What Does It Mean to Be White?

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How some European Americans are using “ancestral recovery” to discover who they are, heal racial harms, and build a new culture of solidarity and accountability.  

by Kimi Eisele

(Photo above: Catherine Nash’s ancestors in Baltimore, 1910. Her great great grandmother, Brigid Griffin, bottom row, far right, came to the Unites States from Ireland in the 1850s.)

Growing up, Julie Ragland, a Tucson artist and facilitator, was always interested in cultures different from her own. She got involved with the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira when she was eighteen and then signed up for pre-Columbian art history classes at the community college. She became a cultural anthropology major in college and for years, practiced belly dancing.

She married a first generation Mexican American, and now their home is decorated with elements of his culture. “There are a lot of skulls around, and we’ve built little altar-ofrendas here and there,” she says.

None of these practices or traditions come specifically from Ragland’s own bloodline, which, when she did a 23andMe DNA test, “came up very completely European”—mostly Welsh, with some Irish, Scottish, and Eastern European.

Ragland has heard two stories of how her paternal ancestors came to the United States from Wales in the 1700s—neither one necessarily a point of family pride. The Raglands were a wealthy couple who came to buy land and owned slaves in Virginia. Or Ragland was brought to America as an indentured servant who worked off his servitude then became a landowner and slave owner. “I think it’s more likely that the first one is true,” she says, “but you can only rely on what you can find online or that you can corroborate through your family tree.”

Ragland didn’t learn any European cultural traditions from her parents or grandparents. “I just wasn’t exposed to any of that,” she says.

A woman with pale skin, blue eyes, strawberry blonde hair and a colorful shirt poses against a faux wall backdrop.
Julie Ragland grew up studying and participating in cultural traditions unrelated to her bloodline. She’s says she’s embraced ancestral recovery as a way to heal herself and her community.

“My culture is no culture” she wrote in a poem once.

Which is why, perhaps, she was drawn to study and experience other cultures instead. “Some of it might’ve been shame,” she admits.

“To feel like you want to celebrate your European ancestry comes with this sort of cloud over it. Knowing that the first thing my direct ancestors and my namesake did in this country was to steal land and enslave people? It might make you want to distance yourself a little bit from that,” she says.

She’s not alone.

While researching the family tree is nothing new, for white people of European descent in the United States, doing so can be a complicated process. Not solely because names might have been changed and historical records destroyed. But because many stories of “fleeing persecution” or “seeking economic opportunity” are interlaced with stories of slave ownership, violence against Indigenous peoples, as well as the loss of meaningful cultural practices and traditions from Europe.

Yet, more and more people seem to be looking into the past to discover their heritage. Their reasons vary, but what they find has commonalities: a newfound sense of belonging, a reconnection with forgotten cultural practices, and a complicated, personal process of deciding how much responsibility to take for the wrongs of the past.

What does it mean to be white?

When Mateo Pomilia, a Tucson resident of Jewish and Italian descent, began a master’s degree in linguistics with a focus on Indigenous languages at the University of Arizona, he found that his Indigenous instructors often foregrounded their family lineages when introducing themselves. “It became clear that to work in that space, people were interested in where I came from,” he says.

Pomilia traces his ancestry back on his mother’s side to the Pale of Settlement, a Jewish ghetto in what was then the Russian Empire. On his father’s side, he learned about Sicilian ancestors who migrated to New Orleans. “There’s a whole story of Sicilian mariners migrating to New Orleans in the second half of the nineteenth century. Apparently, they didn’t think it was that different than Sicily.”

Knowing where he comes from has helped Pomilia feel part of a larger, global narrative. “It’s not just about finding our identity, it’s about finding our people, a community authentically and inexorably our own,” he says.

A man with a beard and olive skin takes a selfie at a canyon.
Mateo Pomilia, a student of linguistics, says he has a complicated relationship with America but has found a deeper sense of belonging and identity after understanding the reasons his Jewish and Italian ancestors came here.

He has been able to deepen his sense of belonging in the United States by understanding the specific reasons his ancestors came here.

“In the case of the Jews, they were just trying to get somewhere where they could be free and express themselves and practice their religion,” he says. “And the Italians, to be somewhere where they had food on the table and some stability. Because Sicily in the 1860s became this incredibly poverty-stricken place. So, they came here to survive.”

But even with this understanding and sense of belonging, Pomilia says his relationship to America remains “complex.” 

“America stands for a lot of things, and freedom is one of them—that’s a beautiful aspect of our society. It also stands for empire and capitalism and genocide and environmental destruction and degradation, and I’m not as down with those things.”

These complexities have motivated Pomilia to look honestly at how his ancestral trajectory differs from that of Native Americans, Black Americans, and others.

While his ancestry has given him physical features some might describe as “ethnic,” and because he is a fluent Spanish speaker, people sometimes assume he is Latino. But Pomilia identifies as white.

“In this country, I have a common experience with white people. I’m not trying to downplay that,” he says. “But also, what does it mean to be white?”

The first “whites” in America

One historical starting point for answering that question might be in the wake of Bacon’s Rebellion, a 1676 armed battled in the colony of Virginia, during which white and Black indentured servants and enslaved Blacks fought together against the ruling class.

It began with a dispute between Nathaniel Bacon, a white property owner, and Virginia governor William Berkeley over the colony’s policy toward Native Americans, whom Bacon wanted to drive out. Bacon organized workers (Black and white, enslaved and indentured) to attack local tribes in exchange for their freedom.

The armed rebellion changed little about the policy: Many Indigenous people were killed in the fighting, Bacon burned Jamestown to the ground, and the governor remained in power. But it signaled to wealthy landowners the power of coalitions between poor whites and poor Blacks. Soon afterwards, the ruling class shifted laws and practices, bringing in more Black slaves and permanently enslaving them, while offering expanded rights and status to white indentured servants.

To distinguish and divide these workers, the label “white” began to appear in printed laws and policies. Among them were anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited people of African descent from marrying “whites”—codes that remained on the books until 1967.

Nolan Cabrera, a professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona and a nationally recognized expert in Whiteness and ethnic studies, calls Bacon’s Rebellion a watershed moment in the history of race relations in the United States.

Becoming white, so to speak, meant complying with two agreements, Cabrera says. “Number one was giving up your native [European] culture. The second part was believing yourself to be superior to non-white people, which at the time meant Black and Indigenous people.”

A man wearing a Cuban hat and guayabera, has light brown skin and a goatee.
Nolan Cabrera, an associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona and a scholar of ethnic studies, says the project of ancestral recovery for European Americans can’t happen in a vacuum and need to acknowledge the privilege that “being white” carries.

Doing this gave European settlers access to wealth and status they hadn’t known before, essentially elevating them above their Black neighbors and co-workers, who had just been stripped of more rights and opportunities.

“It was a Faustian bargain,” Cabrera says. “Give up your native culture and invest in racial superiority and things are gonna be great for you. But what’s the price of admission?”

One price of admission was great cultural loss. “This is one of the reasons why it’s so difficult for white folks in general to root themselves culturally and historically because their ancestors made that bargain,” Cabrera says. “They just don’t know where they came from.”

By trading the inferiority that came with being poor and buying into a belief that light-skinned people are superior, early European servants and settlers then perpetuated racist ideologies that have continued into the present.

Cabrera sees European American ancestral recovery work as an important project, but also a potentially problematic one. He cites long-practiced activities sometimes defined as “cultural traditions” that can lack basic understandings of harm.

“Even something as simple as a Columbus Day parade in New York City is in some ways a reclamation of the of the history that you’ve lost,” he says. “People can end up saying, ‘Oh, I’m not really white, I’m Italian. When you’re talking about white privilege, that really doesn’t apply to me.’ And it’s like, yes it does.”

Before we were white

Facing these tensions head on is what motivated Eleanor Hancock, an activist, educator and artist, to form White Awake, an online organization offering courses to help “people who’ve been socially categorized as ‘white’ in the creation of a just and sustainable society.” Its tagline is “Waking ourselves for the benefit of all.”

White Awake’s offerings include courses such as “Roots Deeper than Whiteness,” and “Confronting Capitalism” (formerly “Unbreakable Solidarity”) and are held primarily for “white folks and/or people with European ancestry,” which, according to their web site is “a well-established practice in the field of anti-racism education.”

Hancock, who lives in Washington, D.C., says one of the organization’s main motivations is to help white people dis-invest themselves from the ruling class interests that created early racial divisions by establishing “white identity” in the early colonies—that “Faustian bargain” Cabrera mentions.

Like Cabrera, Hancock believes the fact that many European Americans in the United States don’t know where they come from presents a potentially dangerous cultural void. “You’re just white, and you might feel like you’re lacking something because of that. I think white nationalism is able to exploit that lack of a sense of belonging,” she says.

One of the aims of White Awake’s six-session course called “Before We Were White,” Hancock says, is to support white people in “having a deeper access to ritual without appropriating somebody else’s spirituality.”

A white man in blue squats among the desert.
David Walker gathers buffelgrass from Tumamoc Hill in Tucson to use in adobe brick-making. He says learning about his English and Irish ancestors and their connection to the land has helped validate his work to help people in the Tucson build homes using sustainable materials. Photo by Shannon Scott

It’s not about white people trying to absolve themselves of their ancestor’s mistakes or missteps, she says. “It’s white people really deeply trying to untangle an identity that’s built up around being a settler. Who were we before white supremacy as an ideology was created? At what point did our people have a deep relationship to a place?”

David Walker, a Tucson-based sustainable builder, was one of 150 people who participated in “Before We Were White” this spring. From reading materials and presentations, he says he realized his ancestors from England and Ireland, like many, were commoners with a strong relationship to the land.

On his father’s side, the Walkers arrived in upstate New York in the 1830s from England. “Past generations had relied on the earth and had a relationship with it,” Walker says. “But the church, over the years, dis-empowered this relationship. Think witches and the church hierarchy. So they said, ‘We just better say Our Father instead of our own prayers.’” 

This led Walker to reflect on his own upbringing, going to Catholic church weekly, where the priest never seemed to be speaking to Walker’s personal reality. “Sometime in the past my ancestors in Europe communicated and connected with nature using observation and lived experience. The form of religion I grew up with that was disconnected from that,” he says.

Walker’s maternal ancestors arrived in Eastern Nebraska in the late 1870s at a time when Native Americans were getting pushed off the land and buffalo were being slaughtered. “Did my relatives take part in that? What mentality allowed them to do that? There was so much injustice there. A false narrative that separated people from the land enabled that.”

He sees that false narrative continuing today, especially with housing. “We used to be able to build our own homes. Now we have this $1000-a-month mortgage to come up with and that keeps so many people in precarious situations.”

When he talks with houseless folks living along Tucson’s Santa Cruz River, he says their main frustration is being pushed out all the time. “They just want to be somewhere, living in peace. We used to come together as people and build a place a to rest, a place to be,” he says.

Walker, who makes adobe bricks using local earth, clay, and plant materials, is now working with youth and adults to share that skill as part of Tucson’s Ward 1 Participatory Budgeting or Budget de la Gente process. He says having the time to reflect on his history helped validate this work and now motivates him to keep finding ways to connect people and place.

“People everywhere had a vernacular architecture and a way feeding themselves and taking care of themselves,” he says. “I did feel this connection. My people, and yours, have been doing this forever.”

Reconnecting with folk traditions

Previous students in White Awake’s courses report similar ways of reconnecting with their ancestral practices, Hancock says. Creating rituals and making things by hand that one’s ancestors made tend to be popular ways to rekindle a sense of belonging and purpose.

Folk traditions have long been forms of resistance, Hancock says. “They’re the ways that older, traditional animist forms of living survived various imperial projects. It’s cultural survival in the face of material forces.”

But because European folk traditions can be far removed from white people’s present-day experience, they are not always recognized as a valid way to resist dominant culture, she says.  

These practices can also create tensions. “It’s a quandary because you don’t want to appropriate somebody else’s tradition,” Hancock says. “You also don’t want to take your tradition and impose it in a different landscape or different place.”

A pale hand holds a flower wreath in a tranquil manner.
Eleanor Hancock who directs White Awake, an organization that offers courses and caucuses to help white people come together to create a more equitable society, says reconnecting with European folk traditions can be complicated for people given how far removed they can be from present-day experience. Photo by Victoria Strukovskaya (Unsplash)

For Hancock, finding ways to honor the turning of the seasons, which is something her Celtic ancestors did, helps her feel connected to where she lives now. “I can also have a relationship with native plants on this continent and make sure they thrive and grow in my area,” she says.

For Pomilia, living in the Sonoran Desert and connecting with both mountains and dry landscapes “feels very ancestral,” he says, given that his ancestors came from the Mediterranean.

His discovery of the early roots of Judaism as a shamanic tradition, with symbolism related to animals such as lion and eagle, has also been meaningful to him. “As someone who feels connected to land and has very much been influenced by Native American spirituality and religion, that’s felt really whole to me,” he says.

As a linguist, Pomilia says connecting to his ancestral languages is also important. He has recently shifted from saying his morning blessings and prayers in Spanish to saying them in Hebrew, and he wants to learn more about Jewish song and prayer tradition.

And on his father’s side, he is the only living member of his family who speaks Italian. “I took classes and I keep it up. I make grocery lists in Italian. I cook in Italian. If I’m not speaking to myself, I’m listening to food podcasts and Italian things,” he says. “It’s a silly thing, but I do it. And I think if my ancestors could hear me, they would be smiling.”

Healing loss in the motherland

Some people travel to Europe, back to their motherland, to search for what feels distant or lost.

Catherine Nash, a Tucson-based artist, joined a fellow artist for an “art trip” to Ireland. After arriving, Nash waited in the airport for her friend. “I have never felt so much like I blended in. I was like, oh my God, if I don’t open my mouth, no one’s going to know that I’m not Irish. It was an absolute sense of belonging,” she says.

During her visit, she and her friend signed up to sing in a pub during an annual folk music gathering. “The bar was just packed shoulder to shoulder and everyone’s guffawing and singing loudly. The Irish people were so excited that you had come back to Ireland, because they understood the tragedy of how many people were forced to leave during the famine in the 1850s. They were all cheering.”

Nash, who used to play banjo and guitar and still sings often, says that moment in the pub made her feel at home. “Music is a bridge in the Irish culture, and it’s always been something vital to me.”

After Nash spent a week plein air painting in a borrowed cottage just west of Cork, she and her friend traveled north to County Clare to research Nash’s ancestors.

Before Nash’s mother died, together they looked at pictures of distant family members, and Nash learned about her great great grandmother, Brigid Griffin.

“I would have never known her name,” Nash says. “Now I wish I’d asked more. Did she have red hair like me? You think you’re going to have time to ask, and then it’s too late. You just never ask enough questions.”

Armed with one photo and the names of several great aunts, Nash spent twelve months researching her Irish heritage. She started a family tree on MyHeritage.com, and at first, followed a lot of dead ends. “It was extremely difficult to find exact traces of my mother’s side of the family—many birth records were destroyed by the British in Eire,” she says.

Eventually Nash found boat manifest records and looked up all the Brigid Griffins that came from County Clare. Eventually, she felt she had to be in Ireland to make headway.  With the help of a church in County Clare, she tracked one to Cloonlaheen West near Doo Lough, “this tiny little village of a pub with a few houses.”

“I just had to go knocking on doors, and finally I met this woman, Eileen Griffin, and she welcomed us in. We had tea and talked for three hours. She was so warm and welcoming,” Nash says. “[The Irish] want to have us understand that we’re still Irish, even if it’s been generations.”

Two women of Irish descent pose for a photo, hugging with a lot of green in the background.
Tucson artist Catherine Nash, left, traveled to Ireland to do research on her family. In one small village she knocked on doors and eventually met Eileen Griffin, right, who welcomed her for tea and conversation, leaving Nash with a greater sense of belonging.

Ethnic whites and the study of folklife

Discovering one is “still Irish” or “still” whichever European culture one comes from—while also being white—is often a significant component of ancestral recovery.

It is also a central component the study of folklife, which has long documented and celebrated the nuances within communities of “ethnic whites,” a term used for descendants of immigrants from Ireland Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and France, who came to the United States in the 1800s.

“The terms of white supremacy, as it plays out in subtle and invisible ways in our daily lives, demands that we also accept the erasure of European ethnic identities,” says Maribel Alvarez, who holds the Jim Griffith Chair in Public Folklore at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center.

At the same time, she says, “We have to be careful that celebrations of recovered identities don’t become romantic and nostalgic to the point that they blind us to critical analysis.”

Historically, the term “folk” was ascribed to European peasants, distinct from the aristocracy and the educated and merchant classes as well as from “barbarians” (what the early Greeks called Persians, Egyptians, Medes and Phoenicians) and “savages” (what European ruling classes called Black and Indigenous people). Later, anti-racist work within the field of folklife looked more critically at this legacy, shedding early definitions to become a broader repository of everyday life, one that included Black and Indigenous people and their cultural practices, Alvarez says.

Peasants in Europe had folk beliefs, folk medicine, and folk practices that they carried out for generations. By the nineteenth century, folklorists such as the Brothers Grimm, two German academics who saw these practices and the stories associated with them as a pure form of national culture and literature, began to collect these traditional folk stories and cultural practices.

In the United States, however, often these “pure forms” of folklife were diluted by the dominance of Anglo-Saxon norms, beliefs, and practices.  

“A lot of what would be called ‘American attitudes’ towards death and dying, say, or towards ‘the good life,’ or towards what is a good, decent person, is a reference to Anglo-Saxon values, which was really a hierarchy within the European context. It doesn’t reference Jewish or Polish or Scandinavian or Greek or Scottish or Welsh traditions,” Alvarez says.

For Hancock and many others, part of ancestral recovery is understanding how the characteristics of this dominant brand of “white culture”—which are baked into many systems of life in the United States, and beyond—have become powerful, normalized, and “supreme.”

Healing from white supremacy

While term “white supremacy” was once reserved for a range of white nationalist and neo-Nazi movements, it has come to be used colloquially, as in “white supremacy culture,” to underscore widespread dominant belief systems that uphold white middle and owning class values. (A seminal work on white supremacy culture is Dr. Tema Okun’s 1999 “White Supremacy Culture,” which identifies fifteen ways this culture infiltrates organizations.)

Ragland names a focus on sense of urgency and chronological time as one characteristic of white supremacy culture she’s working on undoing in her own life. Unlike Indigenous cosmologies that view times as circular, for example, “this chronos is very instrumentalized, very measured, very much at the root of capitalist systems and productive systems, meaning urgency, time is money,” she says. “It’s not based on human cycles or natural cycles.”

When she started to understand this, Ragland began to practice connecting with her slave owning ancestors by imagining their life circumstances in “a realm where everyone exists together.” This wasn’t a free pass for those ancestors, nor was it a way of punishing herself.

In psychology it might be called self-resourcing, she says. “Like going somewhere in your mind either to avoid pain or to feel it fully. I was sort of gifted these places where I can go and be in refuge and work with people and ancestors in a different plane.”

This practice became especially important to Ragland in 2019 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and learned she carries the BRCA2 genetic mutation, which increases risk of breast and ovarian cancer. She eventually had a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy and underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and other therapies.

On one level, her diagnosis gave her “this interest in my actual genetics that I hadn’t really had before,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is why my paternal aunt had breast cancer. This is why my paternal grandmother died of colon cancer. This is why her mother died of ovarian cancer.’”

On another level, it deepened her desire to undo whatever trauma she felt she may have been carrying in her body for generations.

Through her involvement in an anti-racism book and discussion group of both white people and people of color, Ragland was especially moved by Resmaa Menakem’s book My Grandmother’s Hands, about healing racialized trauma through embodied practices.

“It’s about how we show up in spaces of a potential conflict with a regulated or unregulated nervous system from personal, familial, or ancestral trauma,” Ragland says.

Menakem’s work, called “somatic abolitionism,” recognizes that trauma and pain can be stored in our bodies, no matter where we come from. Black bodies brought to America experienced unthinkable trauma through the Middle Passage and enslavement and have continued to endure trauma through centuries of racism. Europeans brought here as indentured servants or fleeing religious or cultural persecution, arriving with little to no resources, also carried lived experiences of trauma in their bodies from that journey or from earlier violence.  

White people wearing face masks and all black hold signs that read, "Black Lives Matter" and "Silence is Compliance" in a protest.
Ragland says her study of Resmaa Menakam’s work on “somatic abolitionism” taught her her that “white people need to come together and build a positive and anti-racist culture themselves.” Photo by Simone Fischer (Unsplash).

“When [Europeans] came over, they had that ancestral trauma with them and just continued to perpetuate it,” Ragland says. “That’s what we do until we can become self-reflective and conscious enough to be like, ‘Oh, I have these things stuck in my body. What are they?’”

Getting these things to unstick is what Menakem calls “metabolizing trauma”—and it is essential for both individual and collective healing.

“One of the big points that he makes in his book,” Ragland says, “is that white people need to come together and build a positive and anti-racist culture themselves.”

Ragland took this message to heart. In addition to her individual healing work, she started putting the practices to work in community and professional settings. Eventually, through professional channels and the book club, she met John-Peter Wilhite, a Black man who has had extensive experience in and shared her interest in bringing more diversity, inclusion, equity, and access to the non-profit sector. The two formed a consulting agency to facilitate workshops and trainings, and since 2019, they have worked with more than thirty organizations in southern Arizona.

“There are many ways to do this work, and there’s no right way to do it. Ours is a heart-based approach. We do not shame and blame,” Ragland says.

Hancock says ancestral recovery often supports people in broader activism and advocacy efforts. White Awake courses encourage participants to examine shame and guilt but to see the work as a way of opening doors to greater solidarity with people and communities of color.

Ruling class interests are at work in this present moment all over the globe, she says. “There are many ways to respond to this. But there’s also our own sense of belonging and our sense of self, and asking, How do we construct a different identity, which is part of constructing a different culture?”

Yes, and …

Cabrera admits he is sometimes skeptical of ancestor recovery efforts among European Americans, mostly because he has seen too often people failing to connect their own experience to ongoing racial realties and inequities in the United States.

It’s critical, he says, for people to not disregard the societal and cultural context that will still view them as white, even though they themselves may have redefined their own identities.  

“It’s a tough needle to thread, because on the one hand these journeys of personal discovery are a beautiful way of getting buy-in from folks. But to really reach its potential, it needs to also be a journey of personal responsibility,” he says. “It’s always a ‘Yes, and … .’”

Cabrera clearly understands the power of studying and reclaiming one’s own’s culture. More than a decade ago, he led critical research on the impact of a curriculum of Mexican American history, culture, and heritage or Mexican American Studies (MAS) implemented in Tucson Unified School District from the late 1990s to 2011. Cabrera’s statistical research showed that the program substantially increased students’ academic achievement and graduation rates.

Protesters in June 2011 support the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program with signs reading: "Stop the date educate," "defend ethnic studies," and "we are not thugs, we are Americans."
Protesters in June 2011 support the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American studies program. Photo courtesy of Arizona Community Press.

“If we look at Mexican American education, for the longest time it was very much assimilative as well. ‘Give up your native culture.’ Mexican American Studies pushed back and said, ‘No, your culture, your heritage, your community, your familia, everything—that’s important. That’s worth preserving. That’s worth studying.”

MAS fell under controversy in 2006 when Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne criticized the program as being too political. In 2010, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed HB 2281 into law, eliminating the ethnic studies program from the district.

For Cabrera, the effort to recover one’s ancestry, if done appropriately and with awareness of the larger context, is a way to reconnect with what it means to be human.

“People embody their own humanity through collective practices that happen on a regular basis. If you’re deprived of that, you’re literally deprived of part of your humanity. Being able to go back and understand that is a way of reclaiming our greater humanity as a collective, and it’s a moral responsibility,” he says. “It’s learning about the ‘I’, so that you can more adequately and be better equipped to engage with the collective ‘we’.”

But not everyone always agrees on who gets to be part of “the collective we.” Ironically, cultural grounding can sometimes devolve into a space of hate and oppression. Alvarez points out that in some parts of the country, to speak of “heritage” is to signify anti-immigrant, anti-indigenous, and anti-Black sentiments.

And still, cultural self-knowledge and sharing might be the sharpest tool for liberation, popular education, and justice work, Alvarez says. “Even in the face of dehumanization, the best approaches for bridging and healing racial divides were forged in the thicket of Black-led liberation struggles. Dr. King spoke about the ‘beloved community’ as a space of reconciliation. And Cesar Chavez famously said, ‘If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him . . . the people who give you their food give you their heart.’ “

It might be that singing Italian songs while cooking Italian food brings healing not only to the Italian American but also to his dinner guests, be they of Swedish, Choctaw, or Ghanian descent. Or that practicing the Brazilian martial art of capoeira is as meaningful for someone with Welsh ancestry as it is for someone with Mexican ancestry. Such cultural exchanges can’t erase the pains of the past, but for some, they begin to suture the wounds.

“This is why culture matters,” Alvarez says. “Whether lived or recovered, visible or invisible—it’s the necessary first step for dialogue.”


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