Critical Family History

Episode 10

Christine Sleeter: I think the most important question is to ask yourself, why do I want to do this? Why do I want to take a critical look at my own family history? A lot of people begin doing family history because sometimes just because they're curious, but a lot of time it's to honor and lift up the ancestors.

And if one is going into it with, "I want to tell stories that will lift up my ancestors, lift up my family," that's going to make it difficult to look critically at family history. That will just sort of get in the way. But if you're doing it because you want to better understand the larger shared history that we have in this country, and where your people fit into that history, then I think that's a good reason.

Amanda Meeks:  Hello, and welcome to Our Digital Futures with This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent, and I'm also your podcast host.

Our theme this episode is critical family history. Permanent's mission is to preserve the legacies of all people, with the particular goal of changing the historical paradigm by including stories that have been historically marginalized and erased over time. This includes reckoning with the messier and complex parts of our history, even in our own family lineages.

Our guest, Christine Sleeter, is a professor emerita in the College of Education at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her research focuses on anti-racist, multicultural education, ethnic studies, and teacher education. She has published over 170 articles and 21 books, most recently Critical Race Theory and Its Critics.

She has also published three novels, the most recent being Family History in Black and White. Awards for her work include the American Educational Research Association Social Justice and Education Award, the Chapman University Paulo Freire Education Project Social Justice Award, and the Willamette University Distinguished Alumni Citation for Professional Achievement.

I was delighted to chat with her and learn more about her work. I hope you enjoy this episode.

All right. So welcome, Christine. Thank you so much for being here.

Christine Sleeter: Thank you for inviting me.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. So as you know, October is Family History Month and we are so excited to have you as a guest to talk about Critical Family History. Let's start with what Critical Family History means to you.

Christine Sleeter: It means taking the usual family history that people do, in which they look at things like births, deaths, marriages and stuff, and then situating that within a larger social context, and particularly a context that involves relations of power. So, for instance, situating your family within the racial structure, within the class structure, within the structure of gender relations as they were at the time in which your family lived, or the specific decade that you're looking at.

And then looking to see how that location within the racial structure, the class structure, impacted on your family and how it impacted on what they did, how it impacted on their life chances, and that kind of thing.

Amanda Meeks:  I love that. I really appreciate that kind of framework and I'm curious what originally prompted you to explore and create this framework.

Christine Sleeter: Well, it goes back to when I was teaching in the university. I'm retired now, but I taught courses in multicultural education and essentially courses having to do with social justice and racial justice for a number of years. And in one of my classes, a couple of times I had the students do small family history projects.

And these were classes in which the students were predominantly white, but there were also significant numbers of students of color. And I started noticing a pattern. Everybody, almost everybody, their family history project would tell a story of struggle, of how their ancestors had difficulties that they worked their way through. So it was kind of the family lifting themselves up in one way or another.

For the students of color, it was usually a story about how their family confronted racism, the barriers that racism threw in front of them and was able to navigate those barriers. For the white students, none of them had anything in their story related to racism. Their families would have immigrated to the US and didn't know the language and didn't have many resources and sort of pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.

And I got to wondering as I was looking at these stories that they would construct. It's like the students of color were in a landscape that was structured by racism and it was like the white students weren't. So it was almost like they were in two different landscapes.

But then, also I got to wondering, well, if the students of color, if their ancestors experienced racism, who were the perpetrators of racism? Wouldn't it have been ancestors of the white students? And it was like they didn't seem to have a way of talking with each other. And I hadn't done my own family history at the time.

So I kind of put this on hold, but later I've read a study by Angel Parham where they studied the behavior of white genealogists and black genealogists in New Orleans as they were looking at their family history and noticed the same thing; that for the black genealogist, racism was part of the story, for the white genealogist, it either wasn't there at all or it was a minor thing on the backdrop.

So when I started working on my own family history, which was a few years later, the issues that I'd been dealing with in teaching classes about social justice issues crept into the way I was looking at my own family.

And it sort of started with me looking at particular family units and looking at where they were in particular decades. And the question of where they were led me to ask whose land were they on, who are the indigenous people who had been displaced so that my ancestors could be there. And that started leading me to then think more holistically about how my ancestors had participated in the theft of Indian land.

But these other issues related to race, I started asking, did my ancestors own slaves? And if so, how would I have benefited from that? So the questions that I used to ask related to teaching, I then started asking about my own family history. And that was what led me to explore and create the framework.

Amanda Meeks:  That's a really powerful story and thank you so much for sharing it with us. I think it's hard to separate ourselves from the systems that we operate under and within and participate in. So I think that that's a really beautifully designed framework to help people think critically about their ancestors, like you said.

Have you worked with any family historians who were resistant to this framework, but found value in it for themselves once they considered it a little more? And can you share any specific examples of those?

Christine Sleeter: Yeah, I'll share an example of a class that I taught a few years ago in Colorado. It was a graduate class involving mostly teachers. There were, I think, 26 or 27 students in the class. And it was a fairly diverse class, about half of them were white, a large number were Latino, a couple of African American, three or four international students. So it was an interesting group of people.

The framework tries to get people to ask the question of, as you're looking at your family unit, who else was around? What other groups were in proximity? And what were the relationships between groups? If there were no other racial or ethnic groups in the proximity, why not? Were there laws or processes in place that made things kind of more homogeneous or more segregated? What was the class system operating at the time? And how was your family positioned?

Within this class, they all had to do a family history project. They were to take one family unit and then try unpacking these layers. Also, when I'm doing this with a group, I give an alternative. I want them to learn the process of looking critically at a family unit, and I also want them to learn more about U. S. history. That's one of the reasons why I do this.

So I do give people an alternative option that you don't have to research your own family history if you would rather not go there. If you would rather research somebody else, you have the option of doing that and I think it's important to do that.

Okay, so in this particular class, I'll first start with the students who resisted. There were a couple who resisted just entirely, a couple of white students who just would not go there. And when they turned in their final project and I was talking with them about it, each one of them had ancestors that were clearly around indigenous people at the time indigenous people were being expelled from their land.

I would say, "Well, you know, who else was around? What tribe was there? How much in proximity were they?" "Oh, well, they were, they were at least 15 miles away. So there was no relationship at all." And the power relations that they just couldn't deal with.

Another student was resistant to the project for different reasons. This was somebody who had a history of alcoholism and sexual abuse in the family and didn't want to go there. And this would have actually been somebody for whom the alternative of researching somebody else's family might have actually been a good one.

Another student, I don't know why she didn't want to research her own family, but she chose to research her husband's family, which I don't think was a good idea because then she loved her husband and loved his family and she just couldn't be critical. She could not take a critical position in looking at her husband's family.

But the rest of the students, this is then over 20, this was a framework that most of them hadn't thought about before and they were willing to play with it and see where it went. Some of them really got into it.

There were others who have white students who initially, were like, "Huh, I don't know about this." And one that comes to mind is one who is of Polish descent, because she had grown up with stories about prejudice against the Poles and the discrimination that they've experienced. But, she also, in looking at it, could say, "Well, yeah, okay, they're Eastern European, but also white." And so, in looking at the specifics of the family story, she could see where being white did confer racial advantages on them, even while being Polish also conferred discrimination. And that complicated the story, but it turned out to be an interesting story. And she was like" Yeah, I can see where this is adding some layers that I just didn't know were there."

Another student in the class, a white student, dug into the impact of homesteading on indigenous people and the taking of land from indigenous people in ways similar to me giving examples of my own family history.

What I think a challenge in doing critical family history is that to get people to look at how people are positioned within systems.

Because people, most people, and I would say particularly white people, aren't used to thinking in terms of systems. They're used to thinking in terms of individuals. So they'll say, "Well, I don't want my ancestor to look like a bad person." And that's not the point.

The point is to think about how people are situated within systems and then how those systems have an impact on people and getting people past the looking at people as individuals into more time to look at systems. There was a little bit of a getting over the hump here. But, as we got over that hump, several of the students could see things that they hadn't seen before.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah, that really leads into my next question about why it's so important to acknowledge the good and the harmful pieces of our family history and the complex legacies of our ancestors. You touched on that quite a bit in terms of situating our family history and ancestors within the systems that they were part of, but I am wondering if you can go a little bit deeper into that.

Christine Sleeter: Yeah, I would like to. There's a belief that's very common among those of us who are white, that I and my family earned pretty much everything we have through hard work, and then by implication, when we look around and see groups that are struggling, then there's that "Why can't they?", if my ancestors came here not knowing the language with nothing but the shirt on their back, and look where I am today, why are these so called other people struggling?

What critical family history tries to do is to problematize that entire way of looking at things. And I'll give some examples from my own family history. One strand that I looked at, is how my ancestors benefited from having been given land that had been stolen from the indigenous people.

And I looked at that in several branches of my family history, but one where I was able to actually look at it the most concretely was some ancestors that came from Tennessee to Colorado in the late 1880s, just at the time that the Ute Indians were being forcibly expelled from Colorado so that their land could be carved up, turned into homesteads for white people.

And my ancestors were some of the people who got there just at that particular time and were able to get a homestead. The process of homesteading, for the white people who got homesteads, sometimes they had to pay a small fee for the surveying. I guess other times they really didn't pay much of anything. And the deal was that if you stayed on the land for, it was usually five years, made improvements on that land, which would mean turning it into a farm or building a structure or something like that, then the deed would revert to you after the certain period of time. So then it would become your land.

And so that's what my ancestors did. They stayed on the homestead for, I think it was about five or six years and then sold it and went into Steamboat Springs, which was relatively close by, and started buying up land. And they bought somewhere around 15 parcels that would be city lots and then later moved to California and later sold those city lots and then took the money and invested it in California.

And what came to me, was an inheritance from a trust that my grandmother had set up when my mother and my aunt died, and she had set this trust up with the money that she had made based on the investments of herself and her mother, and her mother had been one of the ones who homesteaded. So I was like, " Okay, I can see this real clear through line between the money I have to pay off my house and the dispossession of the Ute people."

That's really clear to me. So it's not just a matter of bad things were done to people, but it's a matter of there is this gigantic wealth transfer in which I ended up being a beneficiary. I can look at my ancestors and say, were they good people or bad people? My great great grandfather, he, according to my mother, he was a no good and he ran off and I did find him later in jail, not for having participated in theft of Indian land, but just other parts of him.

My great great grandmother, was she a good person or a bad person, and to me, that's not the question. The question for me had to do with why indigenous people today are disproportionately poor and white people today have disproportionate amount of family wealth. And this is a piece in that.

Another example, this is a very different kind of example, it has to do with culture loss among those of us of European descent. It's real common for white people to think of themselves as not having culture. Because, if I'm on my father's side of German descent, and I didn't grow up speaking German or know anything about German culture, or anything German, then it's like,"Well, what am I?"

I can't say I'm German. I'm white American, and what is that? And some of my students would call themselves white bread, you know, just kind of like, "Well, I don't have a culture." And it's just common among white people to feel like we don't have culture, we do, but we may not have the European ethnic culture that our ancestors had.

And sometimes white people will think that their ancestors just willingly gave up the language and the culture they brought with them from Europe. And so in looking at my father's ancestors, I realized that they did bring and maintain quite a bit of German culture and language for a period of about 80 years.

There was a very robust German English bilingual program in the Midwest. My ancestors actually didn't participate in it, but they did participate in German English bilingual churches. And I have people on my father's side of the family who were preachers and they were bilingual preachers. But what happened to that language and culture is that when World War I came along and then World War II, they were perceived as potential enemies and so forced to stop speaking German.

German books were burned and a lot of historical memory about anything German was simply destroyed. So I've tried to look back, for instance, at the German Methodist Episcopal Church that my ancestors were pastors of, and it's hard to find even information about that church, which is very large during the 1800s and early 1900s, many congregations throughout the U.S. But it got folded into the Methodists and then memory of it pretty much got erased.

So I find it interesting and also helpful to have some idea of why it is that white people now will look back and say, "Well, we don't have a culture. And our ancestors just willingly stopped speaking their own language and to speak English."

And the story wasn't like that. We have a continuous process of trying to assimilate culturally and wipe out languages of people who come here, because I think we're afraid of the cultural and linguistic difference that people bring.

But when we look back and say, "Wow, the same thing happened to our own ancestors," that gives you a different perspective. So those are some reasons why I think it's important to do this work.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah, it seems like it is extremely valuable in terms of situating yourself in where you are and how you got to where you are, how you became the person that you are in understanding both the cultural aspects that you mentioned, the historical, systemic, participation or benefits or other things that really help you understand where you came from.

That's the point of family history, right?

Christine Sleeter: Yes. Yes, it is.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah. So I know a lot of people want to ignore or leave out the messier parts of their family history, but who benefits when we ignore or leave out parts of the story because we're ashamed of? And how do we overcome shame specifically in that context?

Christine Sleeter: Well, I actually don't think anybody benefits because when you're only telling a part of the story, you might feel better because you're leaving out parts of the story that might make you feel uncomfortable, but you're also leaving yourself somewhat ignorant and saying that's okay to be... to not know. I don't think that really benefits anybody, because for me the question is, "Given historic injustices that our ancestors were implicated with in one way or another, the question to me is, what do we do now?"

We have all kinds of issues facing us that have to do with social justice that have roots that go into the past. And for me, it's important to try to untangle what happened in the past to try to figure out what we can do in the present. And if we can't untangle what happened in the past, we're not really going to do that much good of trying to address those issues in the present.

I have one example, this is something I'm working on right now, a great great grandmother who I found out several years ago that she had been an anti-Chinese activist in San Francisco during the time around the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act and when a whole bunch of anti-Chinese local laws were being passed.

I want to understand her perspective while at the same time I don't condone the steps that she ended up taking. But from her perspective, she was trying to help young white working class girls, particularly from the South after the Civil War, who were in San Francisco trying to find work. And the idea that was prevalent at the time was that a lot of these young women were turning to prostitution because they needed to support themselves. If the Chinese men didn't have the jobs they had, then these girls could take the jobs and then they wouldn't have to turn to prostitution. I think there are other ways of addressing social issues , that wouldn't have been the way, but that was the way that she chose.

So, sort of fast forwarding today, sometimes people will talk about these immigrants coming in and taking our jobs and the whole question of ownership of resources, ownership of jobs. I think kind of needs to be problematized because why are people coming here and what are their needs and how can we help everybody's needs get addressed rather than some people's needs?

But I also thought about this particular issue in relationship to the anti-Asian harassment that has been experienced in the wake of the coronavirus, there's this huge uptick in anti-Asian harassment that was very similar to the anti-Asian harassment back in the 1800s. If this is part of my legacy, if this is part of our history, what do I do?

So ultimately, I'm not sure that anybody benefits when we try to not deal with uncomfortable parts of our history.

Amanda Meeks:  Yeah, and I agree. I really appreciate that you acknowledge that nobody benefits, because I think that we have to kind of reckon with the fact that historical events have modern day legacies. And even if our ancestors, like yours, were following social and cultural norms of their time, their values, their actions, their choices, likely had a lasting oppressive impact on marginalized folks.

So, I'd like to hear more what some effective methods or approaches you've seen to telling these sensitive stories that include reckoning with these modern day legacies might look like.

Christine Sleeter: Okay. Well, one of them is just through writing. I've written three novels now, taking my family history and doing a certain amount of fictionalizing to build the thread between the past and the present and show somebody in the present, taking action to address the issues from the past.

In my case, my protagonists are teachers or other forms of educators because that's what I know. But to try to help people see themselves in a role of where they're actually addressing an issue from the past, there are a couple of more organized ways that people have of doing this. Coming to the table is an organization, a network of people that I'm on their email list, but I haven't been to any of their meetings because they're mostly on the East Coast.

But it's an organization that brings together descendants of slave owners with descendants of slaves, and they may or may not be actually directly linked to each other, but white people who had slave ownership in their families coming together with black people who had the experience of slavery within their families to explore their shared history and figure out how to take on racism collectively.

And I think it's a really great organization. It's both for the people who are involved, apparently, wonderfully healing and they've also put out some videos and books and I think that the work that they're doing is right on target.

Another initiative that I have the honor of being part of, there's a Native American film group called New Red Order, and they have an initiative going on right now called "Give It Back." And it has to do with using art and some sort of playful kinds of ways of helping people think about returning land to Native ownership. And so since I had given back my inheritance that I mentioned earlier to the Ute people, because that inheritance, that money, came originally from the theft of Ute land.

So I went to the reservation and gave that inheritance back. And because of that, I'm featured in this documentary that's going to be released I think in about a month. I've seen early clips of it and it's pretty exciting. But it's an arts way of trying to tell not just an individual story, but several individual stories, all of which is somewhat different, but add up to the idea that it is possible to return land to indigenous people.

The city of Oakland has done it, which I didn't realize until I saw this clip, and the city of Eureka has done it as well as individuals in various ways. So those are examples of ways of telling the sensitive stories and how people can become involved.

Amanda Meeks:  I absolutely love that. I would love to include a link to the organization that you mentioned that brings black folks and white folks together to address racial inequities. That would be amazing. And of course, if there's a link to this documentary, we can include that too. I think those will both serve as great resources for our audience and Permanent members.

What are the most important questions one should seek to answer in their family history research if they want to engage critically with it?

Christine Sleeter: Well, I think the most important question is to ask yourself, why do I want to do this? Why do I want to take a critical look at my own family history? A lot of people begin doing family history because sometimes just because they're curious, but a lot of time it's to honor and lift up the ancestors.

And if one is going into it with, "I want to tell stories that will lift up my ancestors, lift up my family," that's going to make it difficult to look critically at family history. That will just sort of get in the way. But if you're doing it because you want to better understand the larger shared history that we have in this country, and where your people fit into that history, then I think that's a good reason.

And then you just need to be open to what you find and allow yourself to be aware that you're going to find some things that you don't like and some find some things that are uncomfortable. An example with me, I thought that I didn't have any slave owners in the family tree because for a long time I couldn't find evidence of slave ownership.

But then I did. I was in the deeds office of one of the counties in Tennessee where I had ancestors and I was looking through deeds of records of sale that were in these handwritten books and was mostly looking at buying and selling of property. But when I came to a deed that was the buying and selling of a human being that involved one of my ancestors buying a slave, I was so shocked.

I'd been taking pictures of other deeds, and this one, all I could do is sit and stare at it. And it was only a couple days later that I realized that I hadn't even taken a picture of it because I was so shocked. And I shouldn't have been, because I teach about this stuff, I thought I was prepared, but I wasn't as prepared as I thought I would be.

So, some surprises can come along. But if you allow yourself to sit with things that are surprising or sit with things that are uncomfortable, but you're doing it because you do want to understand these complexities, then go for it.

Amanda Meeks:  Thank you so much for sharing that example and all of your personal examples from your research and your work. I can't tell you how valuable I think this conversation is and just how much I appreciate it. So, thank you, Christine.

Christine Sleeter: Well, thank you. It's been fun.

Amanda Meeks:  Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Our Digital Futures, and thank you to Christine for being such an amazing guest. I hope you enjoyed this episode on critical family history as much as I did. This is such an important and challenging topic, but we hope you are inspired and intrigued enough to explore this framework on your own.

If you're ready to learn more, check out the links in the episode notes. And if you're curious about how Permanent can help you preserve your stories and family history, check out our website or get in touch with us. The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a non profit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations.

Our web and mobile app is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription feeds. Your generous donations to our endowment ensure our long term sustainability as an organization, while also securing your legacy.

Special thank you to our editor Emily Sienkiewicz.


Christine Sleeter headshot

Christine Sleeter

Christine E. Sleeter, PhD. is Professor Emerita in the College of Education at California State University Monterey Bay, where she was a founding faculty member. She has served as a visiting professor at several universities, including the University of Maine, University of Colorado Boulder, Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, and Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Spain. She is past President of the National Association for Multicultural Education, and past Vice President of the American Educational Research Association. Her research focuses on anti-racist multicultural education, ethnic studies, and teacher education. She has published over 170 articles and 21 books, most recently Critical Race Theory and its Critics (with F. A. López, Teachers College Press, 2023). She has also published three novels, the most recent being Family History in Black and White. She is a Fellow of the American Educational Research Association and of the National Education Policy Center, and a member of the National Academy of Education. Awards for her work include the American Educational Research Association Social Justice in Education Award, the Chapman University Paulo Freire Education Project Social Justice Award, and the Willamette University Distinguished Alumni Citation for Professional Achievement.


Amanda Meeks headshot

Amanda Meeks


Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.