When I google the definition of “white,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that one meaning is “belonging to or denoting a human group having light-colored skin (chiefly used of peoples of European extraction).” That’s a good definition as far as it goes but, like any racial grouping, “white” is much too complicated to be summed up in a dictionary definition.
Resmaa Menakem is a somatic trauma therapist and bestselling author who examines, among other things, racial trauma. He wrote that “white bodies need to develop a collective container that can handle the charge, weight, speed, and texture of race.” I think of this container as white identity.
Our intentions are often good. Many of us are actively involved in promoting an anti-racist society. (Ibram X. Kendi defines anti-racist as “One who is expressing an idea of racial equality, or is actively supporting a policy that leads to racial equity or justice.”) However, unexamined generational trauma experienced by white people gets in the way of consistent, committed action.
By now, many of us who are white are aware of the privilege we enjoy. We are at the top of a hierarchy of human value created by political, business and religious leaders centuries ago. They used science that has been thoroughly discredited to justify the oppression of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC), along with the LGBTQ+ and disability communities and faith communities, like the Jewish and Muslim religions. Every area of public policy—housing, health and human services, education, environment, law enforcement, the economy and workforce—continues to reflect these outdated attitudes toward race.
I went to public school in Washington County, Minnesota. In 1970, when I was eleven years old, the census reported that Washington County’s population was over 99% white. Civil rights history was being made by Martin Luther King and Malcom X. Cesar Chavez organized migrant laborers. Members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted. But all that seemed very far from my world.
Over the years I’ve learned to see history from BIPOC perspectives. Gradually I began to see the outlines of another racial group: white people. White history and culture, including the oppression of white people by other, more powerful white people, has only become visible to me in the past year or so. Now I can’t un-see it.
In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter describes racial hierarchies going back to antiquity. Ancient Romans, then Vikings and Ottomans engaged in a human trade that involved people from Europe, Asia and Africa. “Again and again,” Painter writes, “racial hierarchies set the poor and powerless at the bottom and the rich and powerful at the top.”
Painter described a shipment of 100 homeless children from Britain to the colonies. The City of London paid the Virginia Company 5 pounds per child to transport the children to the colonies, where they were "sold into field labor for twenty pounds of tobacco each.” These children arrived in 1619, the same year as the first kidnapped African slaves. Their outcomes were not good: “Of the 300 children shipped from Britain between 1619 and 1622, only 12 were still alive in 1624.”
Every July 4, historian Heather Cox Richardson writes about people like my ancestors who immigrated to the United States from Europe, “a world that had been dominated by a small class of rich men for so long that most people simply accepted that they should be forever tied to their status at birth.”
These immigrants came to the United States and encountered what W.E.B. Du Bois called The Great American Assumption: “The American Assumption was that wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s effort and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist.” (Capitalist here means simply a wealthy, successful business owner or farmer.)
My parents were among the fortunate ones for whom the American Assumption worked. They were fine, hard working people, but their success was due in part to social conditions beyond their control. They came out of the poverty of the Great Depression and benefited from Roosevelt’s New Deal. They were further uplifted by the prosperity that followed World War II.
The American Assumption is not universal. It doesn’t apply to people whose ancestors were enslaved, generation after generation forced to work in Southern cotton fields. Nor is it particularly helpful to people whose ancestors lived on this land for thousands of years before Europeans decided to colonize it. The experience of oppressed people was largely ignored in the past because it didn’t support the American Assumption.
Some leaders still advocate ignoring the history of white supremacy. Ideas like the ones I’m sharing here are often dismissed as “woke,” and woke people symbolize a threat. Like Mr. Potter said in It’s A Wonderful Life, dangerous ideas about equality and justice could turn American laborers into "a discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.” Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is building a presidential campaign on the fight against wokeness.
Here in Minneapolis, woke or not, we continue to deal with racial injustice. Refusing to discuss it, or to see the complicated myths and realities behind race, may work for Governor DeSantis but it does not work for me.
On the contrary, the more I learn about the myths and realities of race and the complexities and contradictions of our American democracy, the more clearly I see myself and my connections to others. I think Neil deGrasse Tyson has it right: “every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnaces within high-mass stars that exploded more than five billion years ago. We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe to figure itself out – and we have only just begun.”
Valerie Fitzgerald is a licensed professiona clinical counselor who worked as a case manager and care coordinator for over 10 years. She resides in Howe.
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