Saturday, August 8, 2015

Divided : Conquered

(Notes on My Traitor Ancestors)

Being an ally to people of color is not about being ashamed of your Whiteness. But let's get real: I am ashamed of my ancestors.

My genetics are a melting pot of English, Irish, Scottish, German, Norwegian and probably some others I'm forgetting. French I think. But I'm more than half Irish, which makes my Irishness legal tender and the firmest foothold on my own ancestry I'm bound to get.

Now, you may know the relationship between the potato famine and the influx of Irish immigrants to the New World. What you may not know is that the British had a great deal to do with the terrible impact of the famine (don't feel bad; this is a fairly recent revelation in the land of peer-reviewed publications.) 

The nasty treatment of the Irish followed them to the New World, but they took a stand against it. They did. They fought hard to be recognized as fellow human beings who deserve to thrive in exchange for their efforts. It was a very noble enterprise, or it would have been if they hadn't claimed their liberation by redirecting the hatred to another oppressed group. In tandem with fighting for their own rights for dignity and an honest living, they fought against those same rights for the Blacks pouring into the cities looking for work. 

It worked. Like the Italians, like the Polish, the Irish melted quietly into the category of "white." Hooray.

Which means I got to come of age as an average ignorant white girl, with no real knowledge of Irish culture or history, no understanding of the politics that went into the current makeup of either the U.S. or Ireland, and no sense of community beyond the bullshit commodity patriotism of self-serving politicians and mayonnaise commercials.

I'm not the only culturally whitewashed suburban kid who felt jealous of people of color for the sense of community and heritage we perceived them to possess. My education and socialization kept me ignorant enough of the actual experience of being non-white that when people looked at my dark olive skin in the summer and guessed at my heritage I was tempted to claim someone else's. Yes, I am Pacific Islander. Yes, I am one-eighth black. Yes, I am Native American.

I've since gained a better understanding of the socio-political, heavily institutionalized race complex in this country, mostly through dumb luck and partly through pursuit. I no longer feel uncomfortable about what incarceration statistics, poverty statistics, and media portrayal of people of color seem to indicate about the superiority of my cultural and/or genetic heritage, because I know exactly how the Rube-Goldberg tube of the Benevolent White Conqueror works. Under scrutiny our dominant narrative reveals itself to be a nightmare version of the fairy tale in which the Wolves emerge not only alive and well but revered for their cleverness, cunning, and strength against weak and unworthy adversaries such as grandmothers, piglets, and little girls.

If you trust the mainstream news (owned in conglomerate by the most powerful men in the world) to give you an accurate picture of the benevolence and efficacy of current power structures, and/or if you trust the textbook companies, likewise owned and/or influenced by the wealthy and powerful, to represent the struggles and priorities and victories and tragedies of history without putting a positive spin on the people who won, and why, and whether certain developments were positive for the majority of humans, that is, if you trust that power is righteous ("might equals right"), you likely see people of color as more prone to violence, laziness, unsubstantiated anger, entitlement, and less capable of achievement, functional families, and functional communities. I am not out to convince anyone that these beliefs are wrong. There is a staggering amount evidence that the poverty, underachievement and violence among people of color relative to whites was intentionally crafted and sustained through a variety of national and international policies. If you don't like being racist, you can easily remedy that.

This is for those who already see racial inequality as a problem that we can, and should, collectively solve, from Rachel Dolezals and yoga girls and "downwardly mobile activists" to community organizers, critical race theory researchers and guerrilla reporters. Though we're on the same journey, the path feels more like a battlefield than common ground. There's good reason to be frustrated with the brand of white savior capitalist charities that keep perpetuating the problems because they don't care how the relevant populations feel about their solutions. But there are also a lot of allies-in-training being absolutely castigated as they seek to help and learn at the same time.

The most relevant and revolutionary conversations about unjust and destructive power structures and what to do them are happening quite naturally in the margins, the communities benefitting the least from the current arrangement (who are least able and/or willing to ingratiate themselves to the checkbook-holders). It's also largely thanks to xenophobic political rhetoric that transparent discussions about power take place primarily in the disciplines linked to specific identities. And because these disciplines are some of the only safe spaces for people of color to discuss their experiences, white visitors tend to be greeted with apprehension.

I got used to sitting down and shutting up and giving someone else's experience priority for once, but my initial reaction was a common one: "I'm not privileged. I'm oppressed too." And because there are far more important issues that the hurt feelings of white people, and because the priorities of these disciplines are specific, allies and POCs tend to quickly dismiss the question by responding, "Privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Most people experience both to different degrees." 

I've always felt that this should not be a conversation-stopper, but a transition to a discussion about the stake we all have in ending oppressive structures. I've tried to reverse-engineer the reasons why: to imagine the world where we are all part of the same human family, and no one feels the need to defend the territory of victimhood, and no one feels the need to preserve the integrity of their identity through exclusion. 
But I think a better way to talk about it is to go back to how this whole thing started--to the settling of the New World, where the old structures were being challenged by poor whites, Native Americans, and African Americans alike. 

Where, having abandoned everything they knew, finding themselves in extremely difficult circumstances and often enslaved themselves, the settlers were much more amenable to working together with those who were culturally different but shared their situation and goals. Where, desperate and obliterated by disease and then harassed by invasion, and/or transported against their will to a completely foreign environment dominated by a hostile and strange culture, Native Americans and African Americans were willing to take what allies they could.

The majority of that new society, as with most human societies, just wanted to claim their personal dignity, raise families by the fruits of their labor, and enjoy life and one another's company. And they were starting to actually do something about it, banding together, attacking the houses of the ostentatiously rich, disobeying the local authorities, etc., much to the chagrin of those in the game of continuously concentrating and expanding their own power and wealth. 

Hence, the ingenious scheme which promised not only to keep everything in the same hands, but accelerate and codify the exploitation of the populace. They decreed that whites could no longer be slaves. Ever. Most of them were released from their indentured servitude. Whites, they claimed, were naturally superior to other races. All other races were relegated to second-class citizenship or completely dehumanized, as in the case of blacks, and subjected to even worse treatment than before. They dissolved the revolutionary masses in one fell swoop by creating different tiers of exploitables.

And that's why I am ashamed of my ancestors, British, German, Norwegian, whatever. They had within reach, modeled before them by several Native American nations, a version of society that honored each and every individual, that offered every citizen dignity and the means to care for themselves and their families, the opportunity to live together in communities based upon "nothing for myself that others cannot have," and they chickened out and scrapped it all for the promise that they would always have just a little more than the other suckers (not to mention they wouldn't have to risk their lives proving their mettle against their supposed betters). 

My ancestors turned us all toadies, the front line of the ultimate bullies. In exchange for effectively ensuring that the most hopeful and beautiful elements of the American Dream would stay in dreamland, they got the Oppression-Plus deal. Exploitation with benefits. And if you want to know just how much it benefitted the vast majority of us, all you have to do is look at the South. The Confederate Flag might as well be literally shit on a stick. Not only did the majority of southern whites end up dirt poor at the end of their devil's deal, they also ended up actively hated and despised for an institution that ultimately benefitted the same people as always, people with the power to successfully hide themselves from the public eye.

Most textbooks teach children a version of U.S. history which obliquely justifies and even glorifies the brutal conquest, manipulation, and exploitation of native peoples. Several generations later and minus the facts, most white Americans simply don't understand why we all can't "just get along." Belligerent naïveté and willful ignorance, infuriating as they can be, are products of the same top-down narrative that people of color seek to dismantle.

Another favorite phrase of white people that does not earn many brownie points: "I'm colorblind." It's a phrase that can easily be interpreted as "I, as a white person, grant you the privilege of temporary whiteness." But aren't we also longing for an end to the distinctions that keep us from banding together to make the world better? Can't we honor that longing?

The American Dream has been dormant for centuries. After that brief, shining moment when it really meant something, when it really had a chance of succeeding, it was lost to us. It's time to salvage that hopeful story from the ashes. It's time for the offspring of the wolves, the grandmas, the little pigs and girls alike to see if we've learned enough from the past, to see if we're now braver, wiser, and more trusting than our ancestors. To see if we can't get it right this time.


  1. Once again you put your finger on something I've had a hard time articulating. I'm directly descended from people who were involved in rounding up Navajo and sending them on the Long Walk. Mother's side of the family. I've spent a lot of time on Navajo and Apache land. I've always been uncomfortable in my skin there. Not hard to figure that out.

    I experienced a different, much stranger feeling during my most recent trips to both reservations. I didn't have the guts, but I had an unaccountable urge to say to people I met there that we're allies now - that the same spirit that dehumanized them, rounded them up like livestock and sent them into the desert to die 150 years ago is alive and more virulent than ever; that it's actively marginalizing me, my family, and nearly everyone I know. It is a spirit of inexhaustible greed and utterly without empathy - consciously embodied by a few hundred people who would destroy the Earth itself for a few $billion more, and unconsciously acted out by millions who carry their water in exchange for the fleeting illusions of security and status.

    What's really different from 150 years ago is that these few hundred now have the means, through the power and technology they wield, to destroy most of the complex life on Earth. The only worldly things still in plentiful supply for the rest of us are distractions, propaganda, manufactured conflict and irony. Fifteen years from now, unless we wake up and stop them, these few hundred people will "own" all the fresh water on Earth. On that day, truly, all lives will matter. Leave it to you to dare to use the word "oppression" inclusively.

    Who knows. Maybe you'll help someone like me find the courage to say to a Navajo, or an African-American: Though my life was never stolen through slavery, nor have I been hunted like vermin by mouth-breathing rednecks on horseback with repeating rifles, we now share a common cause - Life. Today, our alienation is manufactured - a mass-produced line of toxic souvenirs designed to keep us divided and distracted, while the people who bought Congress buy up and burn everything else there is.

    Maybe it doesn't have to be that way. I say "Aye" to your last proposition.

  2. Thanks a lot for this. Been there. 11 years with a black foster mother (who is 90 today, and being honored at her local library by my reading the chapter in my new book about her. Probably a first for Henderson, NC.) Really appreciate coming across this column. Peter Coyote

  3. Beautiful comments as always, Knead2Know.

    Peter: thanks for stopping by. I hope your mother's birthday was lovely.