Here's what I consider the "test" on whether or not there is "racial memory."
It consists of three hypothetical examples, involving three children.
1) A baby is born in Sweden, to Swedish parents, but adopted at a month old
by a couple in England. The child grows up looking "English," (fair hair and
skin, etc). She is never told she was adopted and thus knows nothing of her
biological Swedish ancestry. When she grows up, does something myterious
stir in her when she hears Dalarna fiddling? Does she believe in trolls and
elves? Does she have an unconscious identification with the works of
Strindberg? Does she somehow just "feel" Scandinavian?
2) An infant is born in England, adopted by an English family, but because of
a mixup in papers at the orphanage, his parents mistakenly believe his
biological parents were Irish. They fill him in on his background from early
childhood. Thus he grows up believing himself to be "Celtic" even though his
actual cultural upbringing is English. Does he go out of his way to
reconstruct a Celtic identity? Does he somehow "relate" to Irish music
differently from his English peers?
3) Another baby is born in Ireland, adopted by English parents who, as in
example one, never tell him of his adoption or ethnic origins. Growing up he
assumes his parents' bloodline (which goes back to Charles I) is his own.
Does he have any affinities with Irish music or culture? If he is
talkative, does he feel he has "the gift of the gab" or just assume he's that
way because his parents were talkative. When he is 21 his parents tell him
the truth about his Irish ancestry. Does he now feel "Celtic" where one
month ago he did not? Does he reinterpret his own characteristic
loquaciousness or fondness for a pint, or mystic outlook or whatever on his
My own responses to these are: Child A, who knows nothing of being
Scandinavian, feels 100% English, and imagines her identity in terms of
Englishness. When she goes to Sweden she feels like an outsider.
Child B feels Irish, even though in reality he is not. He attributes any
instances of alienation (which we all feel at times) to the fact he is "an
outsider." For that reason, he seeks out Celtic culture and reinterprets
himself in the light of what he discovers.
Child C is up for grabs. I'd tend to think that if he's secure with himself
and the identity he has configured for himself, he will not make too many
changes in the light of his discovery. If on the other hand he has
encountered social difficulties and discovering a "real" cause for those
feelings gives him a a legitimate "out," he will pursue his new Celtic
The point, to me, of all these examples, is just to reaffirm that--as Angela
Piccini has reminded us so often on this list--that identity is configured
imaginatively and not simply given. That doesn't make it less meaningful to
the person doing the configuring.
All the best, Paulette
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