On Healing the Wrongs of White Ancestors and Why You Probably Don’t Want to Do It

Call me a lily-@$$ed bimbo, or a political correctness fascist, but I can’t use the term ‘non-white’ any more, and I can’t quite believe myself how long it’s taken to understand why.

First of all, lumping hundreds or even thousands of ethnicities into a one-size-fits-all term is embarrassingly dismissive. Then there’s the fact that anyone of any colour is described in a term that refers to whites, which normalises whiteness and makes everything else secondary or peripheral.

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Bet you didn’t know how many ethnic groups there were in Indonesia alone. Memorize their names – I’m going to test you on them tomorrow

The fact that it’s shorthand for when you just want to describe the prejudice incurred by this apparent difference – which virtually always involves light-skinned against dark-skinned – might make it attractive, but it is so insanely reductive that it really has no beneficial use at all.

The peaceful determination of the “Water Protectors” movement at Standing Rock has brought with it the sight of white Americans – described in this Guardian article as ‘non-Native Americans’ (what better way to remind ourselves who came first?) – standing in solidarity, and even begging forgiveness, from people who have been brutally repressed by the ancestors of those non-native Americans.

It cuts to the heart of the shame many of us feel at having ancestors who partook in these atrocities. My own great-grandparents on my American side had slaves; after Abolition they were kept on as farmhands, but were paid in chits which could only be redeemed in one general store. Guess who owned it.

Whites have a duty to speak louder than anyone else in the movement to make Black Lives Matter (at the risk of using ‘Black’ in the same broad way as ‘non-white’), partly because so many white supremacists just won’t listen to black people saying it, and partly because we are the inheritors of a poisonous system which we could potentially subvert. Trying to do so proves we wash our hands of the racism which is the source of the problem.

So what’s stopping more anti-racist whites visibly standing up against racism? Where are all the whites at a Black Lives Matter demonstration?

When there is such a brutal asymmetry in power, wealth, privilege, and domination of discourse and representation in favour of whites, it’s understandable that Blacks, Asians, Arabs, or anyone else (see how tempting it is to fall into the ‘non-white’ trap!) might look at white people who want to show solidarity with suspicion.

How can we understand, when we have never experienced the sharp edge of racism? Aren’t we just jumping on the bandwagon because it makes us look right-on? Will we there in the long run, or on the front lines? Can we truly be invested in the struggle when we aren’t afraid our children will be the next to appear on a tragic-but-glib news story about a shooting over a dangerous-looking packet of gum?

All that is true. But whites still need to worry about our children: we need to be concerned that our kids don’t grow up to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority or inferiority. It’s a massive task, one that seems as simple as repeating ‘we’re all equal’, but in truth we are up against a colossus of media representation that causes even tiny children to characterise black dolls as ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ and white dolls as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ – whatever their own colour.

What’s more, white privilege is also poisonous to white people. Ever hear parents wondering how come their kids got so uppity, rude, disrespectful and self-centred? That’s entitlement, right there, and while it isn’t necessarily colour-bound, if the majority taking up space in the echelons of privilege are white, going to ‘good’ schools (which are almost always almost completely white), living in ‘good’ neighbourhoods (ditto), whose parents on the whole enjoy better economic stability…when are they ever going to get some perspective on the good things that have basically fallen out of the sky into their milky white laps?

Entitlement is poisonous in various ways. There’s the overriding feeling that you don’t really deserve the favours you’re receiving, because you haven’t earned them. Why do police smile benignly at me, even when I was living illegally in Spain for six years, when they frowned at my Middle Eastern husband who’s done nothing? Paradoxically, it makes you feel inferior for being given handouts without deserving them.

The trouble is that once you are in a privileged position, most people would not be so crazy as to give it up voluntarily. It’s the reason why so many African nations haven’t seen a cent of so many billions of dollars in IMF loans their corrupt leaders squirrelled away in Swiss banks. When you live in a warm, dry, safe, comfortable house, why would you choose to move to a hut with no central heating, A/C or flush toilet?

(For the answer to this question you will have to come to my town and ask the hippies. You might be surprised how coherent their arguments are.)

Most of us live in a bubble, we’ve got to admit it. Even making friends with the Gypsy kids on the next block can seem hard to achieve. But if you don’t take the leap and reach out, afraid that you’ll be rebuffed or mocked or shut out, how will you ever know?

See how quickly the Lakota spiritual healer Leonard Crow forgave the ‘non-native’ Americans who went to them seeking forgiveness: the most wronged have the greatest power to forgive, even the community that hurt them the most. There is so much healing in that act, a bursting open of hearts sealed with guilt and pride. Some of us might not have the traumas of Black or Native American people in our genes, but the consciousness of white people is wounded to the core, and we can’t be happy or free until it’s healed.

Vetch

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Pulling vetch out of the thyme
velcro-fingered cleavers clinging
borage and bees for company
I rack my brain for that one word
in Spanish that manages to
hold this feeling in its palm.
It isn’t satisfactorio,
enriquecedor, or realizador.
I am, as they would say,
walking on the branches
dragging fingertips across
the cliffs and valleys of the bark
but never quite holding the trunk.
It was a funny Sufi woman with
stained buck teeth who sold buttons;
she used the word once
when I gave her a ride
and it struck me but never
fully stuck. Unless
I made it up.

Pulling chickweed and
pallitory-on-the-wall
out of the land’s most farflung lips
there is the orange-black striped slither
of escalopendra through the grass
each leg a scorpion’s sting,
and there are
hundreds of them.
I wait in the hammock for it to pass
and root around in the archives
worm-embroidered
laced as dead leaves
in search of the match that
kindled this joy. It must
be a word for every
dirt-nailed dervish
hitch-hiking seeker
wild food forager
punctured by needles
from cardoons and nettles
hunting on still
ungloved.

Pulling pink-tipped white
earthsmoke out from
the charcoal of sodden earth
– to slice and douse in vinegar
and steep and strain and dose with –
this word buzzes round my head
bumbling about its business.
It is a word that predates
dictionaries, anyone
who digs enough will know
what it feels like
before the mouth
has had its way with it.
Orange blossoms. Nectar deep in
berryish buds burst
to pale trumpets: the smell
insists you close your eyes
the better to inhale it.

I can live without
knowing how
that word went.
The feeling is
enough.

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