Holding the Tension: Whiteness vs. European Cultural Identity

I recently attended a fundraiser event for Oyate Nipi Kte, an organization dedicated to the recovery of “Dakota traditional knowledge, including Dakota language, spirituality, ecology, oral tradition and life ways.”  At the event, Waziyatawin, Ph.D, called on White settlers who live on occupied Indigenous land to consider what it means to participate in resistance to White supremacy and continued colonization.

During a small group conversation, my friend Lex said something that has stuck with me, running through my mind daily since: “As White people, it’s important that we do the work to figure out who our people were before we were colonizers.”

It’s notable that Lex said this the day before St. Patrick’s day, during a weekend when countless people of all ethnic backgrounds donned green and drank green beer until they puked a verdant mess.

For me, reclaiming who my people were before we were colonizers means understanding my Irish, German, and Dutch heritage, yet I know next to nothing about my people and the cultures from whence they came.  Why?  Well, because they became White.

Whiteness as a Construct

Despite the way it’s often discussed, race is not a biological concept, and it sure as hell isn’t static.  First, “Whiteness” didn’t exist when Europeans first came to North and South America.  There were simply European landholders who held tight to power.  Over time, though, these European landowners needed a way to stave off slave and proletariat rebellions, so they invented this common “race” for some Europeans.

As laid out in Nell Irvin Painter’s “The History of White People,” at first, only certain Europeans (read wealthy men from north-western Europe) were considered worthy of being in the club.  In the early-to-mid 19th century, though, the wealthy “White” folks realized they needed more allies who could serve in slave patrols and in menial labor positions, so groups like the Irish were slowly allowed to become “White” in order to offer these European immigrants/colonizers a pittance that would keep them from uniting with enslaved African people and Indigenous people.

From there, Whiteness was expanded again in the early-to-mid-20th century to include most Europeans and even to include Jews who, no matter where in Europe they were from, had been traditionally excluded from the “White” label.

The Wages of Whiteness

What this label offered was access: access to land (through things like the Land Grant Acts which was almost totally denied to anyone not considered White), access to education (both through better-funded public schools and the G.I. Bill, which was systematically denied to soldiers of Color), access to jobs (though anti-Irish and anti-Italian job discrimination did exist, it didn’t have the widespread impact that policies like Jim Crow did), and access to countless other little and big legs up in American life.


Despite common refrains from modern White people of Irish descent, these signs were rare.

But Whiteness came with a cost.  Becoming White meant leaving behind the cultural heritage of our people so that we could access the economic benefits, sometimes ones desperately needed, of the “American Dream” (aka the “Dream of White Supremacy”).

There’s a reason that I don’t speak a word of Gaelic, Dutch, or German.  There’s a reason that I know next to nothing about the cultures from which my people came.  There’s a reason that I don’t know the true reasons for why my people fled the land they always knew to see opportunities as colonizers in North America.

That reason is Whiteness.

When we look at race through this context, it is easier to understand Whiteness as more than a racial identity: it’s a system of privilege and oppression better known and understood as White Supremacy.

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4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word (No Matter What Black Folks are Doing) [UPDATE]

A few years back, I published a post titled “4 Reasons White People Can’t Use the N-Word.”  Since it’s publication, it’s been one of my most popular posts.

Well,  I gave it a bit of a reboot over at Everyday Feminism.  Check it out below…

New debates are springing up in a long-contentious dialogue about reclamation of oppressive language.

During the recent ESPN “Outside the Lines” special discussion of a proposed NFL rule to penalize the n-word, Twitter erupted in critique, criticism, and debate.

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In the midst of this debate, though, there is generally one rule when it comes to the n-word on which there is almost total consensus among Black people:

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Yet White people don’t seem to get it.

I’d likely be a wealthy man if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a White person ask “If Black people can just throw the n-word around all the time, why is it not okay for White people to use that word?”

I can only imagine the number of dimes Black people would have. Innumerable.

And despite how important listening to the voices of marginalized and oppressed people is to social justice work on the part of those with privilege, White people on the whole really seem to have hard time with this one.

Perhaps this is because we don’t like being told that anything is off limits to us.

Or perhaps we just have trouble hearing the voices of those we consider, at some basic level, to be lesser, not fully human.

Regardless of the reason, maybe it’s time for a different tact.

Perhaps you can hear it better or differently if a White person explains why exactly we don’t get to use the n-word, regardless of what Black folks are doing.

So here is my message to you.

Dear White Folks,

We have to stop using the n-word.

Like really, really.

And I know what you’re thinking, “But—But—‘They’ get to say it all the time!”

Well, tough cookies.

Here’s why it’s not okay for us to say it, no matter what Black folks are doing:

1.  We Lost the Privilege

You know that whole 600 year time period when White Europeans were buying and selling Black Africans as chattel?

And remember how that whole system was enforced by a violent system of repression whereby Black slaves who did not act the way the White folks wanted them to were beaten and murdered?

Oh, and remember that time after slavery when Black people were locked in a system called Jim Crow that used a similar fear of violence and repression to keep Black people in “their place?”

Well, in the midst of all that shit, there was a word invented by White people as a pejorative for Black folks. And it was used just about every time a Black person was whipped, chained, beaten, insulted, spat upon, raped, lynched, or otherwise humiliated and mistreated by White folks.

Thus, I really don’t care how much White folks want to use that word.

I don’t care how unfair you think it is that someone else gets to use it when we don’t.

Our people gave up the privilege to use that word the moment we invented it as a tool of oppression.

2.  Why Should We Get a Say in the Conversation about That Word?

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.

Whiteness: A Matter of Degree

This weekend, I attended an incredible arts and social justice youth summit in Seattle called Amplify: Tell Your Story, Transform Your World put on by The Art Affect.  As part of the weekend, we were each challenged to create a piece of art reflecting the work we had been struggling with throughout the weekend.  I personally was doing a lot of Whiteness and White Privilege reflection this weekend, so I created the following poem.  It is my response to the oh-so-common statement by White people that “my family never owned slaves, so how am I responsible for all this stuff?”


“A Matter of Degree”

My Grandfather taught me a great many things.
Like the peace only found in casting a line
And how very young an old man can be.
He also taught me how to fear.

When I was probably 4 years old,
My Grandfather demonstrated
In no uncertain terms
That I am White.

So now, if you were to take your sharpest blade
And flay my fair skin
From chin to pelvis
The way that my Grandfather taught me to flay a deer
And if you were to turn that skin inside out,
Once you sorted through the blood
And sinewy pink,
You’d find a history.

My people never owned a slave,
But we still came like a lynching,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our finger nails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the hills of West Virginia.

My people were not at Sand Creek,
But we still came like a genocide,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Black Hills.

My people were not at My Lai,
But we still came like Napalm,
Blood on our breath,
Greed caked into our fingernails.
Into my skin is written this story,
A story as old as the Mekong Delta.

We came, and we came, and we came . . .

This story is as vital
As the air I breathe,
At once apart from me
And a part of me.

And I must force myself to breathe in that story,
Hold it in my lungs,
Fight through the burning,
And Recognize . . .

Recognize . . .

Recognize that that which I have
Is only mine in as much
As it was build on the backs and unmarked graves
of Black, Red, Yellow, and Brown.

So while my people
Never bought another human being,
We still bought our way
Into a system called Whiteness.
And the difference
Is only a matter of degree.

Cultural Amnesia – The Sand Creek Massacre

“All citizens of Colorado . . . go in pursuit of all hostile Indians on the plains . . . to kill and destroy, as enemies of the country, wherever they may be found, all such hostile Indians.” – Colorado Territorial Governor, John Evans, August 11, 1864

Our culture is great at denial.  Well, let me clarify.  By “our culture,” I am referring to the dominant White, Christian Patriarchy that has controlled the values and direction of the culture in which we live since its inception.  Maybe, as Derrick Jensen offers in his stirring book The Culture of Make Believe, it’s more that we live in a culture where we must make believe that all is well, that tremendous atrocities have not been committed and are not being committed with blood on our hands . . . we have to pretend to be able to sleep at night.

After all, I would imagine that if you asked the average Coloradan what took place at Sand Creek in Eastern Colorado, they would not really be able to respond.  In fact, I would wager that if you asked the average American to recount the acts of genocide that had occurred in their county (considering that you’d be hard pressed to find a U.S. county where at least one Native American massacre took place), they would likely respond with confusion and indignation . . . “Genocide in my county?  No no . . .”

The unfortunate reality, though, is that the land that we occupy today is bloodied land.  The Native American population of the United States was estimated, by some accounts and measures, to be nearly 20 million, yet today there are approximately 2.5 million left.  This is no accident.  This is by the direct actions of the U.S. government and its people through direct violent extermination and through unintentional and intentional spread of disease.

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