“The first step in liquidating a people…is to erase its memory…Before long a nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”—Milan Kundera
Whether you are considered “white” or not, I feel confident saying you have been impacted by whiteness trauma, and as this quote suggests, that your people/s likely experienced and perpetrated genocide somewhere in your family line/s. Genocide is an intentional act to destroy a people, and whiteness is an intellectual construction based on traumatic social rejection from & disconnection with Mother Earth, self & cultural heritage, and other people. It was used as a tool by the ruling class to divide the working class, and so is also called “the bribe of whiteness.” David Dean gives a clear and compelling history of the creation and rise of the “white” identity in this article, People who have learned to identify as “white” tend to deny their own complex cultural heritage. Some people even study “whiteness theory” and “white fragility” to try to make sense of the shame they carry and the way this history of European identities being whitewashed and replaced by modern, nationalistic ‘Western’ identities still play out today. For example, did you know that assimilationist policies in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s led to companies like Ford running mandatory English classes and job training programs that finished with ceremonies in which people clad in traditional cultural clothing walked through a huge ‘melting pot’ then emerged in company uniforms? (Image from here)
David Dean cites the success of such policies & programs on two factors:
- The violent displacement of communities from their traditional lands in order to use that land for profit and create a dependent, exploitable workforce, and
- The replacement of traditional cultural identities that valued the welfare of the community and the Earth with a culture of capitalistic, possessive individualism with a social hierarchy divided along racial, gender, religious, and other identities.
As Tyson Yunkaporta points out in his new book, ‘Western’ is not an identity, because by its nature it is in reference to someone or someplace else (presumably ‘Eastern’); it is not inherent. To be ‘American’ or ‘Australian’ is also quite amorphous. I have out of curiousity asked a number of people what it means to them to be ‘Australian,’ and I have gotten one of two answers: (a) I am part of a multi-cultural modern soup, or (b) It means nothing to me, and I am English/Irish/Wiradjuri/Yuin/etc. living on this land we collectively call ‘Australia’.
My view is that whiteness trauma is based on a European history of intergenerational trauma, shame & pain. It was spread by the Romans & other empires dividing and subjugating peoples on their traditional lands; by the violent spread of Christianity through power & force, including the systematic desecration of indigenous & pagan sacred sites; and by horrendously hateful acts such as witch trials, inquisitions, slavery, rapes & genocides. It seems to me that over the last few thousand years, violence, terror & control became normalized as a method of asserting dominant leadership throughout Europe. Multi-generational disconnection with an innately human intimate & reciprocal relationship with the Earth were replaced by a power struggle for whose anthropocentric story is ‘right’, in a might-makes-right model. This led to land ‘discovery’ (i.e. colonisation) and other myths such as when upper class, white-skinned, Christian, land-owning males founded a ‘free’ government for ‘the people’ in the U.S. Ultimately, whitewashing & glomming together of many European peoples and cultures into “Western” expanded to non-‘white’ people, so that today millions of people around the world identify with a colonial nation rather than a traditional culture living within an empire.
Here is a little poem I wrote about my own journey of healing ‘whiteness’ trauma:
Beneath the Roots
Has defined me
But I kept digging
Because I knew
My taproot was deeper
And drinking in peace
Somewhere down there
To heal from whiteness trauma, I have found many helpful approaches, including: honouring ancestors, grounding, re-defining tribe & belonging, bridging multiple identities, healing power dynamics, and healing existential wounds. The following quote is a humbling reminder of what our indigenous minds carry somewhere inside of us from an Australian Aboriginal culture more recently colonised:
“The first peoples of this land don’t need statues of our heroes, we have mountains that remind us of our people. We don’t need painted portraits, we have rivers that flow with the stories of our dreaming. Our songs are filled with culture, our language of the land. So we don’t need books. Our history, our connections, our hearts are true to this country.”–Baker, 2017, quoted in Koori Mail, Oct 23, 2019 p. 24
(Image from here, by artist Annick Bougerolle)