“What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power

Greg Snyder is a dharma teacher and senior priest at Brooklyn Zen Center, which he co-founded with his wife, Laura O’Loughlin. He is also a professor of Buddhism at Union Theological Seminary. As a priest, teacher, and community leader, much of Greg’s work is oriented around peace-building and social justice initiatives. The following post is an interview with Greg conducted by Eleanor Hancock, director of White Awake.

Greg Snyder 300x500

Greg Snyder

Born in 1969, Greg grew up in a close-knit Pennsylvania Dutch community. At 13 years of age, Greg encountered his first experience of assimilation when his family moved out of this community, in central Pennsylvania, and relocated in Houston, Texas. Greg characterizes this assimilation from an ethnic to non ethnic white identity as a consequence of being poor in a capitalist society, and distinguishes his experience as one of loss. In reflecting on his own story, as well as on the experiences of other people who are socially categorized and socialized as white, Greg points out that when this loss of identity occurs intimacy and connection is traded for positions of relative social power.

Greg’s story is unique, in part, because he has lived through a transition from ethnic to assimilated “white” culture (with all the ensuing white racial privilege that this imparts) within his lifetime. For many white people, assimilation occurred generations ago, such that we may not have the same type of personal insight into this trade-off (of intimacy for power) that Greg brings.

Please note that the Pennsylvania Dutch are a cultural group formed by early German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania and their descendants. The word “Dutch” does not refer to the Dutch people or the Dutch language, but to these German settlers (ie “Dutch” = Deutsch = German). 

Tonelli PD barn distance thin

Rural Pennsylvania

Eleanor Hancock:  What was it like to grow up Pennsylvania Dutch? How was it different than growing up white in the suburbs?

Greg Snyder:  The main thing that was different about growing up in a Pennsylvania Dutch (PD) community, in central Pennsylvania, is that my default identity wasn’t white. I didn’t know people without Germanic surnames – Snyder or Rehmeyer or Schroeder. That area of Pennsylvania was said to be, at the time, the least ethnically diverse place in the U.S.; virtually everyone was Pennsylvania Dutch. We were in the social position of being treated as white — but as a kid that wasn’t our first way of talking about ourselves.

EH:  How did your ancestors come to Pennsylvania Dutch country?

Amish graveyard resize

Amish cemetery, Lancaster PA

GS:  My family came to the area in two waves. The first wave of Pennsylvania Dutch families was in the late 1680s; another was in the 1720s. One line of my family actually bought our family farm from the son of William Penn, the early Quaker after whom Pennsylvania is named. If you visited local graveyards, in my childhood, all the gravestones bore Pennsylvania Dutch names. So you had a feeling of an internalized “we.” “We are living here; we’ve been living here.” There wasn’t much discussion of who we took that land from. But there was a sense of “we have an identity in this land as a people.” In strict Pennsylvania Dutch circles, like the Amish community, the word for outsiders is “English.” I grew up with a really strong sense that New Englanders and WASPs looked down on us and that we didn’t like them; there was a huge bias in the community against WASP culture that probably had to do with ethnicity and class going back to early years in the US.

EH: Did you grow up speaking English?

GS:  Yes. All of my grandparents spoke Pennsylvania Dutch – which is a version of German dating from the late 17th or early 18th century. It’s a version of German with old constructions mixed into it, so that to modern German ears it would sound odd. Television and our education system has destroyed ethnic communities in the U.S. In the 1950s there were still Czech-speaking communities in Texas, French-speaking communities in Louisiana, and communities speaking PD. All that has shifted dramatically; people began speaking English instead. I wish our elders would have taught us PD, because now it’s a dying language that will soon be gone.

EH:  Were Germans involved in genocide as they cleared the land in your area?

GS:  In short, of course, but maybe not in the horrifically and overtly violent ways we know from other areas of the country. My elders and many of the Pennsylvania Dutch like to say that they lived alongside  the indigenous groups, rather than driving them away. Is it true? Highly doubtful. Maybe some families to a certain extent, but the fact is that the Susquehannock are not there anymore; they were forced to move north and south as a result of wars — joining the Delaware tribe, joining the Iroquois — until finally they were gone. Something happened. And another thing that is very suspicious: the first U.S. school created to re-educate Indian children — to try to drive their culture out of them — was in Carlisle, Penn., right in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country. This school was probably considered compassionate by the Christians  who founded it. After all, the early American prisons were founded by Quakers as places of contemplation. But when the vanquishers  say they were kind to the vanquished, well, it’s not so trustworthy.

Carlisle Memorial ceremony

Memorial ceremony at the Carlisle Indian cemetery

EH:  Would you say more about PD culture and the environment you grew up in?  

GS:  On the one hand it’s wonderful to grow up in a farm environment where you go to one neighbor for a lamb shank and another neighbor for potatoes and everyone grows food around you. My family still does that to this day. My cousins buy their meat and their vegetables from people around them and go to the grocery store for packaged, processed stuff. As a child you could go outside with a deep sense of safety in that environment. In summer I could take a bag lunch and be out all day.

I had a deep sense of being Pennsylvania Dutch, of community, a deep sense that this land is the land of my people; we were all farmers. I also had a deep sense that I was not ethnically the same as the rest of the United States. People in the community would wear t-shirts that said “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.” There was an ethnic elitism.

I don’t want to pretend that it’s all wonderful being Pennsylvania Dutch. In fact it was difficult and complicated. It was a community where everyone paid attention to what everyone else was doing. We are talking about a very deep German Protestant patriarchy. The way children were raised, it was “Don’t be seen or heard; fall in line.” That’s one of the shadow sides. There’s a lot of patriarchal violence in Pennsylvania Dutch communities. You were sculpted to be a certain kind of a man. People beat their kids. I don’t know if it’s that way anymore, but when I was growing up it was. Most of my childhood traumas had to do with patriarchy.

EH: How rural were you? What sort of technology and modern amenities did you have?

PD garden crop

Family garden, PA Dutch country

GS: My mother’s family came from Mennonites; she lived her whole life on a farm. My father lived on a farm when he was young, then moved to a small town. His family came from Lutherans, who are allowed to do everything, including drive cars. Mennonites have cars but it’s a simple life. Although the simplicity of my life was not because of a Mennonite commitment. It was because of poverty. Old farm houses with outhouses. My mother always had a large garden, where we grew some of our food. There were times when we lived in farm houses with other people, and times when we were really broke and we lived in trailer parks. We moved a lot — often because we were unable to pay the rent. Yet where I had a real sense of rootedness and strength was in my extended family. My grandmother’s house was where everybody came together. Sundays and holidays there was a big meal – my cousins and everybody were often there, the elders sitting around speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.

EH:  You and your family had less than the other Pennsylvania Dutch?

GS:  Yes. There were many days, as a child, when the free lunch at school was my meal for the day. We’d go to farmers who had already picked their green beans and we’d pick what was left over.

EH: When did you first become conscious of race?

GS:  I never heard anyone talk about race in Pennsylvania — except once, driving through the black part of town, when my dad locked the doors. When I was 13 my family moved to Houston, Texas, for work. That was the first place I ever heard about race; it was non-stop. I would hear things like “Mexicans are lazy” — while watching literally all the work being done by Mexican Americans. Coming from the outside, that was mind-blowing. Soon after we got to Texas the Saudi royalty was buying up the energy industry, and local stores were selling baseball caps that said “Sand n*****s keep out.” I remember thinking, “Why would anybody buy that hat?”

I came into that culture not as a northern liberal but as someone completely protected from talk of race. In Pennsylvania, if there was any trash talk as kids, it was against middle-class WASPy types who looked down on us.

Third Ward Houston thin

Houston, TX

EH:  Coming from a close-knit Pennsylvania Dutch community, what was the transition like for you? Did you move to a mostly white part of Houston?

GS:  Our neighborhood in Houston was mixed; Mexican and white folks, mostly. What changed for me is that I didn’t have a people anymore. I felt this painfully and I didn’t know how to talk or act with people, and I didn’t understand what unified people. But ultimately it was really good, because I went from thinking that a French surname was exotic, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, to the situation in Houston where I had everyone in my school: South Asians, East Asians, people from the black and Mexican communities. I ended up making friends with a lot of different people — some white, some black, some from China and Vietnam and Mexico and Guatemala. I walked into U.S. racial dynamics that I didn’t consciously know a thing about. I remember asking the dumbest questions.

In Pennsylvania I was a shy boy; I was afraid. We moved around a lot, to new places, and felt alone. But I also had a sense of “we.” So much of that “we” had to do with the land. It wasn’t an abstract we, like “we’re all American.” I am suspicious of that identity and wonder how many folks really walk around with a deep, gratifying visceral identity as an American. Maybe they do. I guess I am just suspicious of identities that seem to have more to do with power than connection.

PA shale thin

Marcellus shale formation, eastern PA

When I go back to central Pennsylvania and I see that particular landscape, it feels like me. I am that land. I am the people who till the earth on that land. I know that shale; shale is right on top of slate. I used to make chalkboards with my brother, cutting into that ground. It’s sad: in one or two more generations, I think the people I am of will be gone, as an identifiable ethnicity in the U.S. Maybe the Amish will survive, but already assimilated Pennsylvania Dutch are shifting from calling themselves Pennsylvania Dutch to referring to themselves as being descended from Pennsylvania Dutch. Capitalism and whiteness are really good at wiping out ethnic support systems for poor white people.

In Undoing Racism workshops [for white folks], at Brooklyn Zen Center, we have participants state their ethnicity. How connected they are to their ethnicity depends on how far back it got included in the white camp. Italians and Greeks are clear: “I’m Italian; I’m Greek.” They know who they are. While those of English or Welsh background don’t really have any idea who they are; it’s hazy. So they say “I’m just white suburban.” As someone with a Germanic heritage (which has also been wiped away in the U.S.), what I cherish is that I grew up with a sense of a people. The saddest thing for white people, and something they need to look closely into, is what’s missing. What’s missing when you let whiteness characterize you? What have you given up?

Fastnachts crop

Weather worn sign, Kutztown PA

During October where I grew up, there was still a tradition of Oktoberfest, which was rooted in a celebration at the end of the harvest. Because of the beer drinking, Oktoberfest has become a gimmick now in the U.S, like St. Patrick’s Day. Yet it actually still had meaning in our Pennsylvania Dutch community. As a kid we had something in February called “Fastnacht” — the night before the fast, the night before you go into Lent. All the churches make fastnachts — little round donuts without holes — and families  would eat them together. There were lots of things like this, that were experienced as an ethnic community. Having a sense of a people, where you live together and do things together — an identity — I think that’s a loss. Of course food is the last thing to go with eroding ethnicity, so fastnachts and Pennsylvania Dutch food are still popular. But I remember having a sense of the year’s progression in relationship to the cycles of the harvest and community religious celebration. When I left Pennsylvania, that was lost.

When an ethnicity falls away for the sake of whiteness, we trade intimacy of connection for positions of power. If you understand yourself as an individual without a people, the only thing protecting you is your social location. We have to interrogate that deeply. What would it be like to be a people that is not rooted in power?

EH:  In antiracist circles ethnicity and class are sometimes conflated, where white is taken to mean middle class. Would you talk about your own experience of ethnicity and class and what you’ve learned?

old barn with hex

Pennsylvania German barn

GS:  When I was young in Pennsylvania, we didn’t have much money and it was obvious, so I was tortured by other kids. Suburbs were beginning to be built in the farmlands, so we began to have a mix of farm kids and suburban kids — sons and daughters of professionals who worked in Harrisburg and places like that. In sixth grade two boys, older than me, decided to encourage the whole bus of children to cheer every time I got off the bus. They would also shove me out of my seat so I would have to sit in the black, wet walkway between seats. They did that for a long time. I think as a kid who was smaller and obviously poor, I was an easy target for this kind of aggression.

In reaction I decided to be better than these rich white kids. I was going to read everything they read. I was going to educate myself, to go beyond all of them so they couldn’t touch me. I gave myself reading lists. One summer it was Russian novels. I would read them all and then go on to the next thing.

Over the years I framed this as a kind of rebellion. But one day – I’d already finished college — it hit me that I didn’t rebel against wealthy white people; I became them. I lost my accent; I can’t even imitate a PD accent anymore, though I can imitate a Texas accent in a heartbeat. So assimilation, I get it. I get how you fool yourself into thinking you’re rebelling and gaining power. Which you are. But you’re assimilating in the process and an enormous amount is lost.

I realized I had been taught to hate myself — where I came from and the people I came from — because the broader world convinced me we were hicks. It’s painful to believe that your customs and your ways of doing things – based on class and ethnicity — are improper, stupid, ugly. “You don’t eat at the table the right way; you have to learn how to hold a fork and a knife the right way.” Bullshit. That’s the WASP way, not the proper way. It would be really helpful if we all stopped all stopped thinking that the WASP way of doing things is the only proper way to do things. I think this is beginning to change.

EH:  What did you do with this realization?

Blessed Year Hex DutchHexSign

Blessed Year hex

GS:  I went through a process of saying “no, I affirm my Pennsylvania Dutch identity.” So now I have a Pennsylvania Dutch hex symbol on my front door – one of those round paintings that are on barns and front doors all over Pennsylvania Dutch country. They’re paintings that come from Germany; they welcome people. I’m not reducible to my Pennsylvania Dutch identity, but I try as much as possible to go back to my annual family reunions. There’s this huge ritual when we go to the family farm: we visit the graves of all my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my great-great-grandparents and family members tell stories about our ancestors.

EH:  I’ve heard you talk about anger, saying that anger can be different depending on one’s background. And that anger can, in fact, be generative.

GS:  Yes, I’ll give you an example: As a kid in farm country, when you ran out of something you went to your neighbor and asked for it. If you started working in your yard, your neighbor showed up to help you. When my aunt Henrietta got cancer, pies and other food just kept showing up. Here in New York City, I’d never ask my neighbor for anything. In middle-class white circles, asking your neighbor for something can be seen as a sign of shame or weakness: “Why haven’t you figured this out?”

Understanding myself to be in a network of support, I get angry on behalf of my community. I was 9 or 10 when the accident at Three-Mile Island nuclear plant happened; 144,000 people abandoned the area. The U.S. government said no meltdown ever happened, but the leukemia rate for children shot through the roof. It was a lie, a complete cover up. The whole community felt that together. You don’t have that experience if you’re an educated, white middle-class person in a suburb that doesn’t have a dump next to it. Instead everything is individualized. A whole community can experience this kind of violence collectively while a wider narrative covers it up. The collective experience is sometimes the only thing that keeps one from feeling insane in a world that denies one’s experience of reality.

As a Zen teacher, when somebody starts talking about their anger, I see it differently depending on who’s talking. White middle-class, educated persons usually talk about themselves and their anger. It’s usually framed as a single person against the world. I also have students who are working class, immigrants, Dominican, Haitian, black American, etc; they talk about their communities a lot more. I’ve heard some in the Zen community say these people are avoiding their personal work and feelings by focusing on the community. This is not necessarily the case. It is very possible that this is a  felt sense of self that isn’t as strictly individualized in the way mainstream white culture is.

There can be a real difference in where one’s anger is coming from. Is it coming from a “we” or an “I” or both? Some people have never really experienced, outside of their family unit, the anger of a “we.” In our Undoing Racism workshops, those who came out the most pissed off were working-class ethnic whites. I’ve seen working-class white people leave with a lot of anger when they realized what had been done to them. And some became real allies to people of color as a result.

This interview was conducted and transcribed with support from Margo Mallar, and edited by Cathy Cockrell. Thank you Margo and Cathy!

Photo creditsRural PA: Nicholas A. Tonelli / Amish Cemetery: Allie Caulfield / Memorial service at Carlisle Indian School cemetery: White Bison / Houston, TX: Joe Wolf / Pennsylvania German barn: Wood Natural Restorations / Blessed Year hex: Dutch Hex Sign

3 thoughts on ““What have you given up?” – Zen priest Greg Snyder on growing up Pennsylvanian Dutch, assimilation, intimacy, and power

  1. louisedunlap75

    Lots of wonderful stuff to ponder here. Thank you. I know very little about Pennsylvania but I can make one suggestion to help follow up with the question on genocide and how/whether the PDs were involved. It’s so hard to get the true story when our ancestors clung to (or in my case, fabricated) more benign, less violent versions. In my own research into my origins (in different states), “Our Savage Neighbors,” by Peter Silver was recommended as a compelling and well-written piece of history. I was really glad I read it. He had a lot to say about various phases of German settlement in different parts of PA, and some of them might be helpful for finding out what’s behind the tradition that the PD lived “alongside” their Indian neighbors.

    1. Henny Wise

      Thank you thank you Gregg Snyder. This writing you’ve given us is one of the most important writings I’ve ever read. I’ll read it again and again because it turns a light on in places that were so dark to me before and opens the door to people I have found it hard to understand….hopefully places in myself as well.

  2. Kaira S Lingo

    I really appreciate you sharing your experience of loss and what a price you had to pay to become ‘white.’ Thank you for sharing your experience of self-hatred– so tender, what you thought was rebelling against the hegemony of WASP culture but what was actually assimilating to it is so powerful. So many insights here. Thank you!


Leave a Reply