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Integrating and Living with Two Heritages

I am a person with mixed heritage, and I have done a lot of work on this. It would not be possible for me to re-emerge without working fully on both heritages and on their interrelationship and how that has affected me.

My father's family were Jewish Polish immigrants to the U.S. My father was raised on the lower East Side of New York City. My mother was raised in rural Mississippi as a strict Methodist. Both were raised poor. The two heritages I have worked on most extensively are being Jewish and being Southern. This is different from having both parents be Jewish and raised in the South.

It seems to me that quite often people from mixed-heritage backgrounds do not identify with either group because the message to us at a young age was that if we identified with one parent rather than the other, we were a traitor. We were abandoning one parent. So we learned not to identify or take pride in either group. We can end up feeling like we do not belong anywhere and that there is no place for us. We often become quiet and invisible and feel very confused. I am always surprised at workshops to find out how many people are of mixed heritage. It is often not something we prioritize to work on.

For many years, for me to go to a Jewish support group or workshop felt impossible. I waited for the moment when someone would say, "You aren't really Jewish." I have heard this phrase many times before because of the Jewish internalized oppression that says you are not Jewish unless your mother is Jewish. I have heard it when I least expected it from counselors whom I least expected it from. After lots of discharge I was able to stand up for myself and require that they never say it again. After doing this in Co-Counseling, I was then able to do it much more easily in the wide world.

Going to Southern support groups also felt scary. It is hard to be a visible, proud, white Southerner in any situation. Southern oppression has appeared as if it had some basis in reality. When other oppressions have been challenged, Southern oppression often has not been. I think because it has looked to many people as if it was not really an oppression but what was inherently true about Southerners. This is being vigorously challenged now, and we have a lot more clarity around it.

Another hurt for me was watching the oppression and internalized oppression in my family and having people dramatize their "isms" at me. It was hard to watch my mother's anti-Semitism and my father's anti-Southern attitudes.

My mother would make comments about my Jewish relatives. My father, out of his internalized Jewish oppression, would join in and agree. My father would make fun of my mother by joking around and talking in a Southern accent. She would laugh along with him. The message was that it was not okay to be either one.

In addition to this constant putting down of each other, my mother dramatized her anti-Semitism at me. (She couldn't dramatize it much with my father because she would risk losing him.) Having this kind of anti-Semitism run at me so early on from the one I loved the most and was most dependent on was devastating. My father dramatized his internalized Jewish oppression by visibly adoring my younger sister who was blond and blue-eyed like my mother (I am dark and look like my father's side of the family). He clearly preferred her over me.

I was told I wasn't Jewish, so I had no context for the anti-Semitism that was coming my way. I just thought I was inherently bad. This is how internalized Jewish oppression works anyway, but there was a special twist when I had no identity to work from. That is one reason why it has been so critical to fully claim my heritage.

Working on being mixed-heritage has meant going to Jewish and Southern support groups, leading mixed-heritage support groups, and fully claiming both heritages. I have had to rage at the oppressions, I have done role exchange with both heritages, and I have become very visible about both of my heritages and being mixed-heritage. I have had to train my counselors to appreciate Southerners. All of this has been very re-emergent for me. In addition, instead of not being able to understand how my parents could possibly have gotten married, I now appreciate them for their deep love for each other, which was strong enough to overcome the difficulties they faced from their families and society.

I encourage all mixed-heritage people to join support groups and work on all of their heritages.


(Present Time No. 110, January 1998)

Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00