Remembering who we are for the well-being of all
A Romanian piper, a Slovak mother and son, an Italian woman. Photos by Augustus Sherman, Chief Registry Clerk at Ellis Island.
This article represents years of research, inquiry, and guidance from elders and friends, culminating in a synthesis of historical insight into the relationship between racism, capitalism, and the creation of a socially constructed identity that would divest multiple ethnic groups of their inherited traditions and re-make them as “white.”
The argument of the essay itself can be found in its title: those of us who are socially classified as white have roots deeper than “whiteness.” We are people – or, more accurately, peoples – whose identity and cultural center has been manipulated to serve a very specific function within capitalism. When we understand this story, we can more easily divest ourselves of the dysfunctional role we have been groomed to play, and join with people of color in the creation of a life sustaining society.
I am a descendant of some of the first Europeans to come to the land now known as the eastern United States. Their experiences were not included in the version of European history I was taught, one that glorifies the violent exploits of a small elite while leaving out the ways of life of the vast majority of our ancestors. Instead, their story resembles a similar pattern to those of many European immigrant groups that would come after them: one of people stripped of their rich ethnic identities and given a false racial identity that would turn many against their allies of color and increase their compliance with the corporate exploitation of workers and the planet.
This deeper knowledge of my ancestors past has helped me replace what was once a debilitating feeling of shame about the reality of racism with a clear understanding of how my well-being is directly linked to the freedom of people of color. I believe that recovering these stories of those who came before us can support us all as white Americans to find the emotional strength and political analysis necessary to rebuild lost multiracial alliances and to challenge both white supremacy and the economic system it serves.
My ancestors came to Virginia as indentured laborers in the 1600’s. Yet prior to their arrival they did not call themselves white. They were English commoners who resided in rural villages and held cultural practices and forms of folk Christianity that were distinct from those of the aristocracy. Celebration was central to their culture and their calendar was filled with saints’ days. Many were regional and involved particular festivities and ceremonies to honor local sites in nature that had been held sacred since time immemorial.
In Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk tells us that the “Festivals, feasts, and folk customs” of these people “had always provided a source of communal unity. The maypole, the bonfires on the ancient Celtic feast days, the traditional dances and customs, were tied to the seasons and the changing round of the agricultural year.” They spent their days on land known simply as “the commons,” forest and fields the community shared to grow food, tend to their animals, gather plants and firewood, and on which to celebrate. They sustained themselves from this land. For centuries it was their means of survival and cohesion.
Rural Festival. Engraving by Daniel Hopfer. 16th century.
During much of Middle Ages feudal elites remained wealthy by taking most of these peasants’ agricultural production other than that which was required for the community’s subsistence. However these commoners did not passively accept this reality. Their efforts made feudal life a constant class struggle and in its final centuries they, like the commoners of other European countries, successfully ended serfdom and secured more autonomy for themselves. But capitalism was coming. In Caliban and the Witch, scholar Silvia Federici writes,
“Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism “evolved” from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.”
It began as shipping technologies improved and opportunities for trade increased. Wool fabric became a highly sought after commodity and British landowners began to see that large-scale sheep pasturage would be far more profitable than existing feudal relations. At the same time that overseas colonialism emerged, the theft of land from those who shared and respected it also began in England and all over Europe. An effort arose to evict these English peasants and to “enclose” or fence in commonly-held land for commercial use.
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…”
17th Century Drawing of the Diggers. The Diggers were a group of poor, revolutionary English Christians who believed the world to be "a common treasury for all. Led by Gerrard Winstanley, they sought to reclaim the commons and re-establish agricultural communities for those displaced. In 1649 they did so on St. George’s Hill only to be violently evicted by the English military as shown here.
After finishing "The World Turned Upside Down" video below, please take a moment to pause and reflect on all you have read so far. If you would like, feel free to write in a journal.
"The World Turned Upside Down," performed here by Billy Bragg and Amanda Palmer, and originally written by Leon Rosselson, is a song that tells the story of the Diggers.
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 Town of Pomeiooc. 1585 painting by John White. Tsenacomoco, otherwise known as the Powhatan paramount chiefdom, was a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking indigenous peoples that occupied the land colonized by the English at Jamestown. While not part of Tsenacomoco, Pomeiooc represents a typical Algonquian settlement.
As the decades continued, Africans, English laborers and displaced Native people would escape their plantations to form maroon communities in remote areas. One was in nearby Roanoke where this refugee population began to live communally with the land, forming an abolitionist “Mestizo” culture with “emphasis on the “inner light,” and devotion to “liberty of conscience.”” Linebaugh and Rediker write,
“The very existence of the multi-ethnic maroon state was a threat to Virginia, whose governor worried that “hundreds of idle debtors, thieves, Negros, Indians, and English servants will fly” to the liberated zone and use it as a base for attacks on the plantation system.”
The greatest threat to this system however were the laborers still working on tobacco plantations in Virginia and the nearby colonies. In a multitude of organized revolts, first noted as early as 1663 and peaking in 1676 with an armed struggle lasting over a year, this multiethnic coalition came together and attempted to upend the colonial system that oppressed them. As the seventeenth century neared its end and fear of overthrow progressively grew, plantation elites responded with a strategy to divide and conquer the alliances by manipulating the identity of the European population, my ancestors, and giving them membership within an exalted racial group to change the way they found meaning and sought freedom in their lives.
After you've watched the "Birth of a White Nation" video below, please take another moment to pause and reflect on all you have taken in. Once again, If you would like, we encourage you to write out the thoughts and feelings arising in you in a journal.
A talk by Dr. Jacqueline Battalora on her book "Birth of a White Nation" about the ways in which "white people" were created and how this distinction divided laborers and served the interests of the elite.
The divide and conquer tactic that Dr. Battalora describes worked with tremendous success, causing the rebellions to cease almost completely. When viewed in the context of this larger history the magnitude of its impact can be seen. It was the first strategy to significantly halt these English commoners’ centuries-long resistance to feudal and capitalist attack. It did this by manipulating their sense of self and pushing them to identify with their oppressor as part of a superior white race. What remained of their original ethnic and local identities started to be replaced with the culture of this ruling class. Soon they learned to prize individualism, see personal worth in personal wealth more so than in one’s ability to contribute to community, and seek freedom in the often ill-fated pursuit of this wealth (later called the American Dream) rather than in collective struggle for the well-being of all.
A central part of this shift in identity involved the loss of their history – the memories of their traditional ways of life and their struggles to protect them that once connected them to a people, to a place, and to a set of values. Many eventually replaced it with a romanticized history of the same British, and later, white American ruling class that had crushed their communities as well as the belief in their own right to carry on this domination. Thousands of poor white men soon became pawns of empire, whether in militias committing genocide and land-theft in indigenous communities on the western frontier or in our country’s first police forces, built to patrol black slaves in the colonies.
Slave patrols. By enlisting working class white men in slave patrols, elites further ensured that white laborers would identify along lines of race rather than class.
As time went on, a glorified and heavily sanitized history of white American patriotism became a foundation of their self-understanding. They would defend this fragile identity with its corrupted version of the past because it was all they knew themselves to be. Though there have always been whites who have actively resisted this self-defeating psychology, the impact of this identity formation, carried out with legislation and propaganda, should not be underestimated. It caused many to consign themselves to prolonged separation from and conflict with their greatest potential allies in making the “American Dream” that they so desperately desired into a collective reality.
The story of my ancestors does not stand alone but is one that was experienced by populations around the world as a small western European elite sought to establish capitalism as our global economic system. The success of this system depended on two processes.
One: The violent displacement of communities from their land in order to use that land for profit and, often, to create a dependent, exploitable workforce.
Two: The replacement of traditional ethnic identities that placed higher value on the welfare of community and the earth with a culture of possessive individualism and hierarchical, divisive racial (and gender) identities in order to bring about compliance with this economic system.
While these processes involved enslavement and were far more genocidal in communities of color, they also happened to the vast majority of Europeans. A significant difference is that our superior racial identity and relative economic advantage kept us from joining in multiracial resistance to this oppression.
From 1500 to 1800, millions of subsistence producers living in village communities throughout Europe were thrown off their lands by powerful aristocracies. Traditional cultural practices were attacked and often outlawed. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes that this happened through the colonization of “entire nations, such as Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Basque Country, and Catalonia” as well as through the displacement of commoners within the borders of the major western European monarchies. In Eastern Europe Silvia Federici notes that the peasant population was brought back into serfdom. They were forced out of their communities and onto plantations growing cash crops as bonded laborers. “For the first time in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz tells us, “the majority of Europeans depended for their livelihood on a small wealthy minority, a phenomenon that capitalist-based colonialism would spread worldwide.” Some European immigrants did come to the British colonies, and later, the United States, fleeing religious persecution and violence but most were running directly from this economic deprivation.
The Victorian slums of London illustrate what a life of dependency and urban poverty was like after generations of land enclosure.
Though also developing in Europe, white racial identity was substantially deepened shortly after each European immigrant group’s arrival. One instance of this, among many, occurred when thirty million southern and eastern European immigrants arrived in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Laws were passed in over 30 states mandating their participation in “Americanization programs” run by state and local governments, civic organizations, and corporations. Here they would be taught, as Theodore Roosevelt said, that “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans.” They were no longer to be Polish-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, but simply “white” Americans.
Americanization programs included components such as basic English instruction and financial literacy that surely proved useful and eventually helped some take advantage of the programs of the New Deal – (programs from which people of color were often informally barred). But they also contained content on American history, civics, and patriotism aimed explicitly to separate them from their ethnic communities, create acceptance of female subjugation to the home and male exploitation in the workplace, label their traditional culture inferior, and replace their connection to their homelands and local histories with this same sanitized history of the white American elite that former generations of white settlers had already accepted as their own.
This is why labor organizer Frank P. Walsh wrote in a letter to congress that these programs sought to establish “a paternalism that would bring the workers of this country even more absolutely under the control of the employer than they are now… Americanization means a state of satisfaction with bad industrial conditions.” And it is why George Lipsitz would write in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness that “Many white immigrants and their descendants developed especially powerful attachments to whiteness because of the ways in which various Americanization programs forced them to assimilate by surrendering all aspects of their own ethnic organization and identification.”
It is important to note that many of these new immigrants did resist the Americanization of these government programs and the dominant culture to some extent. Segments of the population did hold onto aspects of their heritage and their political activism. Some even went on to become allies in the civil rights movement. Yet many internalized the racism of dominant American culture had a hard time organizing with folks of color in order to resist (together) the bad working conditions under which they both toiled.
The “Melting Pot” of the English School of the Ford Motor Company of Detroit. Upon graduation from the Ford Motor Company’s Americanization program, tens of thousands of European immigrant employees would walk into this large “Melting Pot” wearing their traditional ethnic attire, their teachers would stir the pot with large oars, and they would change into suits, grab American flags and walk out of the pot “Americanized.”
Like my ancestors and me, many of these later immigrants and their descendants also forgot, in large part, where they came from, their earlier ways of life, and their centuries-long resistance to oppression. But we now have the opportunity to remember.
I have found that learning this history of my ancestors is a process of remembering that I am in fact a human being. Though it is in many ways a tragic one, their story brought me a sense of wholeness that I never knew I was missing. I felt connected to a people, to a culture, and to a home. I realized that I do not simply come from a white cultural void but that I have roots deeper than whiteness. This revelation gives me the opportunity to turn ancestral stories of traditional ways of life and the long struggle to maintain them into family stories that I hold dear and share with future children, and helps me value joy, community, and the natural world over work and productivity.
Realizing the depth of my ancestors’ humanity prior to the advent of white supremacy has given me the strength to be accountable to the harms that they carried out in its name. I have come to believe that facing our country’s history (and my own family history) of racist violence, grieving it and seeking to repair it, could be deeply healing for me rather than shame-filled. I believe that heeding the calls of activists of color to address past and present racial harms, and to unlearn our own conscious and unconscious racial biases, should not be shame-inducing, but instead a process of reconnecting to our true heritage.
Knowledge of our past also reveals the pathway to our true freedom. It shows us that the struggle to undo racism is necessary for all of us if we are ever to achieve economic security and legitimate well-being. There are examples throughout our history of white people who have realized this, woken up from the spell of white racial socialization, seen it as a weapon to divide-and-conquer, and taken action against racism for the benefit of all. Today is a time when this consciousness is surging again.
Photos from a Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting where black and white people gathered together / circa 1937 / Photo credit: Louise Boyle courtesy of Kheel Center and Southern Tenant Farmers Museum.
Reconnecting to this history, to our roots that are deeper than whiteness, allows us to quell feelings of shame with meaningful self-understanding. It also allows us to recognize that our survival in this increasingly unequal and polluted world depends on our ability to ally ourselves with indigenous people and people of color. From this grounded place, we have the opportunity to re-enter multiracial community, witness the wounds of racism with open hearts, and take collective action to both mend these wounds and replace corporate domination with an economic system based on sustainability and care. Our emergence as genuine partners in such a revolution is made possible with the wholeness and self-love that comes when we remember who we are.
New Orleans Saints take a knee (2017) / Anne Braden interviews Rosa Parks (1960) / U.S. Veteran kneels before Lakota elder Leonard Crow Dog during a forgiveness ceremony on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (2016)
For a final time, we welcome you to take a moment to reflect or journal about what is arising in you as you finish this article.
Acknowledgements: My gratitude goes out to Eleanor Hancock for being a thought-partner in processing this history, consistently pushing me to persist with this piece when I felt blocked, encouraging me to deepen the analysis presented here, offering editorial support, and providing a platform – through White Awake – upon which to further develop the ideas in this article. I would also like to thank labor organizer Andy Banks for his emphasis on the importance of highlighting the intersection of racism and capitalism, as well as Dave Belden and Alison Espinosa-Setchko for offering their wisdom when it was needed.
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"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don't know who they are or where they come from."