shame and secrets

I feel a lot of shame surrounding my project. I feel a lot of shame surrounding imperfection in general. I don’t want to address it, and so instead, I walked into my family history presentation prepared to let out an ounce of vulnerability. I was so ashamed about my family’s history and the way I handled my project that I had shoved my shame so far inside of me that I didn’t even know it was there. And then, when I tried to let out an ounce, there was a flood.


I was teaching yoga with youth who have been incarcerated at a juvenile detention center last weekend. We were using yoga pretzel cards. Something interesting happened during airplane pose. “Where will you fly your plane?” read my co-teacher, who is a woman of color. 


“I’m going to Africa” declared a female identified youth, a woman of color. My co-teacher agreed.

“I’m going to Japan to find my siblings” said another young woman of color.


I was silent.


I worried that if I told them I would go to Italy I would be judged as privileged and, obviously, white. That I would be JUDGED for wanting to go to a beautiful place that was once the homeland of my family.


I’m surprised that I didn’t fall out of my airplane as I contemplated telling them I would go to Germany to see family. I thought about how they might instantly think that my german ancestors were possibly involved in Adolf Hitler’s work. And I was ashamed that I never had such a thought.


My shame tells me a lot about myself. I know that when I am feeling shame that I don’t want to speak about, I need to find more time to process it. I can recognize afterwards when I have had large moments of shame that I try to cover up by being busy, pretending I can do everything, pretending that I have it all together.


It’s been difficult for me to admit that I have deep and kinda dark feelings about this. It’s been hard for me to admit that I need my life to be more conducive to my healing. I have for such a long time seen myself as a type of healer. Someone who was always there to help others. Now that I need to help myself I feel guilty that I can’t give more of my energy to helping others. 


I realize that helping makes me feel whole when I am covering up being broken. Focusing on others allows me to escape and ignore my internal pain. 


I look at others and what they need instead of looking at myself. This is a pattern that I have learned from my family and then tried to use to help certain members of my family, only to find resentment when all is said and done. I resent that I spent so much time on other people’s happiness. I resent that this pattern has created a large secret 


I resent that we’re not perfect, that we pretended to be perfect, that I believed we were nearly perfect, and now that I know that we’re not, I feel betrayed. 


a familiar name on the 1930 census:

hey does your family have a connection to larimer? i ask someone’s daughter at the nursing home.

it turns out my grandpa’s family lived down the street from her dad’s family; my grandpa’s sister married the son of the people next door.

can you tell me about any italian traditions or anything italian? i ask.

well i remember my parents went to this big italian wedding, she said.  my mom told me it started on friday and didn’t end til sunday and for 3 days there was constantly all this food being served and people coming in and out of the house day and night.

hey mom do you remember going to Sergio’s family’s wedding? she asks.

vaguely, her mom says.

it’s the most lucid thing i ever heard her mom say.

did you live in larimer? i ask the sicilian.

no we lived on 25th street, she says.

like in the strip? i say.

yeah, she says. then we moved to 42nd street.

we lived on tioga street, the woman from calabreze tells me.

where did people go? i ask my mom’s cousin.

most people went to penn hills, she says.  it was the new up and coming neighborhood. a lot of italians had done work there and then they had the opportunity to live there.

oh yes italians were known for being bricklayers, my mom says. her brothers Frank and Lou helped Grandpa do some work on our house in wilkinsburg.

my mom and dad didn’t want to be like everyone else, the daughter at the nursing home tells me.  they tried to stay. their street was a throughway but the city closed it off and made it one way and it became drug infested.  finally someone held a gun to my dad’s head and i told them they had to leave.

when was that? i ask.

1985, she says.

my family was holding guns to people’s heads in larimer 60 years earlier but i don’t tell her that.




it occurs to me finally that i’m swimming in a sea of information about my family history project the way they say we’re swimming in an ocean of divinity.

at the nursing home i start paying attention to names that end in a’s or o’s.

hey are you italian? i start asking people.

oh yes, they look me in the eye and say. full-blooded!

(participating in the lie of white supremacy helped to steal the vitality from the immigrant communities of irish, italians, jews, poles, and others, i read)

what part of italy are you from? i say.

spigno, they say.

sicily, they say.

calabreze, they say.

(these people who can’t tell me where they are or what time of day it is)

where are you from? a woman asks me.

naples, i say.

ah napoletano, she says and i try to say it back to her a couple times.

(this flavorless cracker who 3 generations later can’t pronounce the name of her own people)

“Do your own GD work”

I’m thinking about the intersection between self-work and anti-racism work.

I’ve heard so many times that “you have to do your own gosh-darn work.” I’ve known for a little while now that, as a white woman, I have a lot of work to do. I will always have a lot of work to do. The work never never stops.

As I am preparing to share my family history project, I feel like I’ve reached a new level of understanding about what my “own gosh-darn work” is.

It can be easy to separate myself from my family and see myself as an individual. It’s not incredibly difficult to back up and see myself as part of a community based on where I live, where I’m from, and who I’m from. Neighborhood, city. My family, my ancestors.

What I have been feeling a lot of during my recent family history work is something much bigger. I have learned only some things about my “family tree,” but what I’ve learned most about is the way that I can feel my history inside of me, in my very DNA. When my grandmother pulled a box of her mother’s papers out of the closet, I felt the power of the three of us existing together in that room.

Now, I’ll stop and say that some of that “feeling” is related to white guilt. When I discovered my family’s contribution to the Holocaust, I felt a tremendous amount of discomfort and shame for what we had been apart of. While I so agree that I did not make the choice to do what my ancestors did, I carry the weight of their decisions.

In general, what I’m trying to say is that to know your family is to know yourself. And to know yourself is to have done a large amount of work.

But that large amount of work is not nearly all of the work.

My great-grandfather was a member of Hitler’s SS. His wife, my great-grandmother, is a woman that I have sometimes been lovingly compared to by my family. If I dig down deep, what can I find by exploring our connection and questioning the ways in which we have both defended and supported the defense of whiteness?

All of this means that I’m questioning the ways in which I have excused my lack of depth in my project by explaining to myself the amount of work I have to do to overcome the trauma that is in my bones caused by the severe dehumanization of those affected by the Holocaust. I want to question myself and my whiteness further about the ways that my whiteness is still hiding and making excuses. I can’t name all of the groups of people impacted by the Holocaust, but now more than ever I need to learn them. That is where self-work meets anti-racist work.

The family history project is partially a trap. It is so easy to hear “family history” and think “family tree.” But the real project is to connect the tree to a historical context, specifically a historical context that centers the impact of the family in question on people of color.

It is a project about the impact of my white people on people of color, more than it is a project tracing the lineage of my family. Tracing the lineage of my family is really just the privilege of knowing where I come from, which is really the privilege of being white.

Into/Out of the Woods

Sometimes I am unconvinced
that anyone really wants to exist in this world.
My brother says,
Yeah, I want to move further into the woods.
And I think
I do, too.
Away from everyone.
And I think
I’m already in my head
alone, mostly.
But I am here
riding the T through the Mount Washington tunnel
and suddenly I feel
like I can’t breathe.
How vulnerable, to be moving
through this mountain
in this machine
made by men, fallible.
I think,
what if it all comes crashing down.
I saw
light for the last time
and didn’t know it.
I think,
We have been in this tunnel for so long,
what if we are stuck
in the dark so long.
My heart is in my throat now.
I am
Pupils wide and searching.
Is moving forward
taking us anywhere?
Let the light come.
We can’t stay
I know
we on this T will come through.
The only way out is through.

my brother irritated over his chipotle:

our grandma and grandpa’s old house has been foreclosed.

he shows me the pictures on zillow:

every room is a different deep color.

it’s trashed, he says.

i’m sort of glad it was too hot for us to meet at my place – it’s one big rainbow (plus sparkles).

the kitchen still looks the same, he says.

all i remember is that Grandma kept fruit snacks in the cabinet above the counter and i was always way more interested in her fruit snacks than i was in Grandma.

he can’t find the website anymore but the organ pipes have been stolen and there is graffiti all over the inside of the church they went to and where our mom and dad got married and where we used to go sometimes.

when is wilkinsburg going to get it together? he said in the car last year.

i didn’t say anything.

the thing that white people fear most, it says in the zine Your Black Friend, is making things awkward.



Do feelings of guilt and obligation run in my family?

How do I accept my and my family’s imperfections, mistakes, and harmful acts?

I had an incredibly hard time sharing with the group about the information that I learned concerning my maternal great-grandfather’s participation in World War II as a member of Hitler’s SS during our last meeting. I was feeling very strongly guilty, as though I had any responsibility for this action.

While both the trauma caused by my family and the trauma carried by my family from this event runs in my DNA, it is not something that I chose. I feel trapped in a model very similar to that of white people who have just come to realize their privilege and their part in perpetuating white supremacy. It’s a very real form of Internalized Racial Superiority, so many forms of IRS actually that it’s overwhelming to list them all.


One right way





Sneaky Ego




Etcetera, etc. etc.

So diving into that feeling is important for me. I’ve only just begun, but I think that my guilt is largely connected to my helping / fixing / saving desires. I feel highly uncomfortable when I can’t make others feel comfortable, fix their issues, resolve any tiny inconvenience that I have caused them. 

It’s wonderful timing, as I start a new job with greater responsibilities and recognize all the ways I used to cater to my boss’s every need in order to “look good.” 

The question that I am asking myself first is “how do you make yourself look good after realizing that your family participated as perpetraters of the Holocaust?” 

The answer, of course, is “you don’t.” 

Then the real question is, why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so responsible? This is the question that I hope to answer in my project. What have I done, and what has my family done, to create this feeling of obligation? And how do we (read: I) heal from it?