Whiteness is an odd thing. It is one of those social constructs that falls apart under any significant degree of scrutiny. Yet few of us pale-skinned descendants of Europeans know how to not think of ourselves as white, as the enculturation of white identity is so deeply embedded within our collective psyche and throughout all of society around us. Such racial ideology frames and shapes everything else, ever lurking in the background even when not acknowledged.
It’s become a symbolic proxy for so much else. Racial differences and divides have become our way of talking about class, economic oppression, housing segregation, capitalist realism, the prison state, and on and on. It’s related to how talk of inequality of wealth so often hides the deeper inequalities of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities; of pollution, lead toxicity, underfunded schools, and loss of green spaces; et cetera.
The thing is white politics of identity and victimhood doesn’t really even benefit most whites. It is a cheap salve and band-aid placed over a wound that cut to the bone and left nerves raw. Whiteness is a sad compensation for all that was lost: ethnic culture, regional identity, close communities, extended kinship, rooted sense of place, the commons, and so much else. No wonder so many whites are on edge, a sense of free-floating anxiety about their place in the world.
The takeover of whiteness has happened slow enough for most people not to notice while being rapid enough to cause a radical transformation of society and civilization. Prior to the world war era, most people didn’t identify with a race or even with a nationality. The sense of self was defined by local experience, relationships, and commitments. That previous world barely lingers in living memory, but is quickly fading.
Most American whites became urbanized a little over a century ago. Even then, much of the rural experience held on in small towns and ethnic enclaves. The Boomer and Silent generations were the last to have a significant number of people to experience those disappearing traces of traditional culture, however faint they were already becoming. With the generations following, the loss is becoming so complete as to become collective amnesia.
My father is a young Silent and, even though his parents came from different parts of the country, he spent most of his early life in a single small town. He wasn’t surrounded by kin beyond his immediate family, but he did have the comfort of being surrounded by a community of people who themselves were surrounded by a web of extended families. That small town has since been decimated and no longer functions as a healthy community, instead having fallen into poverty and decay.
My mother, a first wave Boomer, had a much stronger experience of those old ties. She was born and raised a short distance from where generations of her family had lived. She spent her entire childhood and youth in a single house, in never having moved until college, with extended family all around her, a grandmother and uncle next door along with other uncles, aunts, and cousins in the neighborhood. Her siblings and cousins were her main playmates.
Her ancestors began coming to this sub-region of Kentuckiana (Central-Eastern Kentucky and Southern Indiana) shortly after the American Revolution. The first line of the family came in 1790 to fight Indians. Soon after, other lines of her family showed up in the area. As a young girl, she regularly visited a village where her family lived in the 1800s and where her grandfather had been born, a village that had been turned into a state park with historical re-enactors. Her childhood was filled with elders telling stories about her Kentuckiana ancestral homeland.
This older identity was beginning to erode with industrialization, but some of her family still remains in that area. Some of my father’s family also remains in the small town he left. So, both have hometowns to return to where family will greet and welcome them, including family reunions, but this inheritance isn’t likely to last much longer. My parents never gave my brothers and I the same chance to experience such deep-rooted belonging of family, community, and place.
By the time I graduated from high school, we had lived in four different states in multiple regions of the country. And after graduation, I wandered around between various states before finally settling down. Now the next generation is on the scene. I have two nieces and a nephew living somewhat nearby, if not as close as with my mother’s extended family. This new generation of young kids are all Generation Z or whatever one wants to call them.
If asked, I’m not sure most in the younger generations would have a strong sense of identity with either family or place. In my upbringing, I gained some vague semblance of being ‘Midwestern’, but with mass media so ruling the modern mind now I’m not sure that even such amorphous regional identities retain much hold over the public imagination. What’s replaced the local and trans-local are even more broadly generalized identities of being white, along with being American or Westerner, but such identities don’t speak to the concrete details of lived experience.
Then that brings us to what it means to not be white. That is how we often think of it, since white is the dominant and hence the supposedly defining racial identity. But maybe that is the wrong way around. Instead, it makes more sense that whiteness is defined as not being black, as it is always the other that defines us (the reason we should be careful about the people we choose to ‘other’ as minority or untouchable, as foreigner or outsider, as opposition or enemy). Germans and Italians, Catholics and Jews assimilated into general whiteness. Even Hispanics and Asians are being assimilated. Everyone can assimilate into whiteness, everyone that is except blacks.
Unlike whiteness, being black is a much more specific and localized identity. In America, it is defined by descending from West African ancestors who were enslaved as part of the colonial project of the British Empire with a population that was concentrated in the Deep South where a particular ethno-regional culture was formed and to some degree maintained as a segregated sub-culture among blacks that moved north and west but with most of the black population remaining in or returning to the Deep South.
Another difference is that the majority of American blacks were urbanized rather late, not until the 1960s to 1970s as compared to the ubanization of the white majority several generations earlier. The black population, even in being segregated in inner cities, maintained larger social connections than have most whites. That segregation had many downsides in being built on racist practices of sundown towns, redlining, and exclusion from government benefits that gave so many whites an advantage in moving into the suburban middle class. Yet it had the side benefit of maintaining black communities and black culture as something distinct from the rest of society, and this allowed a certain way of social relating that had been lost to the average white person. As Stephen Steinberg wrote:
“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””
Blacks weren’t allowed to assimilate to the larger society and so had to stick to their own communities, opposite of many other ethnic populations that were encouraged and sometimes forced to assimilate (e.g., German-Americans during world war era). To be black is always to have the stigma of the Deep South and all it stands for. Most whites had their past erased, but blacks aren’t ever allowed to escape the past. And for whites the erasure happened twice over — once before in Europe and once again in the post-colonial order.
The indigenous cultures and religions of Europe were genocidally wiped out over the past two millennia and replaced with foreign systems of rule and worship, primarily of the Roman Empire and the Christianity with the Catholic Church playing a key role, although in England it was the Romanized Normans that created the monarchy and aristocracy that replaced traditional British society. American blacks can look back to West Africa where traditional cultures remain to a large degree, but American whites can’t look back to Europe for traditional cultures are missing. The erasure and amnesia of whiteness is nearly absolute.
This is the reason whites are forced to define themselves against what they are not — they aren’t black, as they aren’t ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’. They inherited the Roman ‘civilization’ as an overlay of all that was destroyed and lost which means they aren’t even ‘indigenous’. So, they’ve become part of some amorphous and monolithic Westernization, upon which WEIRD bias is founded. This WEIRD, this Wetiko disease as victimization cycle is a scar of trauma upon trauma, so many layers thick that the contours of what came before is obliterated. All that is left is whiteness as an empty signifier, an absence and a void, but that throbbing wound reminds us who are called white that we too once had our own traditional and indigenous cultures, that we too were once people of a particular land, of ancient languages and lifeways long since forgotten.
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“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power
interview by Eleanor Hancock
The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves. […]
In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection. […]
When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.
In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up? […]
There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.
When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power? […]
As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”
Roots Deeper than Whiteness
by David Dean
In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.
“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”
Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.
Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:
“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”
Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.
Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”
They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.
At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.
However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.
Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”
The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe
by Lyla June Johnston
I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.
They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.
The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.
Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?
The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.
The Lost People
by Thom Hartmann
Imagine if this — the dream and best effort of the White conquerors from Europe — was fulfilled. Imagine if there was not even one single Native American alive in the entire world who could speak a single sentence in Cree or Ojibwa or Apache or Lakota. Imagine if every Native American alive today, when thinking back to his or her ancestors and past, could only imagine a black-and-white world where people were mute and their ceremonies were mysterious and probably useless and primitive, having no meaning…and if they did have meaning, it didn’t matter anyway because it was now lost. A total forgetting of the past — all the ways and languages and memories and stories — destroyed by the people who had conquered your people. Every bit of your culture was burned in the fire of this conquest, and all was lost. All of your people knew the history of Greece and Rome and England, but nothing of the Cherokee or Dene or Iroquois people.
Can you imagine what a disaster that would be? How empty and alone and frightened you and your people would feel? How easily they could be turned into slaves and robots by the dominators? How disconnected they would feel from the Earth and from each other? And how this disconnection could lead them to accept obscene behavior like wars and personal violence and the fouling of waters and air and soil as “normal”? Perhaps they would even celebrate this fouling in the name of “progress,” because they would have no memory of the Old Ways, no realization of the meaning or consequences of these actions.
Imagine if your people were no longer a people, no longer nations and tribes and clans, but only frightened individuals of a different race than their conquerors, speaking only the language of their conquerors, sharing only the memories of their conquerors, and living only to serve the richest of those conquerors.
This is an almost unimaginable picture. The worse fate that could befall any people. The most horrific crime humans can commit against other humans.
And this is what happened a few thousand years ago to my people, to the Whites of Europe, who for 70,000 years prior to that had lived tribally just as your elders did.
It was done first by the Celts, who conquered and consolidated most of the tribal people of Europe 3000 years ago. It was then done more thoroughly by Julius Caesar of the pre-Christian Romans 2000 years ago. And it was absolutely finished by the iron-fisted “Christian” Romans 1000 years ago as their new Church sought out and destroyed all the ancient places, banned the old rituals, and tortured and murdered people who practiced the ancient European tribal religions. They even converted all alphabets to the Roman alphabet, and forced European people to change their holy days, calendars, and even the date (the year 1 or “beginning of time”) to one that marked the beginning of the Roman Christian Empire’s history.
This massive and thorough stripping of their identity and ancient ways — this “great forgetting,” as the Australian Aborigines refer to it — is why my people often behave as if they are “insane.” It is why they are disrespectful of our Mother the Earth and the life on Her. It is why so many of my people want to be like you and your people, to the point of dressing in buckskin and carrying medicine pouches and building sweat lodges from California to Maine to Germany. It is why we have hundreds of “odd” religions and paths, and why so many of my people flit from Hinduism to Buddhism to Paganism like a butterfly going from flower to flower: they have no roots, no tribe, no elders, no path of their own. All were systematically destroyed by the Celts, the Romans, and then the Roman Catholics. Whites in America and Europe — and Blacks who were brought to America as slaves and have since lost their ancient ways and languages — are a people bereft. They are alone and isolated from their ancient clans and tribes. Broken apart from the Earth, they are unable to reclaim their ancient languages, practices, and medicine…because these are gone, totally destroyed, even to the last traces. […]
For over a thousand years, the soldiers and inquisitors of the Holy Roman Catholic Church spread across Europe and destroyed the native people’s sacred sites, forbade them to practice their religions, and hunted down and killed those who spoke the Old Languages or practiced the healing or ancient arts.
Stones with written histories on them were smashed to dust.
Ancient temples and libraries were torn down or set afire, and Roman churches were built atop them.
The few elders who tried to preserve the Old Ways were called “witches” and “pagans” and “heathens,” and imprisoned, tortured, hung, beheaded, impaled, or burned alive. Their sacred groves of trees were burned, and if their children went into the forest to pray they were arrested and executed. God was taken from the natural world and put into the box of a church, and Nature was no longer regarded as sacred but, instead, as evil and dangerous, something to be subdued and dominated.
For a thousand years — continuously — the conquerors of the Roman Official (Catholic) Church did this to the tribal people of Europe.
As a result, today not a single European remembers the Old Ways or can speak the Ancient Languages. Not a single elder is left who knows of sacred sites, healing plants, or how to pronounce the names of his ancestors’ gods. None remember the time — which the archeological record indicates was probably at least twenty thousand years long, and perhaps as much as seventy thousand years long — when tribes lived peacefully and harmoniously in much of what we now call Europe. None remember the ways of the tribes, their ceremonies, their rituals of courtship, marriage, birth, death, healing, bringing rain, speaking to the plants and animals and stones of our Mother the Earth.
Not one single person alive still carries this knowledge. All is lost but a few words, the dates and names of some holidays, and a few simple concepts that have been stripped of their original context.
For example, my father’s parents came here from Norway during World War I. They spoke Norwegian, but it was not the true language of their ancestors. That language was written with a different alphabet, which is referred to today as Runic; nobody alive remembers how to pronounce the runes, or their original meanings. Adolf Hitler adopted one of the ancient Norwegian runes — what is believed to be the symbol of lightning and the god of lightning — for his most elite troops. The double lightning-bolts looked like an SS, so they were called the SS, but it was really a rune. So lost are the old ways of my grandmother’s people that even the Nazis felt free to steal and reinvent them in any way they pleased.
When we track it back, it seems likely that it all began — the entire worldwide 5000-year-long orgy of genocide and cultural destruction — in a part of the Middle East known then as Ur and now called Iraq. It started with a man named Gilgamesh, or one of his ancestors, in an area now called Baghdad.
The first conquers — the first people to rise up and discard the Great Law — were not the “White men” of Europe. They were, instead, the people of the region where the Middle East meets northern Africa. (Which is why this area is referred to as the “Cradle of [our] Civilization.”) Their direct descendant is not the Pope or the Queen of England or King of Spain, but a man named Saddam Hussein.