Remembering who we are for the well-being of all
Listen to Parts I & II Here or Read Below
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.
"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.
White racial identity did not exist prior to these rebellions. The term “white” was first used as a category to classify human beings in this exact era within Maryland and Virginia legislation that called for banishment or years of forced servitude as punishments for whites, particularly white women, who married or had sexual relations with “negroes, mulattoes, or Indians” and in multiple laws giving slight privileges to poor and indentured Europeans. In Birth of a White Nation, Jacqueline Battalora writes that these included regulations on the treatment of “white” servants, a mandate requiring plantation owners to give food, weapons, and money to them at the end of their indenture as well as a prohibition on whipping any “Christian white servant while naked without an order from the justice of the peace.” These laws were passed simultaneously with the enactment of slave codes that entrenched enslaved Africans and some indigenous people in life-long hereditary slavery with no legal rights and extremely harsh punishments for transgressing their masters. All property that they had been previously given or allowed to earn was confiscated and sold. Profits were to be given to churches to support poor white parishioners. For some time, it was made illegal even to free enslaved people. And people of color who were free would also experience new forms of subjugation. In American Slavery, American Freedom Edmund Morgan writes:
“Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians already free did manage to stay in the colony and cling to their freedom. But it was made plain to them and to the white population that their color rendered freedom inappropriate for them. In spite of being free, they were denied the right to vote or hold office or to testify in court proceedings. And their women, unlike white women, were subject to taxation, whether they worked in the fields or not. These handicaps, together with the penalties for miscegenation, successfully dissociated them from whites, however poor.”
This legislation only slightly improved the overall well-being of poor Europeans. Though they were taught that the expansion of slavery was somehow in their economic interest, it actually devalued their labor by making them compete with those whose bondage forced them to work for free. Anti-racism educator Tim Wise calls this the first of many examples of “Working class white people being harmed by white privilege. Relatively being advantaged, being given a leg up, being given a membership to the club but in absolute terms being economically subordinated by the very thing that gave them a sense of superiority.” Battalora notes that, more than anything, these laws were intended to create “an entirely new bottom to the social hierarchy” occupied by free and enslaved persons of color and to change the psychology of the newly named “white” population. “What’s important in terms of this history is that whiteness itself was never the top dog,” says legal scholar john a. powell. “There was always the elites… the white identity was that middle stratum. That stratum of identifying with the elites and controlling the non-whites.” Some eventually rose to the level of elite-slaveholder, including some of my ancestors, but most did not.
White identity was created as a tool to cement virtually all colonists of European origin (though most at this time were English), regardless of wealth, into a common superior racial category, creating solidarity along lines of race and reducing it along lines of class. If daily life was not enough to force the internalization of this divisive hierarchy, Battalora shares that readings of the laws at church services were also mandated multiple times per year. As the years went on the ideology grew into the widely spread doctrine of so-called “scientific racism.” Whites were indoctrinated with an idea articulated well by South Carolina plantation owner John Townsend – that despite their poverty, “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the Negro… the poorest non-slaveholder may [still] rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race.” The difficulty of life with low-wages was mitigated with what W.E.B. DuBois called the “psychological wage” of whiteness.
This tactic 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 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.” However heavy resistance to this displacement and the workplace exploitation that followed was constant.
The Victorian slums of London illustrate what a life of dependency and urban poverty was like after generations of land enclosure.
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. Though also developing in Europe, white racial identity was substantially deepened shortly after each European immigrant group’s arrival. In the 1700’s poor Protestant Scotch-Irish settlers, including some of my ancestors, were placed on the western edge of the colonies and pitted against indigenous peoples. They were to serve as a buffer between Native nations and the slave plantations of the wealthy. Rather than join in coalition with Native people against the planter class, they took on the glorified role of genocidal militiamen of western expansion, carrying out acts of war reminiscent of those done unto them by the British centuries before. Much of the land they stole was subsequently taken by the wealthy, leaving most poor and landless. In the 1800’s non-English and non-Protestant settlers faced higher levels of shaming and marginalization from the dominant society and were often placed on widely accepted racial hierarchies below “White Anglo-Saxons” yet above people of African, Asian, or indigenous American descent. This stigmatization coupled with the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness because of their light skin led them too to replace many aspects of their ethnic identities with white American racial identity.
This does not mean that love and certain positive cultural values were not maintained in our families and communities. But it does mean that a significant internalization took place of capitalist values, a glorified history of the white American elite, the English language, and separation from, internalized superiority to, and often, violent conquest and policing of people of color. At times, direct participation in this violence proved to be the key to greater societal acceptance. Yet the relative social and economic advantages were a pittance compared to the freedom that could have been won with powerful multiracial unity. But they were still accepted as a bribe.
There were times though when continued resistance, in the forms of cultural preservation and participation in labor and anti-discrimination struggles, at times in coalition with black laborers, would lead to forced assimilation efforts. This was the case 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. Classes 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 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.
NYT headline about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1915 speech
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 of those who continued to engage in labor struggles did so with a racial bias that kept them from extending organizational membership or advocating for the rights of people of color – ultimately reducing the strength of their efforts.
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 begin to reclaim them and to honor those that were kept alive; 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 to deepen my connection to these ancestors’ values that prioritized relationships, family, community, celebration, and reverence for the natural world over 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. This history discredits current resistance to movements for racial justice seen on all sides of the political spectrum. It lifts the smokescreen caused by conservative extremists’ racial scapegoating and liberal politicians’ lip service to issues of race. Instead, 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. In certain periods this rise in consciousness has surged.
End of Part II
"One of the things that most afflicts this country is that white people don't know who they are or where they come from."