Remembering who we are for the well-being of all
By David Dean | Published by White Awake
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.
Roots Deeper Than Whiteness
"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don't know who they are or where they come from."