Column: The People Without Colour

Rhyd Wildermuth —  October 4, 2015 — 21 Comments

[Columnist Rhyd Wildermuth is one of our talented monthly columnist. If you enjoy reading his work, consider donating to our Wild Hunt Fall Fund Drive today. It is you that makes it all possible! Your donations go directly back to getting the important news out there. Donate today and help keep The Wild Hunt going for another year. Thank You.]

We’re screwed and all anyone seems to care about is their spiritual journey and their artesian chocolate bar made by a fedora-wearing bearded 20 year old living in #Bushwick. Only the hippest can help us. Only the rich can afford authenticity. Only those that can ignore the violence that privilege inflicts will have the most Instagram followers.

We’ve somehow forgotten that we are inherently interesting because we are human. We’ve ended up in this weird hipster hell where everything is an ironic nod to the past, to someone else’s identity or to fractions of an imitation of ours.

We need to occupy authentic.

Of course, artisanal chocolate isn’t the problem, it just points to it. It points to the lack of care of how we effect each other’s space, cultures, histories and displacements. Because when we have no sense of self it’s far too easy to colonize unconsciously. When we are able to disown what we don’t like about ourselves and buy what we do like it’s far too easy to escape doing the necessary work needed to heal our deeper wounds around our identity. Chani Nicholas

Let me tell you a story. It’s your story and mine. It’s the story of a deep trauma, a tale of sorrow and violence, and also one, potentially with a happy ending.

It’s the story of a people who lost their colours, who became blank.

It is not an easy story to tell. It’s one you may already think you know. You may already think you know what I am going to say, or fear what I might say. Maybe you’re already angry, already upset, eager to tell me what you think or to tell me off. That’s okay, really. But you won’t really know until I’ve finished my tale, and the tale is not in the end or in the beginning, but in the telling.

So I will tell you this tale.

I woke up one day and found out I was white. All my color and difference, all the connection and meaning of being human had bleached out of my existence, and I became blank.

Others already knew I was white, but like learning there’s no magic in the world or there’s no such thing as fairies or ghosts, someone had to tell me ‘the truth.’ I was not what I wanted to be, or what I could to be. I was emptiness, colourless, plain, normal.

Abnormal, fullness, authenticity, color — all those things belonged to others, not to me, nor to the people who were like me. Instead of having culture and magic and wonder, I had privilege and power and authority, malls and Empire and business suits and Christianity. I had oatmeal and turkey; mashed potatoes,untextured bread and bland pasta; blue jeans,  the Bible and Lipton tea. I had football and baseball and skyscrapers; FOX news and watered-down beer; trimmed lawns and Disneyworld

Thing is, I don’t like any of those things. But that’s what I get for being bleached of colour, bleached of meaning.

There are other things I get which are a lot better, though. Things that are supposed to make up for my loss. I’m less likely to be shot. I’m more likely to be picked for a job. I’m less likely to go to prison for a petty crime. I’m more likely to go to college. I’m less likely to get strip-searched in an airport. I’m more likely to be listened to by others.

All those things I ‘get’ for being white, though? There’s another story there. Getting more things than others and being less likely to be hurt means I was born into world where some people get hurt more often and also get less stuff.

I don’t want to live in that sort of world, but I also don’t want to off myself because it’s the only sort of world that’s around at the moment. So what I can do?

I didn’t decide to be white. It was decided for me, and not just at the moment when I learned I was white. It was decided only a few hundred years before by a really complicated series of actions, theories and wars that I had nothing to do with. My story’s gonna get a little longer, because I need to tell you about how some people lost their colour.

How The Whites Lost Their Colour

Christoph Meiners, who first used the term 'Caucasian' in 1785

Christoph Meiners, who first used the term ‘Caucasian’ in 1785 [Public Domain]

Whiteness didn’t really exist 325 years ago.

Sit with that for a moment, if you don’t mind. And if you’ve read my writing before, you maybe also remember a few other things that didn’t really exist 300 years ago. Like Capitalism. And the steam engine. And the United States of America.

What were ‘white people’ before? All kinds of things. English and French and Spanish and Scandanavian and Irish. Protestant and Catholic and Orthodox. Peasants and farmers and nobles and kings and merchants—but not really ‘white.’ There was no such thing as a ‘white race.’ In fact, ‘Causasians’ didn’t exist until a scientist who liked to measure skulls came up with the word in 1785 and divided people into races.

Science had a lot to do with the creation of white people. The Enlightenment and “Age of Reason” turned loose an orgy of men measuring and theorising and writing and advising on the inner scientific truths of nature and the human body and our origins. Capitalism and factories and lots of other awful modern things were created from their ideas. Some of these ideas we keep around because they make sense (Darwin’s ideas, for instance) and others we’ve mostly gotten rid of, like lobotomies or removing women’s ovaries to calm them down.

But whiteness didn’t get widely accepted until it got written into law and became ‘truth.’

Scientific theories are meant to explain a process, but when they become politically useful, they take on a life of their own. Race, especially whiteness, was a really useful political theory. During the colonial period of America, governors needed a way to make sure property was distributed only among certain people, and they were also having trouble keeping the lower classes in line.

Traditionally, the laws defined people by their wealth and their Christianity as opposed to ‘others.’ But because indigenous peoples and African slaves also converted to Christianity, extra definitions of what the laws meant by ‘Christian’ (that is, people who got rights and wealth) were required. As pointed out in a really good essay by Quinn Norton:

…a growing American peasantry was proving as difficult to govern as the European peasantry back home, periodically rising up in riot and rebellion, light skinned and dark skinned together. The political leaders of the Virginia colony struck upon an answer to all these problems, an answer which plagues us to this day.

The Virginians legislated a new class of people into existence: the whites. They gave the whites certain rights, and took other rights from blacks. White, as a language of race, appears in Virginia around the 1680s, and seems to first appear in Virginia law in 1691. And thus whiteness, and to a degree as well blackness, was born in the mind of America.

The ‘whites’ appeared during the colonial period, during the same period of the birth of Capitalism, and in response to the difficulty of ruling over people. It was a political tool, later strengthened by irresponsible scientists, and was a way to divide the poor against each other.

I don’t have space to tell you the rest of the story about the creation of whiteness (and as I’ve suggested, others have done it very well). What’s important here, especially for Pagans, is what came before whiteness, and what can come after whiteness.

The story we hear about America was that it was founded by people fleeing religious persecution and filled by immigrants looking for opportunity. The first part of that story’s really silly. The pilgrims were Puritans who were fleeing backlash from their horrible attempts to regulate society according to their ideas of what the Christian God wanted (no dancing, no drinking, church like, all the time).

The second part, though… Ever stop to wonder why there was no opportunity in the places those immigrants came from?

The answer is the one no one likes to talk about. Capitalism was re-arranging European society. The Enclosures, the Highland Clearances, the Irish Famines, industrialisation, the closing-off of forests in what is now Germany, and wars for resources during that time all destroyed the ability of the lower classes to survive. So, they went where they might have a better chance to find a way to eat (and even, possibly, have some land to farm on). An ethical decision most of us might make, even if we didn’t want to help make life miserable for the people who were already living on that land. Hungry people will do some awful things for food.

Irish famine monument, Dublin (photo by author)

Irish famine monument, Dublin [Photo Credit: R. Wildermuth]

Those people who left weren’t really ‘white’ yet, not until they became integrated into the American political and economic system. And there was an order in which that happened: people from the same lands as those in power became white first. Later, other people became white, too — Germans, Irish, Italians, and eventually Hispanics and Eastern Europeans.

The thing to remember, though, is that white was a new kind of person, a new label. By becoming white, all the other cultural identities of that white person were mostly erased. Also, remember that creating a legal category of person called ‘white’ was done to prevent poor people of European descent from mixing, intermarrying, and allying with slaves (freed or otherwise) from Africa or with First Nations people.

White basically meant not Black, or Indian, or Chinese, or anyone else we were supposed to not trust or share stuff with. For awhile, it didn’t mean Irish or German or Italian, and then eventually it did.

White also became a symbol. A symbol of power (because those in power were white). A symbol of authority. A symbol of normality. A blankness, empty, a void waiting to be filled with profit and privilege.

And whiteness became a way to get the a large group of the poor to identify with and fight for the rich, instead of identifying with people in similar economic statuses, or people suffering from similar ancestral trauma.

Ancestral trauma is an important bit, actually, and one only Animists and psychoanalysts can really quite allow. The secularism of Western society can only talk of material processes that would affect the children of people who became white, not the spiritual or cultural traumas.

The Victim Becomes The Abuser

White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed –James Baldwin

There isn’t really a white culture. We’ll certainly laugh when we hear jokes about ‘what white people eat,’ but “white culture” is whatever people without ethnic and cultural ties to their origins have cobbled together and created in this new state of blankness. Humans without culture create culture, because culture is part of what makes us human.

So whites came up with a patchwork of cultural forms, pasted together from what was around. Some of it was surviving bits from Europe. Some of it was technically stolen. Some call it borrowing, but whites don’t actually give it back. Some call it ‘copying’ or ‘exchange,’ but the only thing whites ever exchange in return is money, or Coca Cola, or expensive plastic bits made by people who aren’t white.

The important thing here is that culture went from something humans create to something that can only be bought or sold. That’s Capitalism’s trick, taking away our meaning and selling it back to us for profit. Worse, Capitalism often sells us stolen goods, the spoils of colonization.

That’s the whole ‘cultural appropriation’ bit. But let’s be clear  — most people don’t do a good job of talking about appropriation because they don’t mention Capitalism and Empire and power. It’s not easy to explain those things in a heated conversation, and not so easy on the internet, either.

Whiteness is a theft of color, a theft of history of the people who become white, a theft of all the ancestral cultural and spiritual forms of a people. They all become whitewashed, and become a people who don’t know who they are, don’t know how to have spirituality and culture without stealing it from others.

Whiteness can be—and maybe should be—looked at as a trauma. Fleeing European lands because of famine, enclosure, capitalist displacement and war, many of the people, who would later become white, were not just immigrants, but refugees. This is less traumatic, certainly, than being hauled in the bottom of slave ships, or being forced-marched across America so other people could have your land. But, loss of land, culture, language, and identity is a trauma nevertheless.

Traumatized people can be compelled to do horrible things. People who have lost everything often steal. People who live in abject poverty can often be bribed into performing heinous acts. And most horrible of all, people who suffer trauma often re-enact that trauma in others, perpetuating abuse in even worse forms than the original trauma.

Whiteness is, itself, a trauma treated not with healing, but with bribes and rewards to shut you up. Accept the abuse of whiteness and your kids don’t get shot, your bandages will be closer to your skin-tone, and the rich will let a few more scraps fall on the floor in front of you and maybe, just maybe, let you one day sit with them too.

The answer to curing the trauma of whiteness isn’t to deny it never happened, and that trauma doesn’t excuse any of the things whites have done because of it. We don’t help victims by denying they were never victimised, nor do we forgive people who sexually abuse children if they were abused as children, too. Both are forms of denial.

The End of Whiteness and the Beginning of Everything Else

We must look directly at the trauma that caused and causes whiteness, heal the wounds it causes (inside the white and outside), overthrow the Capitalist system that needs whiteness to survive, and then abolish whiteness altogether. And that’s where Paganism is very important.

Paganism can be seen as an attempt to create a culture and a system of meaning from the ruins of Capitalism even as Capitalism isn’t over yet. In fact, by creating a culture than can withstand the assault of the market and all its voracious greed, by insisting on the right of individuals to choose their own identities and worship their own gods in their own ways, Paganism could actually help cause the end of Capitalism and whiteness.

But there are two very large dangers here.

There are those who want to make Pagan a white religion. They make the mistake of accepting capitalist racial distinctions as natural or gods-ordained, and are often led by demogogues eager to exploit the trauma of whiteness into more virulent forms of hatred. They confuse European heritage and European gods with whiteness, even though there were no whites when European gods were worshiped.

In creating or reclaiming new identities, whiteness sometimes carries over as the blueprint for these constructions. Heathenism and Celtic Reconstruction often falls victim to this danger, sometimes pasting ‘Germanic’ or ‘Celtic’ over whiteness. Instead of salvaging what can be Celtic from the ruins of whiteness, they sometimes just dress up whiteness in Celtic garb.

The other danger is that we dress up our Paganism in salvage from the ruins of other still-living cultures, cultures in the process of being destroyed by Capitalism. That’s always been what Cultural Appropriation actually means, and why it’s important to talk about.  By taking cultural forms from other exploited peoples we are not borrowing or exchanging–we are continuing the abuse done to our ancestors.

But we can avoid both of these dangers by questioning whiteness, healing its trauma, and then destroying it completely. Paganism can’t be a white religion if we get rid of whiteness, nor can it be a white religion if we stop excluding people who have color from Paganism. And to destroy whiteness, there will have to be a culture to replace it—what better culture, then, than one reforged from what existed before Capitalism?

And this is yet another way that Paganism is also important—like soul retrieval, restoring what was lost to those traumatized by the nightmare of whiteness will make them whole again, end the cycles of abuse, and return the colors to their world.

Perhaps as we finally begin to know ourselves, face and heal the trauma of whiteness, our own and especially that of others whiteness was weaponized to hurt, perhaps we can reclaim what could have been and what has been along with all the other peoples of the world.

  *    *    *

This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth. 

Support The Wild Hunt. Donate Today!

Rhyd Wildermuth

Posts Twitter Facebook

Rhyd often lives in a city by the Salish Sea in occupied Duwamish territory. He’s a bard, theorist, anarchist, and writer, the editor of A Beautiful Resistance and co-founder of Gods&Radicals, author of Your Face Is a Forest and a columnist for The Wild Hunt. He growls when he’s thinking, laughs when he’s happy, cries when he’s sad, and does all those things when he’s in love. He worships Welsh gods, drinks a lot of tea, and dreams of forests, revolution, and men. His words can be found at Paganarch.com and can be supported on Patreon (patreon.com/Paganarch