narrative, noted above, that is also common in textbooks (Loewen 2005), producing uncritical celebrations and “me-too-isms” (Aveling 2001). I found myself often struggling against white preservice teachers’ acceptance of dominant public narratives, and their tendency either to locate their own families unproblematically within those narratives, or to individualize their own families and their experiences, seeing them as unrelated to past as well as present social relationships. Parham (2008) suggests that members of groups with social power, who commonly have access to outlets for public knowledge production, tend to produce private family narratives that end up reproducing inequity when they are used to constitute a larger public memory. Alba (1990) agrees, writing that the national mythology that is continually re-created defends “the individualistic view of the American system because it portrays the system as open to those who are willing to work hard and pull themselves over barriers of poverty and discrimination” (p. 317).

Can family history help members of the dominant society, especially whites, to gain a deeper insight into the history as well as contemporary workings of power and privilege? Can an understanding of how one’s inherited privileges were constructed over time generate a willingness to work against those privileges as they exist today? Can a critical examination of one white family's history prompt public reflection?

Critical Family History Theory

The idea that one’s current social standing results largely or solely from individual effort, or the efforts of one’s parents and grandparents – an idea that white people usually take for granted – ignores a good deal of historical reality. But this idea provides a very common basis for explaining social stratification, attributing the location of individuals and groups in society to their efforts, their culture, or their capacity. The widely-used lens of individualism obscures shared cultural patterns, and collective power and privilege. The general lack of historical consciousness that is very common in the U.S. not only obscures how social relationships were constructed, but also what those constructions cost, including what they cost those of us who are white and relatively well-off.

I wanted to construct a conceptual framework for doing and understanding family history that would raise consciousness about these issues. In part, such a framework would encourage those who identify as white to face history, and to link it with our present circumstances. I also sought a framework that would unearth legacies that we have lost, and that would help white people see ourselves as intimately connected with the broad spectrum of humanity, including those we often think of as “different” or “other.” To do so, I drew from various critical theoretical orientations, melded with radical humanism that supports our common human spirit, our connectedness, and our ability to learn to collaborate in solidarity rather than continuing to tacitly accept injustices.

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. In a review of critical theory, Bohman (2008) explained that, “a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human emancipation;” to be useful, a critical theory identifies specific unjust social relationships, the roots of those relationships, and how they can be changed. Since multiple critical theories have “emerged in connection with the many social movements that identify varied dimensions of the domination of human beings in modern societies,” I drew on insights from critical theory of the Frankfurt school, critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and radical humanist feminism.

Critical Theory

To distinguish between the broad array of critical theories, and the particular theoretical perspective discussed here, Bohman (2008) capitalizes the latter and leaves the former in lower case. I will do the same here. The distinction is important, since Critical Theory brings an analytical perspective that becomes lost when the focus shifts to other critical perspectives. Critical Theory as developed by the German Frankfurt School of 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. Critical Theorists tend to be either structuralists or culturalists. The structuralist paradigm analyzes how oppressive political and economic structures are reproduced through the workings of the capitalist economic structure. The culturalist paradigm emphasizes human agency, focusing on the lived experiences of people, how consciousness is formed within class struggles, and how resistance to oppression arises organically. Without taking a position as to which paradigm is most powerful, I see Critical Theory as offering 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 amassing profit by reducing expenditures for resources and labor, and by cultivating markets. The capitalist class exists to amass wealth, using its wealth to buy labor and resources as cheaply as possible, as well as converting its wealth into other forms of power in order to structure other institutions, as much as possible, to serve the capitalist system. Historically, as Takaki (1979) pointed out, “separation from England and the destruction of the crown gave Americans market freedom” to pursue private property with less social restraint than was possible within Europe (p. 4). For family history, Critical Theory invites one to locate one’s family within the class structure, asking how family segments came to be located where they were, analyzing their participation within the capitalist economy, and examining their vested interests in it. Rather than capitalism being a backdrop, it becomes foregrounded as a structural arrangement in which one’s family not only participated, but which gave rise to family wealth or lack thereof.

Second, by situating subjectivity within class relationships, Critical Theory links identity, localized beliefs about the social order, and class position. Weis (2004) points out that “we all live across the public and private spheres” (p. 184). Family stories and belief systems, while very personal and private, also reflect public ideologies within shifting class formations. Ideology refers to "the formation of the consciousness of the individuals" in a society, particularly their consciousness about how the society works (Apple, 1979, p. 2). As a tool of analysis, ideology "helps to locate the structuring principles and ideas that mediate between the dominant society and the everyday experiences" (Giroux, 1983, p. 161). Critical Theory invites one to ask who one’s 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, or the only axis of power through which the U.S. was constructed. The invention and use of race in the context of expansion of American capitalism, for example, established a pyramidal social structure governed by an ideology of mobility, but also a metric of race that positioned groups very unequally. From the beginning of U.S. history, English capitalist immigrants were encouraged to “appropriate Indian land and Black labor” in order to make a profit through manufacturing or agriculture (Takaki, 1979, p. 11). As Weis (2004) points out, we understand little “unless we engage issues of gender, sexuality, and whiteness across public and private sectors, as well as massive shifts in the global economic and cultural context within which this all works" (p. 184). While critical family history works with an analysis of racism and patriarchy, I resist sliding from the broader array of critical theories away from Critical Theory, since doing so leads to ignoring the workings of the capitalist economy, the positioning of people within that structure, and the sense-making in which people engage that tends to accept the capitalist economic structure as fair, or at least inevitable.

Critical race theory

Critical Race Theory (CRT) serves as a counter to discussions of race that focus on diversity without specifically examining race and power. Its main goal is to expose hidden systemic and customary ways in which racism works, by drawing from a wide variety of sources of knowledge that range from statistics to social science research to personal experience. White critical race theory (WhiteCrit) examines race, racism, and racial identity as it is enacted by Whites, naming and exposing the workings of White privilege; my work on critical white family history falls within the scope of WhiteCrit theory.

CRT grew out of Critical Legal Studies, a field that critiques how law in capitalist societies is used to maintain unjust power relations, while masking injustices. In the 1980s, a small group of legal scholars, including Derrick Bell (1987), Lani Guinier, Richard Delgado (1995), Kimberle Crenshaw, and Alan Freeman, began to ask why the promise of the Civil Rights movement had stalled, why Critical Legal Studies had so little to say about race as a fundamental form of oppression, and how law is used to subvert racial justice despite legal remedies to address it and despite a national rhetoric of racial progress. In the 1990s, CRT was taken up by scholars in other fields such as education (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995). Critical race theorists posit the following central tenets (see Dixson & Rousseau, 2006; Solórzano & Delgado Bernal, 2001; Taylor, Gillborn & Ladson-Billings, 2009:
  • Centrality of racism. Critical race theory assumes that racism is not an aberration, but rather a fundamental, endemic and normalized way of organizing society. Beginning with the appropriation of indigenous lands and building of an economy on a system of slavery, White people created race and racism for their own benefit. Although racism is linked with and contributes to other forms of oppression (such gender, class, or immigration status), critical race theorists center race when analyzing linked forms of oppression. The forms that racism takes today have shifted from those of the past, but racism continues to be evident in the disproportionate access that Whites have to resources such as jobs, wealth, housing, and education, and in the dominant Eurocentric worldview that is used to explain inequalities. White people, generally believing that racism is a thing of the past, tend not to notice racial disparities, and when they do, attribute them to something other than the workings of racism. People of color, based on everyday experience, have a much clearer picture of how racism works, although may be taught to distrust their understandings by Whites. By assuming that racism is endemic to society rather than an aberration, CRT asks how it structured, and why it persists even when it has purportedly been ameliorated.
  • Challenges to claims of neutrality, colorblindness, and meritocracy. The law is commonly understood as impartial and neutral, applied to all individuals equally without regard to race or other demographic identities. The dominant ideology attributes individual disparities in success and well-being to talent and effort, and racial disparities to those factors plus lingering effects of historic racism. Critical race theory challenges the idea that laws and institutions are racially neutral, holding that claims of neutrality and colorblindness mask White privileges and power. Cheryl Harris’s (1993) theory of whiteness as property elaborates on this tenet, and is particularly useful to critical family history. According to Harris, both slavery and seizure of Indian land “established and protected an interest in whiteness itself, which shares the critical characteristics of property” (p. 1724). Indian land was sold cheaply to European immigrants or White Americans; slaves could not own land, and the states restricted rights of free Blacks to own property or work in certain jobs. Slavery was replaced by legal segregation and racialized restrictions until 1954. Whiteness guaranteed legal entitlement to property and to freedoms that non-Whites did not have. Over time, Whites accumulated property through this overtly racist and legalized system. Thus, whiteness became linked with property, and took on legal protections of property rights that include a) rights of disposition; b) right to use and enjoyment; c) reputation and status; and d) the absolute right to exclude. On paper, laws may apply equally to everyone, but in practice, Whites use property, power, and customary ways of behaving (such as treating other Whites as competent while questioning the competence of non-Whites) that have the effect of maintaining racism. Although over the last fifty years formal renderings of race have changed in law, whiteness has not become decoupled from property; its institutionalization has remained intact.
  • Whites as beneficiaries of racial remedies. Derrick Bell advanced the notion of “interest convergence,” which holds that Whites act on their own self-interest, and advance interests of people of color only as long as they converge with White interests. He based this notion on an analysis of who actually benefited from policies such as school desegregation and affirmative action, finding that even though the policies purported to benefit people of color, Whites used them to benefit White interests. An implication for critical family history is unpacking how and why White ancestors allied themselves with racist policies and practices.
  • Centrality of experiential knowledge. The dominant ideology and knowledge system, based on a White worldview (often referred to as “majoritarian stories”), denies or masks racism. CRT assumes that the people who understand racism best are not its perpetrators, but rather those who are routinely victimized by it. Experiential knowledge that directly names race and racism can be shared in a variety of forms, including stories, interviews, family histories, testimonios, biographies, and community documents. By sharing personal and community experiences with racism, people of color create counter-stories to the dominant ideology. Counter-stories explicitly rooted experiences of oppressed peoples interpret those experiences in relationship to racism. For a White researcher analyzing White family history, this means paying attention to knowledge of people of color as their lives intersected with those of White ancestors in order to gain a different perspective and interpretation of events.
  • Commitment to working for social justice. Ultimately, CRT is committed to working for social justice. While some theorists see racism as intractable, most hope that deep analyses of it, coupled with the development of rich counter-stories about how people have worked against racism, will ultimately result in its elimination.
Feminist theory

Feminist theory examines the institutionalization of patriarchy, internalization of gender identity, and how women have resisted oppression based on gender. Although there are different types of feminisms, with significant debates between structuralist and poststructuralist feminists (Thomas & Davies, 2005), 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.


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