Heritage: A Personal Perspective

How do individuals form a sense of personal heritage? Are we born with it? Do we grow to acquire it? Can it ever change? Personal heritage is a very basic humanistic social phenomenon. As humans, we seek to identify and gain a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves. We create conceptualizations of race based on it, we create social classes on heritage notions, and even establish formalized nations with aspects of heritage in mind. But what makes an individual truly identify with a specific heritage?

For many of us, our personal terms of heritage form based on ancestral cultural ties to our past through traditions, language, and even previous occupations of our direct generations of the past. Heritage plays a unique role to different societies around the world, with some using religion as a prominent heritage indicator, such as many regions throughout the middle east, however in some regions, such as the United States, location can be just as significant of a driving force.

When you ask someone in the United States what is their heritage, it is very common for people to use the region they and their families grew up in. “I am Texan…”, you might hear one say, “…who comes from a long lineage of cowboys and ranchers.” Or “I am a Southerner, whose roots reside in the farmlands of Dixie.” “I am a blue collar Midwesterner, born into traditions of hard work.” In many cases these responses our more common of our society than responses like “I am an American.” What is it about Americans that make us so quick to recount our heritage to a more specified view of location and occupation, rather than religion or language?

In many ways this is a prime example of what heritage can do for people; it can turn a large-scale society with shared commonalities, into a society that chooses to self identify with smaller more exclusive groups. Sometimes this is for the betterment of heritage identity, and sometimes not so much.

A mapped out perspective of regional “heritage” in the United States.

When we think of elements of identification of people through their regions, we tend to think of ourselves in the most positive forms of representation, and outsiders in more stereotypical ways. Why is this? What kinds of cultural dangers could this cause? We can use illustrations such as the figure above to show indicators of identification without representation. What I mean by this is that the various descriptions across each state/region are less reflective on how people from these regions view themselves and rather act as visual representations of how outsiders view them. Surely the people native to the southeastern region of the country do not view their most representative cultural element being in the form of an obesity epidemic. Or even the people who have cultural ties to traditional Native American groups, must be somewhat puzzled in trying to decipher where they fit in between dive bars, serial killers, Mormons and Mexico-ish. While this is a clearly stereotypical view of America and its’ people, in many instances it is not a far fetched representation of not how people view themselves, but rather how we as ascribed individual groups view others.

Self ascribed visual representations of the 50 states.

The photo above is a part of a social media campaign sponsored by Play-Doh after more than 30,000 participates voted on the best iconic representations of their states. While playful in nature, this demonstrates an important feature of self-identification in regards to heritage, that the previous photo example does not show, monumental and tangible elements of identification. It shows that by self-ascription, how many people relate the culture of their state to monuments such as the Statue of Liberty, the Alamo, or the Space Needle; while others use natural elements such as the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes, and even local fauna to represent their specific state. What does this mean in terms of personal heritage? Are we as a society conditioned to think of heritage in terms of the most popular physical representations? The question remains then: what makes an individual truly identify with a specific heritage?