Essays

On Lineage and Whiteness

This essay also appears in the issue “The Necessity of Including Embodiment and Lineage in Racial Justice Work” (Volume 6, Number 1). Click here to subscribe and download the entire issue


I spent a lot of time during my youth pondering my family story and where I came from. While kicking rocks around my suburban street, I would wonder, “Why do we call ourselves Greek but don’t speak the language or cook the food? Why doesn’t my family feel like other Greek families I know?” My family name comes from someone who signed the Declaration of Independence; my mother’s family holds the Greek ancestry. I’ve always felt that I’ve straddled different worlds. When I say I’m Greek, it feels as if I’m holding onto some name from a previous life.

My maternal grandfather (Papou) was a man of noble actions. He taught me that giving someone my word was worth more than gold, and that I should treat everyone I met with honor and respect. When it came to instructing his grandchildren on Greek heritage though, he skipped the richness of story and mythology, instead passing down safer tokens: counting to ten in Greek and a smattering of his mother’s recipes. These minor cultural artifacts would never risk our family being seen as offbeat to the burgeoning cookie-cutter paradise of 1950s America. He transmitted simple reference points of being a Greek American in things that White Anglo Saxon Protestants wouldn’t feel threatened by and could even purchase at the market, like feta cheese and ouzo.  But I don’t feel in my bones the dynamic vitality of Greek culture, nor did I ever see it in my family. My Papou passed down superficial ornaments but not the traditions, magic, or lore.

My childhood perusing of cultural phenomena such as Harry Potter and Backstreet Boys wasn’t actually all that interesting to me. I dipped into those things simply to fit in with the awkwardness of youth. What I was really interested in was a little too painful for my divorcing family to process: I wanted to know why there weren’t rituals that held us together and why holidays felt devoid of meaning and connection. Now that we didn’t have each other, what else could I fall back on or learn from?

I’ve come to understand that those contemplations in my childhood were access points to a deeper pain and grief associated with my ancestry. I felt cut off from society because I didn’t have ancestral teachings to light the way, something I especially yearned for in my newly fragmented world.

I still find myself angry with my Papou sometimes, asking why don’t I speak Greek? Why don’t I know the stories of our people? Why did he give me capitalism and puritanical values in place of the culture I see in other Greek Americans? Was he scared that his Greek identity would be an obstacle to the success of his children and grandchildren? Can I forgive him for putting to rest the traditions of his culture and accepting those of America in perhaps his deep desire to belong?

Because I lacked a developed identity connected to my Greek heritage, I found myself unknowingly looking for any reference point as a substitute bloodline. Throughout my adolescence, I slowly built an identity grounded in more generic features of the dominant white American culture—shopping, pop music and literature. I found my place as a white woman in systems of racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. Sometimes a beneficiary of these systems, sometimes bearing their costs, they shaped my sense of who I was. In them, I found my own way to belong.

• • •

In the third grade we had to present a small teaching on our ancestry. I proudly stated to my classmates, “I’m from Greece!”, with no second thought that I was born in Indiana. As I grew and my network of interactions expanded in complexity, it became trickier to say that. Upon telling someone from Greece that I was Greek, they replied, “Oh, you mean your family is from Greece.” I remember awkwardly blushing and folding my hands, unsure if this person was telling me that I wasn’t who I thought I was or that I didn’t know who I was in the first place. Either option felt appallingly sad. In my late teens, I began asking my mother’s family about the Koulourakia and pastitsio they baked, about the music boxes and floral plates they kept in their homes. My aunts would respond that we just made certain foods at certain times of year and that they bought the plates on a trip to Greece. No stories were told. No connections to deeper history or context were shared. These were simply items, static artifacts.

Eventually, I could see that the label of Greek that I carried with me actually meant very little. I couldn’t participate in most of the practices that constitute Greek culture or weave myself into the fabric of those who came before me. So if I wasn’t Greek, then who was I?

When I started practicing Buddhism, the colorful vibrancy of the lineage stories I heard quickly enticed me. Tales of the Tibetan hero Gesar, fickle serpent lords called Nagas, and the female deity of compassion White Tara rekindled my desire for stories of origin and supported my embodied understanding of meditation practice. When talking about lineage, Chögyam Trungpa told his western students, “You should realize that there is tremendous love and affection for practitioners coming from the lineage.”1 The felt experience of that statement—the balm-like ease and compassion from White Tara—drew me deeper and deeper into practice.

It is easy for ancestry and lineage to become ensnarled. We should understand lineage as an umbrella category, of which ancestry is one form. We inherit ancestral lineage through our family; but there are other forms of lineage—spiritual, cultural, intellectual, philosophical. I have found it important to understand that each form of lineage nourishes a different aspect of my existence and facilitates another way I express myself in this world. Ancestry requires me to reckon with the reality that I come from a Greek family that adopted the culture of North American whiteness. This ancestry is distinct from the spiritual lineage gifts that I have received, and from the love of which Trungpa Rinpoche speaks that many practitioners experience. For those of us whose ancestral and cultural lineages have been lost to whiteness, however, our longing to connect with lineage can turn us away from our European ancestry, which is laced with both oppressor and oppressed identities. Today, white people often make the mistake of believing distinct forms of lineage to be interchangeable. The richness of one’s connection to spiritual lineage does not equate having done the work to understand the cultural and ancestral lineages that condition one’s identity.

Through deepening my studies on ego, a door to the intangible realm of cultural identity began to open. I started to notice that if we don’t have a sense of our cultural identity, we can become entangled in the questions, “Who am I?” and “Where do I come from?” According to historian Nell Irvin Painter, “An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity… bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between ‘bland nothingness’ and ‘racist hatred’.”2 With this limited cultural understanding of identity, it is not especially enticing for white people to investigate their social and historical conditioning.

This simplistic, dichotomous view of white identity has led me to wonder, does whiteness allow room for ancestry? Is whiteness so big that it chokes out the embers of ancestry that stayed alive through generations of assimilation? Is it really a dichotomy between nothingness and hatred, or is it an entirely different paradigm?

During a particularly bleak January breakfast, my friend Kate confronted me with a question I hadn’t considered: As white people living in the United States, can there really be a way to embody our cultural lineages seemingly lost to whiteness? What is it to unearth the hidden identities and lineages that my body holds, to come to know how I interact with them and how they interact with society at large? What I hold is my Papou’s heritage of Greek customs coupled with whiteness. My heritage is both, not one or the other. I cannot seek to embody just one part of my ancestry because being a third-generation Greek American is why this body moves through the world in the way it does. This doesn’t mean I cannot learn more about Greece and Greek culture, but neither can I skate around a deep well of instructions I received on how to be white.

Historically, the evolution of whiteness gained strength as it adopted previously marginalized and oppressed groups such as the Irish, Greeks, Italians, and Jews over the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For those who had been previously excluded from the benefits of white America, the assimilation into a socially privileged class gave more security than before, but it came at the cost of giving up the cornerstones of each culture’s native ways.3 That loss can be difficult to confront.

The exploration of ego is a brilliant starting point for understanding where we come from—where the construct of “I” originates. While the Buddhist examination of ego traditionally focuses on individual psychology alone, in today’s world, examining culture is imperative to this work. Some of us haven’t thought of our cultural background or don’t have much information about our bloodline. Nevertheless, investigating our ancestral and cultural lineages is an important way to understand where our choices stem from—how we learned what is “good” and “bad”. I believe many of our bodies’ systems are flooded with grief from not knowing where our sense of the world comes from. Instead of using the Dharma to work with such grief, Buddhist teachings have often been usurped as merely a way to find a family story.

Over time, the practice of investigating where I come from as a Buddhist and as a white American has strengthened a certain sense of home within myself. This home is tender and often leads me to question my assumptions and to listen with my heart. This home has separated me to an extent from the desired validation of systems such as patriarchy and capitalism.  This process has also challenged me to better understand where the social conditioning of whiteness guides my actions and how I employ my Greek ancestry or my Buddhist lineage to evade doing the work to confront the conditioning of whiteness. My experience allows me to recognize that we can have both ancestry and lineage. We can investigate many family stories, even if they’re painful. But to clarify the history we’ve been born into and the spiritual practices we’ve chosen not only allows us to know ourselves better, but also transforms us into more beautiful and multifaceted practitioners.


Alexandria Barnes graduated from Colorado State University in 2012 where she earned a degree in International Studies and focused on Latin American economies. She later went on to explore the impacts of labor and politics on the body. Since graduating, Alexandria has worked with clinical and incarcerated communities to provide access to meditation and yoga. She resides in the woods of the Mohican territory, Hudson Valley, NY.


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Notes

  1. Chögyam Trungpa, The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, ed. Judith L. Lief (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2013), 102.
  2. Nell Irvin Painter, “What Is Whiteness?” The New York Times, June 20, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/21/opinion/sunday/what-is-whiteness.html.
  3. Brando Simeo Starkey, “White Immigrants Weren’t Always Considered White—and Acceptable,” The Undefeated, February 10, 2017, https://theundefeated.com/features/white-immigrants-werent-always-considered-white-and-acceptable/.