Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Who is your family?

There is a line in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which he quotes an aunt who says, "If everyone is family, then no one is family." The context is Obama's father, a man who included everyone in his generosity, to his financial and social detriment. The saying is meant to convey the necessity of drawing boundaries, of making a distinction between those who are closest to you and the concentric circles of friends and acquaintances that one draws.

I've been thinking about this phrase lately. It suggests the limits or indeed the fallibility of universalism--of thinking that everyone is your brother, your sister, your family. It also suggests the kinds of affiliation based on tribal lines that have gone on for centuries and that we (as in human beings) continue to follow: we affiliate first with our families (nuclear and extended) and then in concentric circles outward--our neighborhoods, towns, states, etc... But there are other modes of affiliation, ones based on religion, language, ethnicity, and of course race.

And there is the ongoing issue of who you consider to be part of your family. At a time when the whole notion of blood is called into question and we adopt to and adapt different customs and values, how do we decide, especially as adults, who our family is? If I think about my own nuclear and extended family, I'm not sure how much "in common" I have with them anymore, other than a shared family tree and early history. But in terms of the family I've "adopted"--an academic community, the circle of friends I've accumulated over the years in college, in grad school, in my current university--these are people who literally do not "look" like me, but who share many of my values and sensibilities and preferences. But does this make them my family? I may identify with them, on certain levels, more than my family of origin, but I do feel, in my heart and in my head, that at the end of the day, my family is still in my hometown in California.

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