Whiteness is Absence, is Loss and Death

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.

* * *

“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.

White-on-White Violence, Cultural Genocide, and Historical Trauma

“What white bodies did to Black bodies they did to other white bodies first.”
~ Janice Barbee

How Racism Began as White-on-White Violence
by Resmaa Menakem

Yet this brutality did not begin when Black bodies first encountered white ones. This trauma can be traced back much further, through generation upon generation of white bodies, to medieval Europe.

When the Europeans came to America after enduring 1000 years of plague, famine, inquisitions, and crusades they brought much of their resilience, much of their brutality, and, I believe, a great deal of their trauma with them. Common punishments in the “New World” English colonies were similar to the punishments meted out in England, which included whipping, branding, and cutting off ears. People were routinely placed in stocks or pillories, or in the gallows with a rope around their neck. In America, the Puritans also regularly murdered other Puritans who were disobedient or found guilty of witchery.

In such ways, powerful white bodies routinely punished less powerful white bodies. In 1692, during the Salem witch trials, eighty-year-old Giles Corey was stripped naked and, over a period of two days, slowly crushed to death under a pile of rocks.

We know that the English in America, and their descendants, dislodged brains, blocked airways, ripped muscle, extracted organs, cracked bones, and broke teeth in the bodies of many Black people,Native peoples and other white colonists. But what we often fail to recognize about this “New World” murder, cruelty, oppression, and torture is that, until the second half of the seventeenth century, these traumas were inflicted primarily on white bodies by other white bodies — all on what would become US soil. […]

Throughout the United States’ history as a nation, white bodies have colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered Black and Native ones. But well before the United States began, powerful white bodies colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered other, less powerful white ones.

The carnage perpetrated on Black people and Native Peoples in the “New World” began, on the same soil, as an adaptation of longstanding white-on-white traumatic retention strategies and brutal class practices. This brutalization created trauma that has yet to be healed among American bodies of all hues today.

Chinese Social Political Stability Rests in “Dual Faceted Identity System” (A Model Societal System Analysis based on Recent Rise of White Nationalism in US)
by killingzoo

Equally interesting, while some minority groups in US seem to become more unhappy as they gained power, Asians in general still has little political influence in US, and yet remained very calm.

The clue laid in some worst examples: Kevin Yee, the 3rd Generation Chinese American neo-Nazi supporter, and Adolf Hitler himself (who had a Jewish grandmother).

1 friend said to me: These neo-Nazi “White nationalists”. They don’t even know who they are (where they came from)

Same problem with Yee and Hitler: They forgot (or never knew) their own heritage, so they convinced themselves to follow/worship a mythical “White” identity that really never existed. “White” is just the color of their skin, it doesn’t tell them anything about where their ancestors came from.

Heck, some neo-Nazis probably also had Native American and African slave bloodlines in their families!

The Monolithic “assimilation” in America has forced too many Americans to integrate and forget their own native culture and their native languages of many sides.

The opposite examples are the “hyphenated Americans”, Chinese Americans, Jewish Americans, etc..

The “hyphenation” denoted a multi-faceted identity of these groups. Chinese Americans are known for strongly preserving their Chinese culture and language, even as they integrated into US political economic processes.

Being “hyphenated” multi-faceted in identity has the benefit of greater tolerance for the “others”. As such groups recognize that they came from elsewhere, they tend to give higher tolerance to those who are different, or who are new to US, because a Chinese American himself is also different from many other Americans.

It’s hardly sensible for a Chinese American to demand a new immigrant to “speak proper English”, when others could easily make jokes about his accent. (Though Kevin Yee might do so).

For this reason, many hyphenated American groups with strong multi-faceted identities tend to be very tolerant, less inclined to feel that they are under threat from other groups, and more likely to be liberals in political social views, even if they are conservative in fiscal beliefs. For example, Jewish Americans are typically conservative fiscally but liberal socially. Similarly, Mormons (with their religious enclaves in Utah), tend to be conservative, but very welcome of immigrants. Mennonites of Dutch origin, also tend to be conservative in lifestyle, and yet hold some very liberal tolerant and very friendly views of others.

A Disconnection Projected

There is an overlap between those who demand immigrants assimilate to mainstream American culture and those who resist having their children assimilate to mainstream American culture by either homeschooling them or sending them to private schools.

I’m not sure how many people fit into this overlap. I suspect it is a significant number. Whatever their numbers, they seem to be a disproportionately vocal demographic.

Their view appears hypocritical, but maybe there is a hidden consistency based on a false belief. These kind of people seem to think their minority culture, typically of right-wing fundamentalism, often of the rural South Bible Belt, is mainstream American culture.

They are so disconnected that they don’t realize they are disconnected. Instead, they project their disconnection onto others and seek to scapegoat them. In reality, most immigrants tend to be more demanding about their children assimilating than are native-born parents and also tend to take the American Dream more seriously.

If everyone home-schooled their children or sent them to private schools, then and only then would American-style assimilation fail. Public schools are the backbone of our shared culture and they have been for a very long time.

It is strange how people forget history. Right-wing fundamentalists were the biggest supporters who originally pushed for public schools, and a major reason they gave was to help the children of immigrants to assimilate. This same group now attacks public schools.

Southern Blacks: From Old World to Americanized

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. I recommend the book and the audio version in particular.

I’ve had a longtime interest in migration patterns, both to the U.S. and between regions. Reading this book is companion to my reading about the migrations of Southern whites to the same regions Southern blacks headed, mostly the industrial Midwest and California. My previous posts on Southern white migration can be found here and here.

This touches on one of my most favorite blogging themes, the Midwest. I have even more posts about that which I won’t even try to list or link. Where this book touched on the Midwest theme is in contrasting the Northern and Southern cultures. In quoting immigrants, Southern blacks spoke of moving to the North (and other regions of the non-South) as becoming “Americanized”. Others spoke of the South as the “Old World”, as if they had immigrated to the North from a foreign country in some far off continent.

The following are four passages from Wilkerson’s book, the fourth and longest one is Wilkerson speaking of her own experience as the Northern child of Southern black immigrants.

* * * *

It turned out that the old-timers were harder on the new people than most anyone else. “Well, their English was pretty bad,” a colored businessman said of the migrants who flooded Oakland and San Francisco in the forties, as if from a foreign country. To his way of looking at it, they needed eight or nine years “before they seemed to get Americanized.”

As the migrants arrived in the receiving stations of the North and West, the old-timers wrestled with what the influx meant for them, how it would affect the way others saw colored people, and how the flood of black southerners was a reminder of the Jim Crow world they all sought to escape. In the days before Emancipation, as long as slavery existed, no freed black was truly free. Now, as long as Jim Crow and the supremacy behind it existed, no blacks could ever be sure they were beyond its reach.

One day a white friend went up to a longtime Oakland resident named Eleanor Watkins to ask her what she thought about all the newcomers.

“Eleanor,” the woman said , “you colored people must be very disgusted with some of the people who have come here from the South and the way they act.”

“Well, Mrs. S.,” Eleanor Watkins replied. “Yes, some colored people are very disgusted, but as far as I’m concerned, the first thing I give them credit for is getting out of the situation they were in.… Maybe they don’t know how to dress or comb their hair or anything , but their children will and their children will.”

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 5285-5297). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

* * * *

Both men start to lament the changes all around them, the sadder effects of the big city of the North on the people of the South. George waxes on about the days when “people would come down to 135th Street with their house chairs, and they would baptize people in the Harlem River.

“We used to have a boat ride off 125th Street in the Dyckman section,” he says.

“Spread the blankets out. Midsummer, people didn’t have air-conditioning. People would stay up there all night and play card games.

“Things were so much different,” he says. “Drugs wasn’t heard of where I came from. When I came to New York, I didn’t know what a reefer was.”

“We got to being Americanized,” Reverend Harrison is saying. “It got to where we don’t help each other.”

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 8481-8487). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 * * * *

The hierarchy in the North “ called for blacks to remain in their station,” Lieberson wrote, while immigrants were rewarded for “their ability to leave their old world traits” and become American as quickly as possible . Society urged them to leave Poland and Latvia behind and enter the mainstream white world. Not so with their black counterparts like Ida Mae, Robert, and George.

“Although many blacks sought initially to reach an assimilated position in the same way as did the new European immigrants,” Lieberson noted, “the former’s efforts were apt to be interpreted as getting out of their place or were likely to be viewed with mockery.” Ambitious black migrants found that they were not able to get ahead just by following the course taken by immigrants and had to find other routes to survival and hoped-for success.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 7605-7612). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

* * * *

The seeds of this project were sown within me years ago, growing up with parents who had migrated from the South and who sent me to an affluent white grade school that they themselves could never have dreamed of attending. There, classmates told of ancestors coming from Ireland or Scandinavia with little in their pockets and making something of themselves in the New World. Over time , I came to realize that the same could be said of my family and of millions of other black Americans who had journeyed north during the Great Migration.

I gravitated to the children of recent immigrants from Argentina, Nepal, Ecuador, El Salvador, with whom I had so much in common as the children of newcomers: the accents and folkways of overprotective parents suspicious of the libertine mores of the New World and our childish embarrassment at their nervous hovering; the exotic , out-of-step delicacies from the Old Country that our mothers lovingly prepared for our lunchboxes; the visits to my parents’ fellow “immigrant” friends— all just happening to be from the South and exchanging the latest about the people from back home; the gentle attempts at instilling Old World values from their homelands, my father going so far as to nudge me away from city boys and toward potential suitors whose parents he knew from back home in Petersburg, Virginia , who were, to him, upstanding boys by definition and who would make a fine match in his view, which all but guaranteed that I’d have little interest in them.

Thus I grew up the daughter of immigrants, “a southerner once removed,” as the Mississippi-born poet Natasha Trethewey once called me. My parents bore the subtle hallmarks of the immigrant psyche, except they were Americans who had taken part in an internal migration whose reach and nuances are still little understood.

Wilkerson, Isabel (2010-09-07). The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Kindle Locations 9802-9815). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Midlands Mestizo: Pluralism and Social Democracy

I’ve been struggling to get my thoughts in order about race, ethnicity, culture and nation. These can sometimes refer to the same thing, but there are many interpretive lenses and many related ideas and issues.

Colin Woodard argues that nations as ethnic cultures aren’t necessarily identical with states.

Some nations have states and some are stateless, existing within larger states that include or cross over multiple nations. Some states are based on a historically identifiable traditional ethnic culture, but during the imperial and colonial age (i.e., modern history) that became an increasingly uncertain claim. America certainly isn’t like the traditional notion of an ethnic nation-state in the way many perceive European countries, but then again one could argue that not even (most?) European countries consist of single ethnic nations.

Spain, for example, includes the separate ethnic nation of the Basque, a ethnic demographic that crosses state boundaries into France. The Basque are separate from other Spanish and French people, separate culturally, linguistically and genetically. The Basque who some suggest are Celtic have been fighting off invaders maybe since before the Roman Empire came around. There is no particular reason why the Basque should care about Spanish or French nationalism and other non-Basque ethnocentric concerns. Also, why should the Basque identify any more with the European history of Roman and German invaders to their land than they do with the Mediterranean history of African and Arab invaders?

The Basque aren’t Europeans. They are Celts and I’m sure they are proud of being so. Their ancestors were among the first humans to arrive in Europe. It’s the same reason the Celtic Scottish and Irish have fought so much with the English. It is a fight for the continued existence of their people. If there is any ethnic purity left in Europe, it is to be found with these clannish native people who live in tiny ethnic islands.

Pretty much all of Europe is a confusion of separate and intertwining ethnic groups, and even the ethnic islands haven’t survived unscathed and unchanged.

Certainly, there is no singular European people in any objective sense. Europe as seen on maps is just as arbitrary as most state boundaries. Europe only arose as an identity largely because of Roman aspirations and the later imperial aspirations of others who were likewise inspired. England and Scotland exist as separate places simply because that is as far as the Romans advanced. The same goes for France and Germany. Borders typically are the detritus of failed or waning imperialism, memories of a bygone era made to seem permanently real in the present because people (temporarily) get tired of fighting over it.

Europeans, like Americans, are neither separately distinct nor united. Rather, they are somewhere in between, a constant flux of borders and identities. Europe is just another creole society and there is nothing to be ashamed in that.

Border people can often be a particularly mixed lot. Border people survive not just by resisting but also by accommodating and syncretizing (which is why, for example, Celtic people of today are Christians rather than having remained Pagans). I have ancestors from both endpoints of Roman expansionism, on the continent and in Britain. This is why the topic has come to my attention. I hadn’t previously realized how important are border people. It is border people who prove how malleable and permeable are the concepts of borders.

A border is a meeting point and hence a mixing and joining place… or so they have been for the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, prehistorical and historical, prior to the rise of modern nation-states. The highly militarized borders of today are a recent invention. Such borders are unnatural, thus requiring massive amounts of wealth, technology and manpower to enforce on human reality and on the physical landscape. The toll is costly, both in terms of taxes and human misery. Such costs of maintaining borders has always been a main contributing factor in the demise of all those with imperial aspirations. It just ends up costing too much and is in the end unsustainable.

Spain and Portugal is another border region and the Basque another border people. Border people often survive and fight back by residing in mountainous or swampy areas, the  former for the Basque. The Iberian Peninsula was a place of ethnic struggle that took the form of wars between governments and religions. Most interesting were the Moors who were one of the greatest influences on the European Renaissance and hence all European culture thereafter. This is the point where Europe met Africa and back in the day Africa had some powerful, wealthy and quite advanced kingdoms.

As a side note, the original slave trade in Europe was targeted against the Eastern Europeans, i.e., Slavs; and it was justified because white skin was associated with social and intellectual inferiority (interestingly, even many Europeans today still look down upon Eastern Europeans, although they no longer see their pasty white skin as the reason). This Mediterranean slave trade of Europeans continued into the beginning centuries of the Atlantic slave trade of Africans. To give context, in 1602 John Smith, who later became the most famous leader of Jamestown (a later center of American slavery), was himself captured and sold as a slave to a Turk.

Through millennia of war, slavery and trade, the people of the Iberian Peninsula are what one might fairly call a creole society.

This could be said of countries like England as well with its mix of Celtic people, several Germanic ethnicities, the Scandinavian Vikings, the Romans (who brought with them a diversity of ethnicities in their armies and among their slaves, including Africans), and the Normans (who were Romanized Germans). The other Mediterranean people like the Iberian people have never been very good at maintaining ethnic purity with all that long-distance seafaring that regularly brought foreigners right to their doorstep. If even the British so far away from continental Europe couldn’t keep themselves ethnically pure, the Southern Europeans were truly out of luck in that department.

It’s not as if the United States invented racial mixing, the dreaded miscegenation, nor even the notion of multiculturalism. Humans have been mixing it up for millennia. This is why almost the entire homo sapiens population of the earth includes the genetics of other hominid species; it was near the Mediterranean in the Levant that homo sapiens probably first bumped uglies with the Neanderthals (Jesus, if you want some good ol’ fashioned racial purity, ya better stay away from the Mediterranean Sea, that cauldron of sin and temptation; well, ya better stay away from all large bodies of water, go to the interior and go as far North as possible or at least hide out in the mountains for even swamps can be drained). We humans will hump anything that moves and sometimes things that don’t move, although only the former tends to lead to viable offspring. This is why ethnicity is such a nebulous concept and race can seem almost meaningless at times.

Nonetheless, good multiculturalist liberal that I am, I don’t want to see the end of ethnic differences, issues of racial purity aside. At the same time, I’m not a big fan of the worst traits of clannishness such as violence, nepotism, cronyism, etc. Clannishness is the polar opposite of a social democracy. You can try to have a clannish nation-state, but it will inevitably lead to a brutally oppressive society. I love and find fascinating the diversity of ethnicities, but I want to live in a world that brings out the best in ethnic cultures, not the worst. Plus, I would add that not all cultures are ethnic cultures. A multicultural culture is a culture too and a worthy one at that.

The social and political divides in America and the Americas have their origins in the ethnic divides of Old World. The divide isn’t between whites and non-whites but between those of European descent.

There are the divides in Britain. The anti-monarchist Puritans from East Anglia who settled New England were of a more Anglo-Saxon descent and the pro-monarchist Cavaliers from Wessex who came to dominate Virginia were of Norman descent. These two separate ethnicities in England fought a civil war there and in America their descendents fought another civil war. Talk about a lack of assimilation. The clannish Scots-Irish, Scottish and Irish were also never big on assimilation; and for good reason as they found no more love here in America than they did back in Britain. In the American North, they were involved in Civil War draft riots. In the American South, they supported secession as a way of creating their own new clannish nation. Either way, not the material out of which patriotic Americans are easily made. It took centuries of weakening their clannishness before they began to lose some of their xenophobic ethnocentrism, but they still haven’t fully assimilated to the American Way and continue to pine for their Lost Cause of anti-American secession or else some romanticized ideal of their traditional culture. Give us a few more centuries and we’ll finally make good Americans out of those clannish Southerners (or not, heck if I know).

An additional European divide is less geographic, but I’ll add it here amidst these grander divides. The original European people have been swamped by the later immigrations and conquerings. These earlier people are less defined by the nation-state identities. I’ve mentioned the Basque who cross the boundary between Spain and France. More interestingly, the Irish originate from the Basque (by the way, it sounds like that although culturally similar to Celtics the Irish/Basque people aren’t genetically the same as the Celtics). The Irish are a mysterious group when considering genetics and the Black Irish, but there seems to be no absolute conclusions as of yet. Anyway, their unique origins would explain the conflict these two peoples have had with the populations that surround them. These are particularly clannish people who have attempted to maintain local self-governance and ethnic identity in the face of those who wish to impose upon them from the outside (i.e., the great empires of Spain, France and England). These clannish people declared a forceful ‘no’ to assimilation. The Basque republican independence even helped to inspire early American political thinking (see here).

Another European divide of the more starkly geographic variety is that between Northern and Southern Europe which is based on the boundary of the Roman Empire. The Roman culture has its connection to Britain with the Cavaliers who were of Norman descent and so the American South can partly be seen as the long-lasting influence of the Roman Empire which could be seen in the South’s imperialist aspirations leading up to the Civil War, imperial aspirations that spread all the way through Mexico, down into Central America and to Caribbean islands such as Cuba (Southerners dreamed big, ya gotta give them that). The American North, on the other hand, was populated by people (including Germans and Scandinavians) who were less influenced by the Roman Empire and by the Mediterranean cultures in general.

Yet another divide existed within Southern Europe. The other great power in this region were the Moors. For many centuries, they ruled Portugal, Spain, and Andorra along with parts of France and Italy. Hispania was the name the Romans gave to the Iberian Peninsula where the Moors later had their most power and influence and this is the etymological origin of Spain. The origin of the Hispanics of the Americas originates from this region of Hispanic Europe. Genetic testing even shows how different this population is from the rest of Europe.

The Southern Europe angle is so fascinating because it partly mirrors the early development of Southern North America.

The Iberian Peninsula extends south toward Africa like Mexico in relation to the black-populated Central and South America. There are the mixed-race/ethnicity Hispanics with their open range cowboy culture brought from Spain and the Romanized Germanic Norman Cavaliers with their feudalist-like slave society (ignoring the uncertainty of how many of the Cavaliers actually descended from Norman aristocracy; certainly there were plenty of actual titled British nobility among them, whatever their ancestry). One could think of the Gulf of Mexico as the American version of the Mediterranean Sea, both areas of vast multiculturalism and creole societies and both areas of conflict-ridden ethnic rivalries. And one could think of South America with its large African-descended population as the twin of Africa, both places ravaged by centuries of colonial exploitation and imperial oppression, not to mention the Atlantic slave trade.

The multiculturalism of the US isn’t a failure of having lost our supposed European traditional values. If there is a failure, it is because we mimicked the long (and often conflicted, war torn even) multicultural history of Europe. The US is the seeming inevitable extension of how Europe has been evolving over the past thousand years or so. You reap what you sow or rather what your forefathers sowed.

I want to further follow the Hispanic issue into American history, but I think the best way to do that is by considering the Quakers.

My favorite descendant of Quakers was Thomas Paine. His father was a Quaker and his mother was an Anglican, but it was his father who was the main influence in guiding his education and ensuring he had instilled him the Quaker values of plain speech and practical knowledge. Interestingly, Paine grew up in East Anglia, the original hotbed of the Puritans. It was also an area that had experienced a lot of the enclosure movement.

The enclosures were designed to end the commons. Both Quakers and Puritans put great value on the commons. The Quakers were concentrated in the North Midlands which had a long history of Viking and Norse settlements (but I noticed that Quakers also had some concentration in an area of Wales where the American Midlands socialist Robert Owen came from). The Vikings, as I recall, gave them a proto-feminism and the Norse gave them a proto-democracy. The commons wasn’t just a place for people to graze their animals and gather wood. The commons was also where the common folk met to debate and vote on issues, most often about their community. Americans were carrying on this tradition in the North during the Revolutionary Era and it continues to this day.

Paine was coming of age when the full effect of enclosures were being felt. When he visited London, he saw the masses of land dispossessed who had been forced into the cities. The commons had allowed for Lockean land rights and hence subsistence living. The enclosures left people homeless and starving. So, before coming to the colonies, Paine saw the first labor unions forming and the first working class protests.

I bring this up because the same conservatives who wrongly argue about the tragedy of the commons also argue about tighter border control. The conservative mind loves boundaries and wants everything enclosed and controlled, typically by the perceived moral elite (and failing that, the political and plutocratic elite, same difference right?). The fear was that if the common people were democratically allowed to govern themselves and control their own lives they would mess everything up and destroy all that is good about society.

Quakers for their time were quite liberal which in their case meant they had great faith in the common people (and, from the common people’s perspective, an unwillingness to govern others). This is the basis of the pluralistic Midlands that combined pansy liberal values such as feminism and pacifism with more hardcore liberal values of left-libertarianism and direct democracy. The love of democracy, especially social democracy, is what eventually allied the Midlands with Yankeedom, but Midlands never fully got on board with the Puritan-originated melting pot assimilationist program.

Pluralism is an odd way to do borders. The Quakers neither sought to enforce borders nor to destroy them. They simply left them up to communities. So, in the Midlands, you will find ethnic enclaves and islands while also finding varying degrees of mixed up populations. It was the ideal of freedom of association (or not if one so desired).

The Midlands became so important to American identity, the Heartland, because of the way it moderated the extremes and lessened the distance between differences.

The Quakers weren’t against assimilation, just against oppressively enforced assimilation. In the end, the Quaker Midlands (with some major help from New Netherlands/New York) have been more successful at assimilating ethnic immigrants into American society than either the oppressively enforced assimilation of New England or the oppressively enforced assimilation of the Deep South. The Midlands inspires ethnic immigrants to assimilate themselves by making clear to them that they aren’t the enemy and that they have a place in American society. Build enough public institutions like public schools and most people, the clannish aside, will assimilate themselves in a generation or two, sometimes several generations.

The Midwest is the Midlands which was settled by the Quakers who were middle class immigrants from the English Midlands. Hamlin Garland referred to the Midwest as the Middle Border. That captures the essence of some truth. Between Yankees and Southerners, Midlands is part of the region of the original Middle Colonies (along with the former New Netherlands colony). It was the border territory between settlements and frontier, eventually extending by way of immigration and settlement patterns down into upper Texas and up into lower Canada (the only cultural region that connects South and North). This is the Middle West, between the East Coast and the West Coast, the flyover country one passes over going from one place to another. It is the middle of America, including the geographic center of the contiguous United States along with the median and mean center of the United States population.

The Middle Colonies and the Midwest is so symbolically important in American history for many reasons. It was a meeting point of empires with the Penn’s Quaker colony with its largely German immigrants, the Dutch colony of New Netherlands with a diverse population, the New Sweden colony that later was incorporated into New Netherlands, and the Native American allied French Empire extending along the edge of the Middle colonies. It was also where most new immigrants arrived and settled or else passed through on their way westward. It is where some of the most centrally located multicultural big cities: New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago (all three in the top 5 most populous cities in the US).

This middle region of the US is where cultures mixed. It has maybe the most ethnic enclaves and ethnic islands in the entire country. The only other region that competes is that of the Northern border region of the Spanish Empire, the region where met Hispanics, Native Americans, French, Africans, and all the mix of people going west and south from the British colonies.

Spain and the Spanish Empire played a similar role of a meeting ground of peoples and cultures.

As I’ve pointed out, even before they sought to colonize the Americas and import African slaves, the Spanish people back in Europe were already mixing it up. Beyond the Basque, there are numerous native ethnic groups with their own non-Spanish languages. Even the Roma are considered a native people in Spain where they live as an autonomous community in Andalusia. Spain has a multicultural tradition that has existed for a long time and continues to this day:

“As of 2010, there were over 6 million foreign-born residents in Spain, corresponding to 14% of the total population. Of these, 4.1 million (8.9% of the total population) were born outside the European Union and 2.3 million (5.1%) were born in another EU Member State.[1]

“Because of its location in the Iberian Peninsula, the territory comprising modern Spain has always been at the crossroads of human migration, having harboured many waves of historical immigration. The Spanish Empire, one of the first global empires and one of the largest in the world, spanned all inhabited continents and throughout the years people from these lands emigrated to Spain in varying numbers.”

I wonder if this history as a geographic crossroads helped Spain become such a major empire controlling so many different ethnic groups and mixed populations. As a people, I’d assume they had a fair amount of familiarity with dealing with diversity along with the related issues of inter-ethnic conflict, pluralistic tolerance and national assimilation.

Their way of dealing with it, however, doesn’t seem to be exactly like how the English dealt with it in their similar history of diversity. I’m not overly familiar with the Spanish Empire, but I have been reading more about Hispanic culture here in the Americas. Among the Hispanic population, there is the idea of mestizo which as a general concept is less about the crossbreeding of supposed separate races than it is about the cultural culmination where ethnicities meet. In discussing this in Mestizo Democracy: The Politics of Crossing Borders, John Francis Burke pointed out a false dichotomy that typically polarizes debate (Kindle Locations 180-184):

“As was the case with the individual v. community dichotomy, assimilationism v. separatism presumes there are only two possibilities-a universal, uniform community identity or particular intense cultural identities. Behind this presumption lies the notion of cultural identity as a possession to be preserved and not as a fluid relationship in which a culture is both affected by constant new influences and, reciprocally, affects or shapes those influences. Just as the intersubjective basis of human relations dissovles the wall between the individual and the community, so the logic of distinguishing a universal generic community from particular dense cultures disintegrates once we acknowledge that cultures continually interpenetrate and transform one another and that any articulation of a universal political community is connected to this vibrant interchange among its particular cultural groups.

Burke then concludes the chapter with the following (Kindle Locations 282-286):

“A just unity-in-diversity thus entails the pursuit of the following two questions. What are the conditions under which diverse cultural groups can even begin to dialogue? How can marginalized groups gain genuine access-without emasculating their respective cultures in the process-to the political, social, and economic decision-making structures that in large part affect their destinies? Given the import of such questions, a mestizo democracy is hardly a saccharine celebration of multiculturalism. Rather it is a politics of “crossing borders” that considers how cultures can realize their respective distinctiveness in interaction with other cultures while simultaneously engendering a just, substantive political community in which the dignity of `others’ is not marginalized.”

As is made clear, Burke isn’t just talking about the relationship between Americans and Mexican immigrants. It’s also about Hispanics who have been here since before the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War. It’s even more generally about every ethnic group, including those of European ancestry and those who are first generation immigrants from all over.

The problem with Borg-style assimilation is that even most white Americans of colonial era ancestry don’t want to be told that they will be assimilated and that resistance is futile. I dare you to go to some small rural Southern community and tell the people there that in order to be real Americans they have to fully assimilate to the standard culture, lifestyle and way of speaking as shown on US mass media. I double-dog dare you!

This is why I speak of pluralism, whether done in the style of mestizo or the middle colonies. I’m fond of the Midlands style because it is an example of unity-in-diversity that exists at the heart of the American identity. This pluralism isn’t a foreign concept. It is America itself, if anything is America at all.

Even we white people are more genetically mixed up (not just among European ethnicities) than we’d like to admit, but it isn’t the end of the world. We’ve survived as a country this long and so far our diversity has been our strength. What does race even mean in the land of the American mutt?

I was noticing an article about Vanessa Williams who in American society is considered African-American (for example, a big deal was made at the time that she was the first African-American to be crowned Miss America). In the article, it describes the results of genetic testing she had done. Her results were: “23% from Ghana, 17% from the British Isles, 15% from Cameroon, 12% Finnish, 11% Southern European, 7% Togo, 6% Benin, 5% Senegal and 4% Portuguese.” She is almost evenly split between European and African genetics, but she does look like what people in America think of as black with darker skin and thick dark hair. Nonetheless, it would be about as correct to call her a European-American. If you were to compare her to a full-blooded African, she would look quite European indeed.

Are our arguments about race really about percentages? So, if a black person or Hispanic person can prove they have more than 50% European genetics, we’ll let them into the white club? If so, there are a lot of people perceived as non-white who should be considered white. However, if having a drop (or even quite a few drops) of non-European blood means a person isn’t white, we’ll have to kick a bunch of Americans out of the white club.

If it isn’t about race but some judgment of an ethnic culture as inferior, then why do we continue to allow rural Southern Scots-Irish to be a part of the American experiment. Objectively speaking, they are dragging us all down. They’ve resisted assimilation, just as white Americans accuse minorities. They are violent, just as white Americans accuse minorities. They have massive social problems, just as white Americans accuse minorities. So, why are so many white Americans, specifically conservatives, reluctant to fairly bring the same accusations against another so-called white American group?

I’d argue that even Hispanics are more assimilable than the Scots-Irish have proven to be. The Scots-Irish at least received the benefit of the doubt and we tried to assimilate them. Few white Americans ever gave the Hispanics such benefit of the doubt extending over the centuries. How can Hispanics prove they are American enough when the bar keeps getting raised for them according to the typical racist double standard? Besides, it was we white Americans who invaded their land first and annexed it with Hispanics already living there. Why are we white Americans complaining about people remaining on their people’s land after we’ve taken it?

Let me continue my thought by quoting from an HBD article:

Law Alone?
by Audacious Epigone

“The paradox presented here for many like myself is that the places inspiring the warmest feelings and that I would like most to live in are the places that tend to put the least effort into maintaining what they have. It’s tragic. It doesn’t strike me as overly cynical to presume that this is almost inevitable, as though liberalism doesn’t know when or where to stop and just keeps cruising along the progressive highway past the promised land and over the cliff. [ . . . ]

What of birthright citizenship? Our own 14th amendment has been read by the courts in such a way that if one is able to spawn somewhere in the country, through hook, crook or otherwise, then said spawn is, jus soli, a child of the land he was born on.”

To my mind, this is the voice of someone who just doesn’t get it, not to say that I don’t sympathize with the complaint (yes, the evolving multicultural world has lots of problems).

I would argue that the reason those countries inspire the warmest feelings is because they are open societies (i.e., liberal democracies). Take the liberal away by making them closed societies and what makes them great in the first place would be almost instantly destroyed. This is all the more true for the US which was closer to being an ethnic nation-state prior to the European invasion and it’s been going in the opposite direction ever since.

I have one ancestor (of European descent) who was born in Kentucky before the American Revolution. This was at a time when the British had a treaty that forbade settlers from living there. So, not only were some of my white ancestors illegal immigrants, but they had an anchor baby as well.

My ancestors were far from unusual. It was because of all those law-breaking immigrants, especially the Scots-Irish, that the British (and later the US government) struggled to maintain order and maintain the border. Those early Scots-Irish make the worst Mexican undocumented workers of today look like angels. If not for those trouble-making rebellious clannish ethnics, it is a lot less likely that many of the wars and revolutions would have happened here. We might now be as peaceful and moderate as Canada without those violent, crime-ridden Scots-Irish constantly forcing the hand of authority. I’ve entertained the idea that a significant part of the Civil War was a clannishly ethnic refusal to assimilate, specifically as the South lost political influence and the Northern Melting/Stew Pot American Dream became predominant. Even so, these centuries later we Americans finally assimilated the Scots-Irish, more or less. In doing so, we broke their clannish spirit by making them Americans and they are nearly respectable at this point. If we can assimilate the Scots-Irish, we can assimilate anyone.

I’m picking on the Scots-Irish just to make a point, but I have nothing against them any more than I have against any other ethnicity. Every immigrant group has its strengths and weaknesses. The strength of America is precisely because we have a diversity of strengths and hence don’t share the same weaknesses. Besides, it’s kind of pointless talking about Scots-Irish or Hispanic or whatever. Most Americans have a little bit of many ethnicities in them.

If we white Americans WASPs don’t like multiculturalism, then we should give back to the Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish and Native Americans their respective colonies and territories. Otherwise, shut up and be a good American mutt, whether a mutt in terms of genetics or cultures. Or else don’t and instead be a clannish regionalist (or even isolationists like the Amish), yet another good ol’ American tradition. I suppose we have space for all types here in America.

Live and let live, like good Quaker Friends.

Here are some posts that have got me thinking lately, the first four being from hbd chick and involving my discussions with her in the comments section:

http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2012/01/18/the-happiest-healthiest-community-in-the-u-s/

http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/american-nations/

http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/clannish-or-not/

http://hbdchick.wordpress.com/2012/09/23/civicness-in-spain-by-region/

http://www.craigwilly.info/2013/07/07/emmanuel-todds-linvention-de-leurope-a-critical-summary/

Additional thought the day after writing this:

I’m a Midlander and so I’m biased. I declare this without apology. I’m proud that the Quaker pluralist vision has become so dominant in America and that the pluralist American Dream has become so widely influential in the world. I’m a proud American, dammit!

I like this American experiment that has been going on for centuries now. Why stop it now because the world is changing? America has always been about change, for good or ill. We’ve been dealt this hand and I say let us play it to its conclusion. It’s an experiment, after all. What fun is an experiment if you end it before you find out how it turns out?

Otherwise, I have no strong opinion about ethnocentric nation-states. I don’t care if other countries want to try that experiment. More power to them. I love experiments of all kinds. Let us have a contest. They with their ethnocentric experiment and we with our pluralistic experiment.

I’d point out that all the great empires were multiculturalists in their own way. I’m not a big fan of empires in and of themselves, but I suspect it is too late for the US to be anything other than an empire at this point. Our forefathers made their choices and we (and the coming generations) are forced to face the consequences. Maybe we can be a new kind of empire. The US has definitely stepped up its game from previous attempts at imperialism.

I feel a bit parochial in my defense of the Midlands. I’m not a clannish regionalist, but neither am I a devil-may-care universalist of the mainstream liberal variety. I like my region, partly because it doesn’t hold itself above all the other regions.I like the very idea of regions along with the uniqueness and diversity that goes along with them Why does arguing for the merits of one thing seem inevitably to make one appear as disparaging all else? That is the opposite of what I’m trying to do with my vision of the Mestizo Midlands.

So, I mean not criticism of the ethnocentric among us, in the larger world or even here in the good ol’ US of A.

Part of me is with Paine (and some other founding fathers) in feeling like a citizen of the world. To be an American is to be something greater and more inclusive than a mere citizen of a nation-state. America is the only country in the world that includes large numbers of people from nearly every country and ethnicity in the world, excepting a few isolated tribal people maybe.

I should mention that this post has nothing directly to do with the larger perspective of HBD proponents, beyond the brief mention of HBD with one quote, most especially not directly about the views of hbd chick, although discussions with her motivated some of my thinking. The HBD view of culture is slightly different than how I’m using it here. I’m not really talking a whole lot about such things as family patterns or even the more intricate details of geography and its impact.

I tend to come from a view that sees culture as an unknown factor. We don’t know where it comes from for its origins are in the mists of prehistory, but we can speak of what maintains culture in the present (and speculate about the known history).

I’m a namby-pamby liberal in my love of vague concepts like ‘culture’. I see human nature and human society as an amorphous set of factors. We can speak of concrete correlates to culture, but they aren’t culture. The closest metaphor is the difference between hardware and software, however extremely imperfect that metaphor is.

Let me put it like this. In hunting, you want to capture the prey your after. So, you follow the signs such as animal poop. But, as Pat McManus wrote, “Well, you can’t eat sign.”

American Borg: On Assimilation & Family

Because of genealogical research, I’ve been neglecting my blog and so I thought I should put some of my recent thoughts down.

* * * *

The research and discussions with the parental units has kept my mind focused on family history and American culture. In a recent blog post, I discussed my family in terms of the similarities and differences of Appalachia and Midlands, specifically the Appalachia of Kentucky and Southern Indiana compared with the Midlands Midwest of Iowa (the latter being the location from which I write, the home of my childhood and the place I will always consider home).

My present contemplations have continued to revolve around this nexus, but there is an additional context: multiculturalism versus assimilation.

In exploring this context, I’ll use family as a beginning point and from there explore culture. This post is a very personal contemplation and so the personal will be my touchstone in analyzing what to me feels like challenging issues about identity and relationships. In sharing my thoughts about my own family, in speaking publicly about the personal, I wish to tread lightly.

* * * *

My mom’s family is largely pioneer stock.

She is proud of this, but I feel mixed… not exactly pride or shame. I don’t know what my dominant feeling is about the matter. There is some general sadness there related to a sad history of violence tinged with both empathetic understanding and righteous judgment along with my typical intellectual curiosity. I’m the product of this pioneer lineage, whether or not I like it. It has contributed to who I am and helped form how I see the world. The pioneers sought freedom and opportunity, even as they denied these to others, and I can’t deny that I have benefited from their sacrifices.

The early frontier was a fascinating time and place. Being a pioneer often meant, to varying degrees, some combination of being: courageous adventurer and desperate survivor, traumatized victim and hard-hearted victimizer, self-educated multiculturalist and ignorant racist, freedom seeker and genocidal oppressor, indian friend and indian killer, land developer and land thief, community builder and self-serving individualist, hardworking producer and agent of destruction, optimistic dreamer and cynical realist, etc. No single pioneer was necessarily all those things, but collectively that is what defined the pioneer experience and shaped frontier society.

My ancestry on that side includes those involved in the military from the era of British colonialism to the Revolutionary War, from the earliest Indian wars to the Civil War. As soon as America was a country, many lines of my family were venturing into Indian territory, either as pioneers or Indian fighters. I even discovered one ancestor who was born in Indian territory before the United States gained independence. At that time, according to British law and Indian treaties, it was illegal for my family to be in Indian territory. So, I descend from the original illegal immigrants and anchor babies.

* * * *

One thing that caught my attention was how many of my ancestors were clustered around or near the Cumberland Gap.

The Cumberland Gap is approximately the place where meets the borders of the states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; also near northwestern North Carolina where other lines of my family resided. This location was an easy access point for pioneers traveling to the frontier and also for Native Americans to attack white settlers. This is where Daniel Boone entered Kentucky and where he blazed the Wilderness Road, by following the trails used by Native Americans. Some of my family would have been associates of Boone or else moved in the same social circles, considering the first pioneers into Indian country were small in number.

In this context, I would note that many of my maternal-side ancestors were non-English ethnic immigrants, in fact some of the earliest immigrants among non-English as well as the English. They included those from violent borderlands such as Alsace, Palatines, and Ulster (interestingly, one of my ancestors had various records that alternately identified his place of origin as Germany, France, and Alsace; a bit of research clarified the fact that Alsace was part of France at the time and many generations had passed since it was previously a part of Germany, but was is most interesting is that on his own census records he had identified as German; other research showed that the people of Alsace spoke a German dialect and so apparently they were culturally German even as they were French citizens). A motivating factor for these borderlanders coming to America was to escape violence and oppression, but they sometimes found the English colonies to be violent and oppressive as well, at least to non-English ethnics. They escaped religious persecution of state-sanctioned religions in Europe and yet in America they found that most of the colonies also had state-sanctioned religions along with other forms of legalized oppression and prejudice. So, they escaped to ethnic communities or else, like my family, escaped to the frontier where they once again found themselves living on a violent borderland.

Intentionally or not, they made their new home in a place much like the homeland they left behind. Conflict and war, instability and poverty… this was their lot in life. These German, French and Scots-Irish border people helped form the culture of the border regions of Midlands and Appalachia. They were always at the border of the frontier as it slowly moved Westward. And they were on the border between the North and South when the Civil War broke out. They were in that contested zone where the soul of America was fought over.

(As a side note, I can’t help but be reminded of Derrick Jensen’s analysis of Western and American culture and history. Jensen shows how easy and how typical it is for victims to become victimizers, and most of the examples he uses are from America, especially early America. The colonists spread violence and oppression to the new world, the pioneers spread violence and oppression westward across the continent, and now the American military empire spreads violence and oppression all over the world. The victimization cycle seems to never end.)

* * * *

To get back to family history, my mom’s family came through Appalachia and spent many generations there. Only a generation before my mom, the family was still living in Southern Indiana which is right on the edge of Appalachia and culturally indistinct from Kentucky.

Even though my mom grew up in the more Midlands Northern Indiana, she learned to speak with that Appalachian-style dialect that is common in Southern Indiana (‘bush’ is spoken as ‘boosh’, ‘cushion’ as ‘cooshion’, ‘fish’ as ‘feesh’, etc). Even so, my mom identifies more with the midwestern culture of the Midlands. It apparently bothers her when people tell her she sounds ‘Southern’; she has mentioned at least two examples of this happening and apparently this is what led her to ask me to ‘correct’ her when she ‘mispronounces’ words.

(As an interesting piece of trivia, the North and the South weren’t as distinct of regions prior to the Civil War. I’ve read that it was only after the Civil War that, for example, a distinct Southern dialect formed and became a widely shared sense of cultural identity. Southerners simultaneously resisted assimilation to ‘American’ culture while assimilating to a newly created sense of ‘Southern’ culture, of which Appalachian culture somewhat merged with. This probably explains why some Northerners have mistaken my mom’s Hoosier dialect as being ‘Southern’.)

I personally am fond of dialects, ethnic and regional. It’s not an issue of supporting the liberal ideology of multiculturalism. I just think dialects are interesting. Dialects signify a person’s background and make people unique. As such, I’m perfectly fine with my mom’s Hoosier pronunciation of words. If she said ‘boosh’ or ‘feesh’ in public, I wouldn’t be embarassed. In fact, I wouldn’t give it much thought. I find her dialect charming which is why I got in the habit of repeating her Hoosier pronunciations when she spoke that way, but not with any intentions of mocking her; nonetheless, by doing this I guess I’m partly to blame for making my mom self-conscious.

So, what is undesirable in my mom’s mind about being perceived as ‘Southern’?

Maybe it bothers her because, having a career as a speech pathologist, she spent most of her life teaching kids to speak proper Standard American English (i.e., Midwestern dialect). By the way, as a social conservative this really bothers her in that it was her job to enforce linguistic assimilation in public schools, yet it was against the law for her to correct the pronunciation of African-American students for their dialect was deemed part of their culture and so legally protected; of course, white kids with dialects receive no legal protection of their linguistic culture.

I also wonder if it bothers her from another perspective. She is a fairly typical American conservative who is obsessed with cultural assimilation, judging people such as hispanics for what she perceives as a refusal to assimilate to WASP culture; and hence this refusal is taken as a direct attack on WASP culture, i.e., everything that made America great. To not speak Standard American English means to not have fully assimilated to Standard American Culture. To speak with a dialect is to be outside the mainstream and hence an outsider, to be excluded and potentially isolated, to be different and ‘other’; a fate worse than death in the minds of many conservatives. Even though proud to be of pioneer heritage, she apparently isn’t proud of this part of her heritage, despite the fact that her family probably has spoken this way for centuries.

There is another aspect to consider in my mom’s personal experience. She came to realize how much of a Northerner and Midwesterner she is when our family moved to South Carolina. She lived there for two decades and she never adapted to that regional culture. It was alien to her in so many ways: class-based, cliquish, plantation mentality, etc. That is everything her family isn’t. Her family is primarily Appalachian in culture which has sensitized my mom to both Southern and Northern cultures… for to be Appalachian means to be not fully one or the other, rather somewhere in between. Appalachians have a more egalitarian working class culture similar to the Midwest, but the Midwest is part of the North and Appalachians don’t feel a part of Northern culture.

On the other hand, my mom’s conflict with Southern culture is probably related to why her ancestors in Kentucky and Indiana sided with the North during the Civil War, although that war-time alliance was an imperfect and at times grudging. The two competing mainstream cultures in America are the cultures that dominated during the Civil War, neither of those cultures precisely fitting the Appalachian sensibility. That said, Appalachian culture did eventually become more aligned with Southern culture after the Civil War. My mom’s family is thus divided between Southern-leaning Appalachia and Northern-leaning Midwest, straddling the cultural borderlands. I think my mom has somewhat internalized this North/South conflict.

* * * *

Before going on, let me make one thing very clear.

I don’t wish to judge my mom, just as I feel reluctant to judge my pioneer ancestors. I don’t know her motivations. I don’t know what events may have shaped her early life experiences of being a Hoosier and being and American. I know even less about my pioneer ancestors. 

We are all products of our times. None of us can know how future generations will judge us. In this light, I don’t think my mother is wrong for wanting to assimilate to mainstream culture. We all make choices that seem best to us. Besides, speaking of familial ancestors, my dad’s mom supposedly often said that “Everyone is doing the best that they can for where they are at”. Hokey as that sounds, it is a basic truth that resonates with me. Also, it summarizes an element of my own liberal-mindedness, something I indirectly inherited from paternal grandmother as she was a West Coast liberal and introduced my parents to the Unity Church (along with other liberal forms of religion and spirituality).

In writing this post, I refer to my mom for the simple reason that she is the closest to an example of Hoosier/Appalachian culture that I know of in such intimate detail, an example I’ve given much thought to. Having never lived there, my mom is the main access I have to that regional culture. 

On a related note, I’d like to add one other point. In regards to my interest in human nature and culture, I must give most of the credit to my mom. It was during the many discussions I’ve had with her over the years that my understanding slowly formed. Many of the insights and observations I speak of either originated from my mom or came out of our ongoing dialogues. So, along with giving me access to her own family’s cultural background, she has helped shape my own way of thinking about culture.

I hope that I speak about my mother with empathy, not with judgment… and I hope that this intent is expressed well. As always, my foremost desire is to understand.

* * * *

Assimilation seems like a peculiar thing to my mind.

I grew up speaking Standard American English because I was initially raised in the Midlands Midwest (specifically Iowa which is right at the center of the region where this non-dialect dialect is spoken), but I never consciously decided to assimilate. I simply spoke as I heard my peers speaking.

I even unintentionally assimilated a bit to the South when I lived there during my teen years, picking up a bit of my redneck bestfriend’s Southern dialect (I sometimes forget which pronunciations of words are Southern and which are Northern or rather Midwestern); for a few years after returning to Iowa, strangers could still detect something not quite Midwestern about my Midwestern dialect, but alas since that time I’ve lost the feel for the Southern dialect and can no longer speak that way.

This is how most assimilation occurs. Few Americans ever intentionally assimilated, something conservatives don’t appreciate. It’s just that distinctly separate ethnic cultures over time begin to fade as cultures mix and as the living memory of the old homeland disappears from families. Assimilation as we know it now is a very recent invention that arose in response to two world wars and the homogenizing impact of mass media, not to mention early twentieth century laws that were designed to eliminate independent ethnic cultures. It’s true that many early ethnics chose to assimilate… they did so usually out of fear of violence and oppression, but few ever chose to do so freely.

The following is my liberal-minded multicultural view (as a member of the liberal-minded multicultural GenX who grew up in a liberal-minded multicultural era of high immigration rates, who went to liberal-minded multicultural desegregated public schools, who grew up in liberal-minded multicultural college towns, and who was raised in the liberal-minded multicultural Unity Church).

To praise assimilation is to praise one of the ugliest and most destructive features of our society, although I realize that isn’t the way my mom would see it; but as I see it, forced assimilation as practiced for most of American history is essentially cultural genocide. If you can’t physically destroy a people, you can destroy them as a distinct people by killing the very soul of their collective identity. Soul death can be just as brutal as mass killing. When a people forget who they are, part of them remains dead. The living memory is gone forever, impossible to ressurrect.

Thusly, we all become zombies of mass culture, repeating what the mainstream media tells us, not knowing what has been lost in the process. This is historical amnesia and it plagues the American population, undermining any possibility of democracy for it allows all the same mistakes to repeat again and again and again. All the alternative possibilites that diverse cultures present are eliminated and only one choice remains… and, sadly, we call it ‘freedom’. The freedom of one culture to dominate is by definition the unfreedom, the oppression of all other cultures. This all hinges on force and the conservative mind rarely sees the violence and oppression behind that which they praise; if anything they feel those seeking freedom are oppressing whites for how dare anyone try to define their own sense of freedom.

Sadly, too often one person’s freedom is another person’s oppression.

* * * *

On a more personal level, I was trying to probe the reasons behind my mom’s strong desire to assimilate (or, putting it in Borg terms, to be assimilated).

From my perspective, this is an acceptance of the oppressive force of a monolithic culture, a force that is backed by real threat of power and punishment. Also, this seems to be an act of the oppressed identifying with the oppressor, thus joining in and justifying the culture of oppression. It’s not that assimilation when freely chosen is necessarily bad; it’s just that it rarely is freely chosen.

However, none of this captures the everyday experience of my mom or others like her.

For my mom, assimilation is a purely good thing, the highest ideal of the American Dream: to be normal, to be accepted as part of the group, specifically to be part of a great nation, to share in that greatness by proxy. When my mom was a kid, to speak the dialect she spoke meant being lower class which in turn meant being socially inferior, i.e, a hick.

Appalachian people, rightly or wrongly, have always been associated with poverty, ignorance, and cultural backwardness. The English prejudice against non-English ethnics still remains. To be Appalachian, or more generally of the Scots-Irish culture, means to be a hillbilly or a redneck. Appalachian culture has gained some respect in recent years through folk art and music, but Appalachia continues to be a stigmatized region and it continues to be poor.

Appalachians have resisted assimilation to the ‘Yankee’ norm of American society. They are a proud people and yet simultaneously this is a sore point. To assimilate or not is a choice that every new generation is faced with. To not assimilate can come with great costs,  both for individuals and communites that exist outside of the mainstream norm. This is a cost that Appalachia has suffered with because of its proud refusal. This refusal is how Appalachians came to think of themselves as ‘Southerners’ after the Civil War, even in states like Kentucky that fought for the North. Many parts of Appalachia have been left behind in the dust of industrialization, factories and jobs moving elsewhere as the Appalachian people and their culture remained.

* * * *

As others have pointed out, America is less of a melting pot and more of a stew pot.

Most of my ancestry on my mom’s side seems to be German which is fitting since most of the ancestry of America is German as well, or to put it another way more Americans are of German ancestry than the ancestry of any other ethnicity. So, if America is a stew pot, the English may be seasoning but the Germans and other ethnics are the meat and potatoes. Heck, the most American of cities, New York City, was originally the New Netherlands colony; and the Germanic Dutch culture is what made New York City so distinctly ‘American’.

Maybe more than any other group of ‘white’ Americans, German-Americans have often resisted assimilation, even early on. They formed their own communities, not unusually out of fear such as in response to the nativist Know-Nothing movement (which made them wary of the early Republican Party because the Know-Nothings largely merged with the Republicans). They created organizations to maintain their culture and to take care of their own such as the Turner movement. They maintained churches and schools that taught in the German language, including public schools in German majority cities; the German language survived as a publicly spoken language in America through the first half of the twentieth century.

Also, German immigrants founded many utopian religious communities that fiercely defended their own culture and way of life. The German Harmonists, who were admired by many early Americans for their economic success, founded various socialist communities, including one in early Southern Indiana near where my family lived (a town, by the way, that was later made into a secular socialist utopian experiment by a Scotsman who was, along with his sons, very influential in 19th century American politics, including being an influence on the thinking of Abraham Lincoln). The American Amish and Mennonites have survived the onslaught of assimilation and to this day maintain their independent communities; the Amish still speak German and still refer to outsiders as ‘English’.

* * * *

Interestingly, it was on the frontier where a truly American identity first began to form that was fully distinct from the English cultures of the British colonies. On the frontier, there was a particular variety of assimilation but not as we think of it now. It was simply a multicultural place, sometimes cultures clashing and sometimes merging. No authority was forcing assimilation on the frontier. Different ethnicities intermingled and intermarried more or less freely, sometimes even across the divide between settlers and natives.

That said, even amidst such multicultural complexity, it was probably more common for ethnics to stick to their own kind; this was often true for my ancestors. Along with being multcultural, the frontier was multilingual as families maintained their homeland languages for generations. This forced pioneers to be more knowledgeable of diverse languages than Americans today.

The Native Americans themselves, specifically the Shawnee in the Ohio Territory (which included Kentucky and Indiana), also contributed to this American style of cultural mixing and haphazard assimilation. Daniel Boone, like many early pioneers, was adopted into a Native American family and he maintained friendly relations with them for the rest of his life. In Appalachia, for natives and pioneers alike, what mattered was kinship for no one could survive for long on their own. Such kinship, however, didn’t necessitate sharing the same blood or even sharing the same cultural lifestyle. Even when Boone went back to living among whites, he was forever considered Shawnee by the Shawnee.

* * * *

This incipient American identity, instead of protecting racial and cultural purity, led to the creation of the American mutt.

This probably explains why Appalachia remains the place where most people don’t know their ancestry, instead simply identifying as ‘American’ when asked. This is also the region where resides the melungeon population, AKA “the sweet blend” — a mixture of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Considering my family’s frontier past, I’m sure I have a broad mix of genetics hidden behind my Germanic appearance.

All Europeans and European descendants, most especially white Americans, are quite genetically and culturally mixed — between Neanderthal interbreeding, Mongol hordes, Arab invaders, Roman legions, and various influences from the Mediterranean and Black seas, including a significant amount of African genetics mixed in (most likely from the Roman legions). Racial purity is a joke. Even cultural purity is mostly a cultural creation, a cultural fiction formed and promoted by the governments of evolving nation-states, especially during the era of European wars and revolutions that led many people to immigrate to America. Historically, Europeans didn’t consider themselves a single white race and for good reason as genetics proves. And Europeans certainly didn’t consider themselves a single culture, especially considering most of the European wars were at least partly motivated by cultural differences, often in the guise of religious differences. Even the peoples of the British Isles were culturally divided and genetically diverse, including within England.

‘Whiteness’ as a race or as a culture is a nebulous concept, certainly not a scientific category. Many, if not most, of the African slaves in America had white fathers, grandfathers, great grandfathers, and on and on. After generations of such hanky-panky, many blacks were genetically and culturally more European than African, many even were as white or nearly as white as their masters. In one famous case, a slave took his master to court by arguing he couldn’t be a slave since he wasn’t black and indeed his skin was white, his hair was blonde, and his eyes were blue. Blackness and whiteness were cultural perceptions. Not unusually, someone was defined as being black because they were a slave and their enslavement was justified because they were perceived as black. American blacks today are extremely light skinned when compared to African populations. I remember seeing Obama standing in the middle of a crowd of Africans and I swear to God that he looked like a white guy. In the past, if a person of a ‘black’ family could pass as white, they would do so; and after a few generations no one even remembered there was black in the family (“a nigger in the woodpile”). Most white Americans have varying degrees of non-European genetics, in particular either African or Native American, but it is also unsurprising to find Asian or Polynesian genetics, not to mention Arab and Mongol.

At an earlier point in American history, even non-English European immigrants were considered to be questionable when it came to whiteness. The Irish, for example, were referred by the English as “white niggers”. Many Irish and Welsh along with other European ethnics such as Italians, Spanish, and Greeks have darker skin and curlier hair; and such populations do have significant amounts of Arab Moor genetics, Western African genetics, and/or North African genetics. To this day, most Americans don’t consider hispanics as ‘white’, despite their relatively light skin and despite their ancestors being from Europe.

* * * *

It is beyond silly the fear some whites have about the demise of their own racial demographic.

To be honest, all distinct genetic lines are endangered in that genetics are continually mixing to ever increasing degrees all over the world. Within the near future, in historical terms, there probably won’t be any ‘whites’ or ‘blacks’ left anywhere in the world. There will one day be a world population that has come to an approximate averaging out of skin color (along with kind of hair and facial features), but even then diversity will remain. Besides, someone who has white skin might not have a majority of European genetics and someone of black skin might not have a majority of African genetics, the genetics for skin pigmentation being unrelated to all other genetics. Skin color doesn’t bestow a specific culture upon a person when they are born.

Many Americans of African and Hispanic descent have begun to identify as ‘white’ or, like the mixed-breed Appalachians, simply identify as ‘American’. There is no way to distinguish between a light-skinned colored person and a dark skinned white person. If you call yourself white and others perceive you as white, then you are white. The definition and perception of white may change, but whiteness as a relative category is unlikely to go away in the immediate future.

As an interesting example, most people would never suspect that Martin Sheen is of hispanic ancestry. His birth name is Ramon Estevez, his having changed his name because of the racial prejudice even within supposed ‘liberal’ acting world, at least within the acting world of his early career. An even more interesting example is Louis C.K. who in his tv role is the archetypal American middle class white guy. Louis is both hispanic and Mexican. His first language is spanish and he retains Mexican citizenship. What is the difference between being a hypothetical ‘white’ person and simply being perceived as such?

White supremacists and isolationists (e.g., David Duke) along with more moderate WASP culture warriors (e.g., Patrick Buchannan and Charles Murray) are in a real pickle. They talk about white culture which they conflate, along with white skin, with conservative politics, especially fundamentalist Christianity; yet blacks and hispanics form the majority when it comes to being socially conservative and Christian. Hispanics, of course, traditionally are Catholic which is a questionable form of Christianity to the WASP mind, only slightly less questionable than Mormonism. It’s not just about who gets to define whiteness but also who gets to define conservatism and Christianity.

Hispanics are the most threatening of them all because they have their own competing version of ‘white’ culture, especially considering much of present United States was part of the Spanish Empire and remains to this day hispanic majority. What the WASPs don’t want to admit is that there is more than one white culture; not all whites are Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Hispanics, like many others of non-English European ancestry, have the arrogance to be both Catholic and hardworking, such work ethic supposedly being the sole provenance of WASP culture. On top of that, hispanics have the arrogance of being the original European-descended North Americans by way of having European ancestry that has been in America longer than non-hispanics. No white conservative wants to admit that the red-blooded American cowboy culture comes from the hispanics and that the independence of George W. Bush’s Texas was fought for by hispanics (and still to this day has a population that is majority hispanic and majority spanish-speaking).

All of this makes it hard for the bigoted social conservatives to continually justify their bigotry, and this puts the non-bigoted social conservatives in a tough spot as well in their desire to differentiate themselves from the bigots. In response, social conservatives are forced to decide what they care more about; and so they often are willing to accept the questionable Christians, the Catholics and Mormons, into their in-group just as long as they can maintain their fear and/or hatred of dark-skinned people and foreign-borns; others will be more accepting of dark-skinned people, especially relatively lighter-skinned hispanics, if it helps them gain support in attacking immigrants; still others will accept legal immigrants if it means that illegal immigrants can be scapegoated. The one thing none of them can accept is that America has always been and always will be multicultural.

* * * *

Obviously, not all those who praise assimilation are overtly prejudiced, most probably aren’t (the mild forms of racialism having mostly replaced the rabid forms of racism). My mom isn’t racist and isn’t strongly xenophobic in any sense. Like many conservatives, she simply fears the world she knew in childhood is slipping away.

What conservatives don’t understand is that the world of their childhood was just a single moment in the long history of North America and a moment that not all Americans perceived in the same way. Their 1950s vision of the American Dream was to others an American Nightmare, the period from Reconstruction to the early Cold War Era consisting of the most pervasive and systematic social oppression in American history (last of the Indian Wars and the final subjugation of the remaining free tribes, Native American boarding schools that violently forced assimilation, the rise of the KKK, propaganda films such as ‘The Birth of a Nation’, racially-motivated terrorism such as lynchings and church bombings, Jim Crow laws, political disenfranchisement of minorities and ethnics, overtly racist nativism, anti-Germanic oppression, Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, anti-communist witch-hunts, Hollywood blacklisting, union-busting, unconstitutional imprisonment of activists and organizers, violently brutal crackdowns on protests, business elites aligning with fascist states worldwide, the Business Plot, the growth of the military-industrial complex, military attacks on and oppression of innocent people such as the Filipinos, military aggression against Mexicans seeking freedom and democracy, the rise of an American version of militarized imperialism with colonial-like ambitions, the coming to power of oppressive and anti-intellectual fundamentalism, patriarchal anti-feminism, growth of both big government and big business along with the corporatist alliance between them, etc). To put it simply, assimilation in most cases was far from willing and even further from what we would deem moral by today’s standards. A single American culture was a violent and bloody creation.

To the degree that America is a melting pot, the melting took centuries. It slowly and imperceptibly happened many generations after the first immigrants came. If assimilation is to be promoted in a positive way without oppression, then it must be chosen freely and so the free choice must be given to maintain cultures as well. Assimilation happens naturally to some extent because it’s part of human nature, but it works both ways. It’s not just that the non-English assimilated to the English culture. History shows that Americans of English descent also assimilated non-English cultures. In this sense, it is a melting pot. There is no way to melt multiple cultures together while one of those cultures remains unmelted in the mix. A cultural melting pot is the complete opposite of cultural purity and therefore the complete opposite of the survival of separate cultures, WASP or otherwise.

* * * *

The further problem for conservatives is how white culture is conflated with English culture.

Even beyond the problem non-English white cultures challenging English white culture, there is still the problem in that there is no single English culture and no single consensus among English cultures (even in England, not all the English could be defined as WASP; there are very old conflicts between native pagan Britons, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and Norman Catholics). Which white culture are American whites supposed to be defending? 

In terms of English culture, there are the various peoples of Yankeedom, Midlands, New Netherlands, Tidewater, and Deep South (not to mention the utopian Georgia colony that initially was entirely separate from the slave culture of the South Carolina and Virginia); although Midlands was largely taken over by Germanic culture, New Netherlands had an original Netherlands culture with only a later overlay of English culture, and the Deep South had a culture that was English filtered through the slave culture of Barbados; plus, there were seperate ethnic communities in all of the colonies that helped define the development of the later states. These English cultures were widely diverse and the people in them didn’t fully trust or like the people in the other English cultures.

Furthermore, there was the many non-English cultures, white and non-white: of all the colonial borderlands such as in South Carolina backcountry, rural Virginia, Appalachia and the interior Midlands; of large sections of North Carolina; of New Jersey, Florida, New Orleans, the Southwest, and the West Coast; plus the Native American societies that were organizing on levels to compete with the colonies and in some cases forming new shared communities with ethnics and freed blacks. It was in contradistinction to the English cultures that the non-English peoples worked to create a distinctly American identity separate from Britain. It must be remembered that the American Revolution fomented from the largely ethnic working class, especially in the multicultural Midlands, before it was taken up by the British colonial elites. To be American in those early days specifically meant not being English or at least not identifying with the British Empire. The oppression of the British Empire wasn’t just political but also cultural. Many Americans, especially the ethnic and non-white majority, were seeking a new cultural identity, not just a new politics. Even blacks were active participants in this revolutionary era, not just waiting for British colonial elites to determine their fate.

If not for the vast differences between English cultures along with the differences of the ethnic cultures of the growing majority, the Civil War would never have happened. With social conservatives defining their preferred vision of ‘whiteness’, whose English or European culture gets to rule over all the rest?

* * * *

Anyway, what exactly is this supposed superiority of the white culture?

Research shows that racial prejudice against minorities is still rampant in all parts of our society; for example, blacks are punished more harshly than whites for the exact same crimes; and as another example, people are more likely to buy a product online if it is held by a lighter-skinned hand than if it is held by a darker-skinned hand. So, is this ‘superiority’ simply the social and political power whites have to force their culture onto everyone else and to punish or disadvantage anyone perceived as different? Even after the seeming decline of centuries of European colonialism, Western countries are still militaristically enforcing their wills upon non-white nations.

When a culture or society, a people or nation is judged inferior and dysfunctional, what does that mean and how did they get that way? It was white culture — through genocide, slavery, colonialism, and war — that destroyed, weakened or crippled so many other cultures… and this continues to this day, even if the means and methods have changed slightly. Whites have to take a major proportion of responsibility for the problems they have caused or contributed to… such as with the populations of blacks, hispanics, and various indigenous peoples.

Before complaining about all the ‘illegal’ immigrants from Mexico (a people who have an older claim to much of present US), we should stop continually causing all the problems in Mexico: the American Drug War creates dangerous black markets and cartels, the underregulated gun market in America leads to a flow of guns into Mexico thus arming criminals, gangs and cartels, NAFTA causes poverty and unemployment in Mexico such as among farmers, and a long history of American political and corporate intervention in Mexico has promoted fascism while undermining democracy. If we hadn’t been systematically fucking over their country for so long, most Mexicans probably would be perfectly happy to stay in Mexico.

Americans cause problems onto other people and then project the blame onto the same people. It is a sociopathic mentality. It’s time conservative Christians started paying attention to the log in their own eyes.

Let me pose the question of moral responsibility in stark terms:
Is the dysfunctional society the one that is victimized or the one that victimizes?

I would argue the latter. Authors such as Derrick Jensen and Noam Chomsky make good arguments in this regard. Besides, the conservative claim of white superiority is particularly questionable in America. The bastion of conservative whiteness is the rural South, the most conservative and the most white region in America and the very region that has the most violent population with all of the worst problems of American society: poverty, unemployment, welfare, low IQ, high school dropouts, teen pregnancy, STDs, divorce, low infancy birth weight, high infancy mortality rate, high adult mortality rate, obesity, diabetes, etc. Furthermore, this region of conservative whiteness is one of the biggest economic drains on the economy and on the federal government since red states on average receive more federal money than they pay in taxes, thus blue states paying for the problems of conservative whiteness.

That seems like damning evidence… or at least very inconvenient information.

* * * *

I feel divided on a very personal level. This goes beyond ideological arguments and analysis of data. The fundamental issues must be subjectively assessed, felt out, contemplated.

Like my mom, I’m a part of this same society and I’m a product of this same history. Whatever problems and failings exist, we all are complicit. I don’t judge my mom or any individual person… or at least I don’t want to make such judgments, non-judgment being the standard I try to hold myself to. I also don’t want to judge white conservatives as a whole… which would be just as prejudiced as racism against minorities. If there is guilt, it is collective. It has come to be this way through generations and centuries, the actions of individuals and groups adding up to a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s a slippery thing to grasp, mind-bogglingly immense and complex. Even as I try to discern, I hope to avoid unnecessary and unhelpful judgment as much as possible.

Whether we choose it or not, we are all assimilated to this society. That is how modern civilization functions. There is no escape from the repurcusions and the responsibilities entailed. Even the pioneers couldn’t escape the failings of western civilization even as they sought reprieve in the wilderness. Instead, they brought their problems with them and re-created the conflicts of their own ancestors. They brought the Old World to the New World. This different land allowed a new mix of factors, but the basic social pattern remained.

I focused on my mom’s desire to assimilate. Yet I’m not sure I’m all that different. The desire to belong, to fit in is a normal human desire, compulsion even. Assimilation is even worse for someone like me who grew up with Standard American English and the Standard American Culture that goes with it. The reason it is worse is that it is more invisible. My mom couldn’t avoid the fact that her way of speaking wasn’t ‘normal’. I never consciously assimilated. Instead, I was born into assimilation. My ancestors spoke like my mother for untold number of generations, but I never spoke that way. With my brothers and I, assimilation has finally been completed in my mom’s family line. We can now officially call ourselves “Real Americans” ( © 1776 Founding Fathers).

* * * *

With my concluding thoughts, let me share one last example.

On our trip down to Southern Indiana, my parents and I were discussing the culture and economy of the region, specifically such factors as: high rates of poverty, low rates of education, etc. My mom complained, and my dad concurred, that it is unfair to make comparisons between a place like Southern Indiana and a place like Iowa, the latter not having the same kind of problems. It might not be fair, but it is the reality of the situation.

Poverty and, more importantly, economic inequality correlate to so many other problems. This correlation is found in states around the US and countries around the world. This correlation points to a truth that is uncomfortable to conservatives in particular and uncomfortable to most Americans in general. We could argue about the meaning of this correlation, argue about the direction of causality, even argue if there is any direct causal connection at all or else both being results of some other cause. What can’t be argued about is the correlated data itself which comes from diverse sources and has been corroborated with much research.

My mom takes offense at the idea that her home state could be judged according to this data. This seems undeserving to her. However, I don’t see it as an issue of judging, per se. Besides, it is my mom who seemingly has made a judgment. I certainly never judged the Hoosier dialect as abnormal or unacceptable, but apparently my mom has. I don’t know why she has made this judgment. I can’t claim to truly understand. I just can’t help but notice it. I wouldn’t argue this necessarily implies a sense of shame on my mom’s part, shame being such a strong word, although it is true that her father suffered from an inferiority complex because of his social status. Shame or not, this desire to leave behind the outward forms of her ancestral culture does seem to give hint to something hidden behind her claims of pride about her pioneer heritage and her more general pride of being an ‘American’. There is some kind of cognitive dissonance at play here.

I feel frustrated by mom’s response and at the same time I understand, sympathize even. I can be just as defensive about Midwestern culture which is so often dismissed by those living on the coasts who perceive states like Iowa as flyover country. I suppose I also have some pride in being American with such a long family history going back to those early pioneers, especially when I think about certain early Americans who envisioned a different possibility than what has come to be.

Anyway, my opinions about my mom’s feelings and values aren’t important in and of themselves. The only relevance of this interpersonal conflict of views is that it is representative of larger issues in American society. This conflict is writ large while also being played out in the psyche of every American. It seems obvious to me that my mom is conflicted about her American identity and for damn sure I’m conflicted about all kinds of things, American and otherwise. This country is at its core a contradiction — simultaneously founded on liberty and slavery, on multiculturalism and cultural chauvinism. To be an American is to be conflicted.