Author Archives: David Dean

Roots Deeper than Whiteness

Remembering who we are for the well-being of all

Immigrants at Ellis IslandA Romanian piper, a Slovak mother and son, an Italian woman. Photos by Augustus Sherman, chief registry clerk at Ellis Island from 1892 – 1925.

David Dean is a longtime contributor to White Awake whose work has formed the core of our annual course, “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness.” David has personally grappled with and constructively organized around issues of identity, justice, and social healing from early adulthood on. This 2018 article represents years of research, inquiry, and guidance from elders and friends, culminating in a synthesis of historical insight into the relationship between racism, capitalism, and the creation of a socially constructed identity that would divest multiple ethnic groups of their inherited traditions and re-make them as “white.”

The argument of the essay itself can be found in its title: those of us who are socially classified as white have roots deeper than “whiteness.” We are people – or, more accurately, peoples – whose identity and cultural center has been manipulated to serve a very specific function within capitalism. When we understand this story, we can more easily divest ourselves of the dysfunctional role we have been manipulated to play, and join with people of color in the creation of a life-sustaining society.

I am a descendant of some of the first Europeans to come to the land now known as the eastern United States. Their experiences were not included in the version of European history I was taught, one that glorifies the violent exploits of a small elite while leaving out the ways of life of the vast majority of our ancestors. Instead, their story resembles a similar pattern to those of many European immigrant groups that would come after them: one of people stripped of their rich ethnic identities and given a false racial identity that would turn many against their allies of color and increase their compliance with the corporate exploitation of workers and the planet.

This deeper knowledge of my ancestors past has helped me replace what was once a debilitating feeling of shame about the reality of racism with a clear understanding of how my well-being is directly linked to the freedom of people of color. I believe that recovering these stories of those who came before us can support us all as white Americans to find the emotional strength and political analysis necessary to rebuild lost multiracial alliances and to challenge both white supremacy and the economic system it serves.


My ancestors came to Virginia as indentured laborers in the 1600’s. Yet prior to their arrival they did not call themselves white. They were English commoners who resided in rural villages and held cultural practices and forms of folk Christianity that were distinct from those of the aristocracy. Celebration was central to their culture and their calendar was filled with saints’ days. Many were regional and involved particular festivities and ceremonies to honor local sites in nature that had been held sacred since time immemorial.

In Dreaming the Dark, Starhawk tells us that the “Festivals, feasts, and folk customs” of these people “had always provided a source of communal unity. The maypole, the bonfires on the ancient Celtic feast days, the traditional dances and customs, were tied to the seasons and the changing round of the agricultural year.” They spent their days on land known simply as “the commons,” forest and fields the community shared to grow food, tend to their animals, gather plants and firewood, and on which to celebrate. They sustained themselves from this land. For centuries it was their means of survival and cohesion.

Photo 1Rural Festival. Engraving by Daniel Hopfer. 16th century.

During much of Middle Ages feudal elites remained wealthy by taking most of these peasants’ agricultural production other than that which was required for the community’s subsistence. However these commoners did not passively accept this reality. Their efforts made feudal life a constant class struggle and in its final centuries they, like the commoners of other European countries, successfully ended serfdom and secured more autonomy for themselves. But capitalism was coming. In Caliban and the Witch, scholar Silvia Federici writes,

“Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism “evolved” from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled.”

It began as shipping technologies improved and opportunities for trade increased. Wool fabric became a highly sought after commodity and British landowners began to see that large-scale sheep pasturage would be far more profitable than existing feudal relations. At the same time that overseas colonialism emerged, the theft of land from those who shared and respected it also began in England and all over Europe. An effort arose to evict these English peasants and to “enclose” or fence in commonly-held land for commercial use.

In order to weaken their resistance to enclosure and prepare them for a forced exodus to towns and cities as the exploited labor force that this new economy required, the communal, earth-based, and celebratory cultural identity of the English peasantry was attacked. In The World Turned Upside Down, English historian Christopher Hill describes the attempted brainwashing of this population to believe in the primacy of work and the devilish nature of rest and festivity.

“Protestant preachers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century undertook a cultural revolution, an exercise in indoctrination, on a hitherto unprecedented scale… to create the social conditions which discouraged idleness. This meant opposing observance of saints’ days, and the traditional village festivals and sports, and sexual irresponsibility… it took generations for those attitudes to be internalized. ‘It is the violent only that are successful,’ wrote the gentle Richard Sibbes: ‘they take it [salvation] by force’.”

Notions of the isolated nuclear family and women’s inherent inferiority were also emphasized. If a wife could be subjected to life as the sole sustainer of her family in the home then her husband could be expended of all his energy in the factory. Women, too, were associated with the devil. Federici names the witch-hunts as a tool of this cultural revolution and the movement to take away the commons. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of women were tortured and killed throughout Europe. The century between 1550 and 1650 was both the height of the enclosures and of this genocide in England. Particularly autonomous women were in the greatest danger of persecution. Herbalists and traditional healers, widows and the unmarried, and outspoken community leaders were regularly targeted. Mass government-run propaganda campaigns led peasants to fear one another, effectively dividing and weakening them against the threat of enclosure.

Relentless protest and insurrection, most notably the Midlands Revolt of 1607, was not enough to prevent the eventual outcome. Historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker illustrate the “colossal dimensions of the expropriation of the peasantry” in The Many-Headed Hydra:

“By the end of the sixteenth century there were twelve times as many propertyless people as there had been a hundred years earlier. In the seventeenth century alone almost a quarter of the land in England was enclosed. Aerial photography and excavations have located more than a thousand deserted villages and hamlets…”

Diggers17th Century Drawing of the Diggers. The Diggers were a group of poor, revolutionary Christians led by Gerrard Winstanley who sought to reclaim the commons and re-establish agricultural communities for those displaced. In 1649 they did so on St. George’s Hill only to be violently evicted by the English military as shown here.

Communities were traumatized and splintered. The fortunate worked in urban textile mills under grueling conditions, weaving into fabric wool shorn from sheep that grazed their ancestral lands. Most were not so lucky and lived on city streets as beggars at a time when loitering and petty theft were punished with physical mutilation, years of incarceration, or death.

Even with this mixture of urban poverty, hyper-criminalization, and merchant campaigns to encourage the poor to go to overseas colonies as indentured servants, only some willingly left their home country. The Virginia Company, a corporation with investors and executives intent on profiting from the theft of labor and foreign land, began collaborating with the English government to develop a solution to the problems of unemployment and vagrancy. Homeless and incarcerated women, men, and even children, began to be rounded up and put on ships headed to the plantation colony of Virginia to be bought and traded by wealthy British royalists. According to Linebaugh and Rediker, of the nearly 75,000 English indentured servants brought to British colonies in the seventeenth century most were taken against their will. In The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter commented that in this era these captive voyagers would be “lucky to outlive their terms of service.” However at this point in history, they still did not call themselves “white.”

They crossed the ocean with their traditional way of life shattered, clinging to meaningful communal identity only in memory. They arrived to the colony of Virginia through the early and mid-1600s where, according to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, fifty wealthy families held almost all of the land. They worked on tobacco plantations for periods of seven to fourteen years with indentured and enslaved Africans and some indigenous people, two other populations recently torn from their cultures and communities.

At this time forms of racism did exist. Scholar Cedric Robinson tells about the existence of various forms of race-like hierarchy within European societies for centuries. In early colonial Virginia the presence of racism was evidenced by the initial genocidal attacks on indigenous nations, some disproportionately harsh sentencing toward people of color in colonial courts, and the fact that even though chattel slavery had not yet been fully institutionalized, some African and Native people were already spending their entire lives in bondage.

However historians Jacqueline Battalora and Edmund Morgan note that the historical evidence still is clear that all three of these laboring groups in Virginia shared a more similar position in society and stronger relationships with each other than they soon would. It was common for them to socialize and inhabit in the same quarters. They often intermarried and built families together. They toiled in fields side by side and were degraded and beaten by the same wealthy masters.

Many had lived on some form of “commons” earlier in their own lives and some sought to live in this way again. The Many-Headed Hydra includes the following striking examples. In the early years of the Jamestown settlement one in seven Englishmen fled to live within the more egalitarian Tsenacomoco or Powhatan Confederacy, inspiring the Virginia Company to enact a decree called Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshall threatening execution for desertion in order “to keep English settlers and Native Americans apart.”

the-village-of-pomeiooc resizedThe Town of Pomeiooc. 1585 painting by John White. Tsenacomoco, otherwise known as the Powhatan paramount chiefdom, was a political alliance of Algonquian-speaking indigenous peoples that occupied the land colonized by the English at Jamestown. While not part of Tsenacomoco, Pomeiooc represents a typical Algonquian settlement. 

As the decades continued, Africans, English laborers and displaced Native people would escape their plantations to form maroon communities in remote areas. One was in nearby Roanoke where this refugee population began to live communally with the land, forming an abolitionist “Mestizo” culture with “emphasis on the “inner light,” and devotion to “liberty of conscience.”” Linebaugh and Rediker write,

“The very existence of the multi-ethnic maroon state was a threat to Virginia, whose governor worried that “hundreds of idle debtors, thieves, Negros, Indians, and English servants will fly” to the liberated zone and use it as a base for attacks on the plantation system.”

The greatest threat to this system however were the laborers still working on tobacco plantations in Virginia and the nearby colonies. In a multitude of organized revolts, first noted as early as 1663 and peaking in 1676 with an armed struggle lasting over a year, this multiethnic coalition came together and attempted to upend the colonial system that oppressed them. As the seventeenth century neared its end and fear of overthrow progressively grew, plantation elites responded with a strategy to divide and conquer the alliances by manipulating the identity of the European population, my ancestors, and giving them membership within an exalted racial group to change the way they found meaning and sought freedom in their lives.

White racial identity did not exist prior to these rebellions. The term “white” was first used as a category to classify human beings in this exact era within Maryland and Virginia legislation that called for banishment or years of forced servitude as punishments for whites, particularly white women, who married or had sexual relations with “negroes, mulattoes, or Indians” and in multiple laws giving slight privileges to poor and indentured Europeans. In Birth of a White Nation, Jacqueline Battalora writes that these included regulations on the treatment of “white” servants, a mandate requiring plantation owners to give food, weapons, and money to them at the end of their indenture as well as a prohibition on whipping any “Christian white servant while naked without an order from the justice of the peace.” These laws were passed simultaneously with the enactment of slave codes that entrenched enslaved Africans and some indigenous people in life-long hereditary slavery with no legal rights and extremely harsh punishments for transgressing their masters. All property that they had been previously given or allowed to earn was confiscated and sold. Profits were to be given to churches to support poor white parishioners. For some time, it was made illegal even to free enslaved people. And people of color who were free would also experience new forms of subjugation. In American Slavery, American Freedom Edmund Morgan writes:

“Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians already free did manage to stay in the colony and cling to their freedom. But it was made plain to them and to the white population that their color rendered freedom inappropriate for them. In spite of being free, they were denied the right to vote or hold office or to testify in court proceedings. And their women, unlike white women, were subject to taxation, whether they worked in the fields or not. These handicaps, together with the penalties for miscegenation, successfully dissociated them from whites, however poor.”


Thomas Jefferson was born at Shadwell in what is now Albemarle County, Va., on April 13, 1743. He descends from the so called “First Families of Virginia”, and belonged to the planter elite.

This legislation only slightly improved the overall well-being of poor Europeans. Though they were taught that the expansion of slavery was somehow in their economic interest, it actually devalued their labor by making them compete with those whose bondage forced them to work for free. Anti-racism educator Tim Wise calls this the first of many examples of “Working class white people being harmed by white privilege. Relatively being advantaged, being given a leg up, being given a membership to the club but in absolute terms being economically subordinated by the very thing that gave them a sense of superiority.” Battalora notes that, more than anything, these laws were intended to create “an entirely new bottom to the social hierarchy” occupied by free and enslaved persons of color and to change the psychology of the newly named “white” population. “What’s important in terms of this history is that whiteness itself was never the top dog,” says legal scholar john a. powell. “There was always the elites… the white identity was that middle stratum. That stratum of identifying with the elites and controlling the non-whites.” Some eventually rose to the level of elite-slaveholder, including a few of my ancestors, but most did not.

White identity was created as a tool to cement virtually all colonists of European origin (though most at this time were English), regardless of wealth, into a common superior racial category, creating solidarity along lines of race and reducing it along lines of class. If daily life was not enough to force the internalization of this divisive hierarchy, Battalora shares that readings of the laws at church services were also mandated multiple times per year. As the years went on the ideology grew into the widely spread doctrine of so-called “scientific racism.” Whites were indoctrinated with an idea articulated well by South Carolina plantation owner John Townsend – that despite their poverty, “The color of the white man is now, in the South, a title of nobility in his relations as to the Negro… the poorest non-slaveholder may [still] rejoice with the richest of his brethren of the white race.” The difficulty of life with low-wages was mitigated with what W.E.B. DuBois called the “psychological wage” of whiteness.

Slave patrols. By enlisting working class white men in slave patrols, elites further ensured that white laborers would identify along lines of race rather than class. 

This tactic worked with tremendous success, causing the rebellions to cease almost completely. When viewed in the context of this larger history the magnitude of its impact can be seen. It was the first strategy to significantly halt these English commoners’ centuries-long resistance to feudal and capitalist attack. It did this by manipulating their sense of self and pushing them to identify with their oppressor as part of a superior white race. What remained of their original ethnic and local identities started to be replaced with the culture of this ruling class. Soon they learned to prize individualism, see personal worth in personal wealth more so than in one’s ability to contribute to community, and seek freedom in the often ill-fated pursuit of this wealth (later called the American Dream) rather than in collective struggle for the well-being of all.

A central part of this shift in identity involved the loss of their history – the memories of their traditional ways of life and their struggles to protect them that once connected them to a people, to a place, and to a set of values. Many eventually replaced it with a romanticized history of the same British, and later, white American ruling class that had crushed their communities as well as the belief in their own right to carry on this domination. Thousands of poor white men soon became pawns of empire, whether in militias committing genocide and land-theft in indigenous communities on the western frontier or in our country’s first police forces, built to patrol black slaves in the colonies.

As time went on, a glorified and heavily sanitized history of white American patriotism became a foundation of their self-understanding. They would defend this fragile identity with its corrupted version of the past because it was all they knew themselves to be. Though there have always been whites who have actively resisted this self-defeating psychology, the impact of this identity formation, carried out with legislation and propaganda, should not be underestimated. It caused many to consign themselves to prolonged separation from and conflict with their greatest potential allies in making the “American Dream” that they so desperately desired into a collective reality.


The story of my ancestors does not stand alone but is one that was experienced by populations around the world as a small western European elite sought to establish capitalism as our global economic system. The success of this system depended on two processes.

One: The violent displacement of communities from their land in order to use that land for profit and, often, to create a dependent, exploitable workforce.

Two: The replacement of traditional ethnic identities that placed higher value on the welfare of community and the earth with a culture of possessive individualism and hierarchical, divisive racial (and gender) identities in order to bring about compliance with this economic system.

While these processes involved enslavement and were far more genocidal in communities of color, they also happened to the vast majority of Europeans. A significant difference is that our superior racial identity and relative economic advantage kept us from joining in multiracial resistance to this oppression.

Victorian slum square crop

The Victorian slums of London illustrate what a life of dependency and urban poverty was like after generations of land enclosure.

From 1500 to 1800, millions of subsistence producers living in village communities throughout Europe were thrown off their lands by powerful aristocracies. Traditional cultural practices were attacked and often outlawed. In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes that this happened through the colonization of “entire nations, such as Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Basque Country, and Catalonia” as well as through the displacement of commoners within the borders of the major western European monarchies. In Eastern Europe Silvia Federici notes that the peasant population was brought back into serfdom. They were forced out of their communities and onto plantations growing cash crops as bonded laborers. “For the first time in human history,” Dunbar-Ortiz tells us, “the majority of Europeans depended for their livelihood on a small wealthy minority, a phenomenon that capitalist-based colonialism would spread worldwide.” However heavy resistance to this displacement and the workplace exploitation that followed was constant.

Some European immigrants did come to the British colonies, and later, the United States, fleeing religious persecution and violence but most were running directly from this economic deprivation. Though also developing in Europe, white racial identity was substantially deepened shortly after each European immigrant group’s arrival. In the 1700’s poor Protestant Scotch-Irish settlers, including some of my ancestors, were placed on the western edge of the colonies and pitted against indigenous peoples. They were to serve as a buffer between Native nations and the slave plantations of the wealthy. Rather than join in coalition with Native people against the planter class, they took on the glorified role of genocidal militiamen of western expansion, carrying out acts of war reminiscent of those done unto them by the British centuries before. Much of the land they stole was subsequently taken by the wealthy, leaving most poor and landless. In the 1800’s non-English and non-Protestant settlers faced higher levels of shaming and marginalization from the dominant society and were often placed on widely accepted racial hierarchies below “White Anglo-Saxons” yet above people of African, Asian, or indigenous American descent. This stigmatization coupled with the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness because of their light skin led them too to replace many aspects of their ethnic identities with white American racial identity.

This does not mean that love and certain positive cultural values were not maintained in our families and communities. But it does mean that a significant internalization took place of capitalist values, a glorified history of the white American elite, the English language, and separation from, internalized superiority to, and often, violent conquest and policing of people of color. At times, direct participation in this violence proved to be the key to greater societal acceptance. Yet the relative social and economic advantages were a pittance compared to the freedom that could have been won with powerful multiracial unity. But they were still accepted as a bribe.

NYT headline, Teddy Roosevelt 1915-8x6

NYT headline about Teddy Roosevelt’s 1915 speech

There were times though when continued resistance, in the forms of cultural preservation and participation in labor and anti-discrimination struggles, at times in coalition with black laborers, would lead to forced assimilation efforts. This was the case when thirty million southern and eastern European immigrants arrived in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Laws were passed in over 30 states mandating their participation in “Americanization programs” run by state and local governments, civic organizations, and corporations. Here they would be taught, as Theodore Roosevelt said, that “there is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans.” They were no longer to be Polish-Americans, Hungarian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, but simply “white” Americans. Classes included components such as basic English instruction and financial literacy that surely proved useful and eventually helped some take advantage of the programs of the New Deal – programs from which people of color were barred. But they also contained content on American history, civics, and patriotism aimed explicitly to separate them from their ethnic communities, create acceptance of female subjugation to the home and male exploitation in the workplace, label their traditional culture inferior, and replace their connection to their homelands and local histories with this same sanitized history of the white American elite.

This is why labor organizer Frank P. Walsh wrote in a letter to congress that these programs sought to establish “a paternalism that would bring the workers of this country even more absolutely under the control of the employer than they are now… Americanization means a state of satisfaction with bad industrial conditions.” And it is why George Lipsitz would write in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness that “Many white immigrants and their descendants developed especially powerful attachments to whiteness because of the ways in which various Americanization programs forced them to assimilate by surrendering all aspects of their own ethnic organization and identification.” It is important to note that many of these new immigrants did resist the Americanization of these government programs and the dominant culture to some extent. Segments of the population did hold onto aspects of their heritage and their political activism. Some even went on to become allies in the civil rights movement. Yet many of those who continued to engage in labor struggles did so with a racial bias that kept them from extending organizational membership or advocating for the rights of people of color – ultimately reducing the strength of their efforts.

PO7227_MeltingPot cropThe “Melting Pot” of the English School of the Ford Motor Company of Detroit. Upon graduation from the Ford Motor Company’s Americanization program, tens of thousands of European immigrant employees would walk into this large “Melting Pot” wearing their traditional ethnic attire, their teachers would stir the pot with large oars, and they would change into suits, grab American flags and walk out of the pot “Americanized.”


Like my ancestors and me, many of these later immigrants and their descendants also forgot, in large part, where they came from, their earlier ways of life, and their centuries-long resistance to oppression. But we now have the opportunity to remember.

I have found that learning this history of my ancestors is a process of remembering that I am in fact a human being. Though it is in many ways a tragic one, their story brought me a sense of wholeness that I never knew I was missing. I felt connected to a people, to a culture, and to a home. I realized that I do not simply come from a white cultural void but that I have roots deeper than whiteness. This revelation gives me the opportunity to begin to reclaim them and to honor those that were kept alive; to turn ancestral stories of traditional ways of life and the long struggle to maintain them into family stories that I hold dear and share with future children; and to deepen my connection to these ancestors’ values that prioritized relationships, family, community, celebration, and reverence for the natural world over productivity.

Realizing the depth of my ancestors’ humanity prior to the advent of white supremacy has given me the strength to be accountable to the harms that they carried out in its name. I have come to believe that facing our country’s history (and my own family history) of racist violence, grieving it and seeking to repair it, could be deeply healing for me rather than shame-filled. I believe that heeding the calls of activists of color to address past and present racial harms, and to unlearn our own conscious and unconscious racial biases, should not be shame-inducing, but instead a process of reconnecting to our true heritage.

Knowledge of our past also reveals the pathway to our true freedom. This history discredits current resistance to movements for racial justice seen on all sides of the political spectrum. It lifts the smokescreen caused by conservative extremists’ racial scapegoating and liberal politicians’ lip service to issues of race. Instead, it shows us that the struggle to undo racism is necessary for all of us if we are ever to achieve economic security and legitimate well-being. There are examples throughout our history of white people who have realized this, woken up from the spell of white racial socialization, seen it as a weapon to divide-and-conquer, and taken action against racism for the benefit of all. In certain periods this rise in consciousness has surged.

In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, C. Vann Woodward tells us that Jim Crow was not immediate or inevitable following the Reconstruction period but rather a response to divide and conquer the Populist Party, a multiracial political organization that rose to prominence in the south in the 1880’s and 90’s. The party fought against both white supremacy and the domination of corporate, plantation, industrial, and railroad interests. Leaders built a coalition of newly freed black people and poor whites, telling the latter, “You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars you both.” In Georgia in 1892 when a black Populist organizer was threatened with lynching, “Two thousand armed white farmers, some of whom rode all night, responded to [a] call for aid and remained on guard for two nights at his home to avert the threat of violence.” These people knew that responding to this call was not only moral, but that they would never maintain a political coalition strong enough to achieve their own economic security without deeply sacrificing to defend the human rights of their neighbors of color.

Through the more than three hundred years since the passage of the first slave codes and the birth of white racial identity in North America, these populists do not stand alone among whites who have sprung to action in pursuit of the same genuine multiracial democracy where the human rights of all are met. Activist and Reverend Dr. William Barber reminds us that “the movement for justice has always been biracial… sometimes tri-racial.” The movement for the abolition of slavery, this populist movement of the late nineteenth century, certain multiracial labor rights and communist political campaigns of the early twentieth, the civil rights movement, Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and more, all included white people. Though far from perfect, they carried out this activism despite the recurring efforts of the powerful to separate them from their allies. It is also in the spirit of these ancestors that we as white Americans must rise to the challenges of today.

Southern Tenants Farmer Meeting photosPhotos from a Southern Tenant Farmers Union meeting where blacks and whites gathered together / circa 1937 / Photo credit: Louise Boyle courtesy of  Kheel Center and Southern Tenant Farmers Museum

Forty years ago, following gains in income and wealth equality from decades of New Deal legislation and recent civil rights laws that finally began to allow greater access for people of color to this economic opportunity, many US business leaders and their political representatives launched an effort to reassert their economic dominance. They mobilized millions of white voters with the message, whether stated directly or spoken in code, that people of color were threats to white safety and financial wellbeing. In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander shows us that it was the use of imagery of black female welfare queens, black male predators, and other racial stereotypes that allowed Presidents Reagan, Bush Sr., and even Clinton, as well as politicians at all levels of government, to gain and maintain power. Each would go on to promote the mass incarceration of people of color, mass inequality for all, and unchecked corporate pollution of communities and the climate. The centuries-old strategy of using racial scapegoating as a tool to divide and rule was put to work again. Communities of color were hit with the harshest effects. Yet as white folks fell for this trick, the white middle class itself, born of a New Deal that elevated us far more than black and brown Americans, began to disintegrate as well.

open society 90s urban poverty

Photo from Urban Poverty: Birth and Death Certificates, by Darcy Padilla

Today 140 million people in the U.S. are poor or low-income, a group that contains a disproportionately high percentage of people of color but also includes 66 million whites. The current White House administration does not represent some new movement to legitimately uplift this white working class, but rather the same centuries-old tradition of divisive politics to enrich a privileged few. Day by day, as brown-skinned immigrants and religious minorities are attacked, nearly all of us are threatened by continued attempts to cut Medicare and Social Security as well as a refusal to address skyrocketing costs of housing, higher education and healthcare amidst four decades of stagnant wages.

While in college I studied for a short time in Chile and supported a youth activism program in a poor community there. Students studied their history to identify the causes of injustice in their lives and to gain greater self esteem by seeing that their people had a rich heritage beyond their present suffering. It was called “Nuestra Historia Nos Protege.” In English this means Our History Protects Us.” It is from this lens that I began to see how my own people, those who were carefully socialized with what Alexander calls “the racial bribe” of whiteness, could also be protected by a deeper understanding of our own.

Reconnecting to this history, to our roots that are deeper than whiteness, allows us to quell feelings of shame with meaningful self-understanding. It also allows us to recognize that our survival in this increasingly unequal and polluted world depends on our ability to ally ourselves with indigenous people and people of color. From this grounded place, we have the opportunity to re-enter multiracial community, witness the wounds of racism with open hearts, and take collective action to both mend these wounds and replace corporate domination with an economic system based on sustainability and care. Our emergence as genuine partners in such a revolution is made possible with the wholeness and self-love that comes when we remember who we are.

Roots Deeper closing montageNew Orleans Saints take a knee (2017) / Anne Braden interviews Rosa Parks (1960) / U.S. Veteran kneels before Lakota elder Leonard Crow Dog during a forgiveness ceremony on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (2016)

Acknowledgements: My gratitude goes out to Eleanor Hancock for being a thought-partner in processing this history, consistently pushing me to persist with this piece when I felt blocked, encouraging me to deepen the analysis presented here, offering editorial support, and providing a platform – through White Awake – upon which to further develop the ideas in this article. I would also like to thank labor organizer Andy Banks for his emphasis on the importance of highlighting the intersection of racism and capitalism, as well as Dave Belden and Alison Espinosa-Setchko for offering their wisdom when it was needed.

David Dean is a political educator, writer, and speaker seeking to support the growth of the powerful, multiracial alliances our movements need to win. As a longtime contributor and former Associate Director at White Awake, he has taught online courses for more than 5000 individuals. David has been shaped most by his family’s love and his upbringing in Quaker communities. He loves to facilitate others’ discovery of their own inherent goodness and power to create social change. 

Learn more about David and sign up for his newsletter, Toward Solidarity, at Connect with him on instagram @davidbfdean

The Vast and Beautiful World of Indigenous Europe


Lyla June / Sodizin

Lyla June, of Diné and European heritage, is an Indigenous water protector active in the struggle at Standing Rock. Her spoken word/musical recording, “All Nations Rise“, has received almost 2 million views since posted on Facebook last fall. In the post that accompanies the video on FB, Lyla writes: “I want to acknowledge that some of the first Indigenous People’s that were forced into hiding were the medicine women of Old Europe. They estimate that 6-9 million women were raped, beaten, tortured, burned alive or drowned alive for being ‘witches.’ Let us reclaim our Earth Selves no matter what ‘race’ you are and do it soon! The earth may depend on it.”

In the following essay, which Lyla has graciously allowed us to repost on White Awake, she shares her personal story of connecting with loving ancestors from ancient, “Indigenous Europe”. May her story inspire our own, whatever our heritage may be. May those of us who have directly inherited the legacy of European colonization – through our biological ancestry – be empowered to seek healing from the “genocide within”, and wake up to our true nature as children of this beautiful Earth … and may we do this for the benefit of all beings.

The original title of this piece is: “The Story of How Humanity Fell in Love with Itself Once Again”


Photo: Sami Indigenous Peoples of Norway, circa 1900 / Wikicommons

I spend a lot of time honoring and calling upon my Native American ancestors. I am keenly aware that my father’s people hold a venerable medicine as well. He has ancestry from the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe.

I have been called a half breed. I have been called a mutt. Impure. I have been told my mixed blood is my bane. That I’m cursed to have an Indian for a mother and a cowboy for a father.

But one day, as I sat in the ceremonial house of my mother’s people, a wondrous revelation landed delicately inside of my soul. It sang within me a song I can still hear today. This song was woven from the voices of my European grandmothers and grandfathers. Their songs were made of love.

They sang to me of their life before the witch trials and before the crusades. They spoke to me of a time before serfdoms and before Roman tithes. They spoke to me of a time before the plague; before the Medici; before the guillotine; a time before their people were extinguished or enslaved by dark forces. They spoke to me of a time before the English language existed. A time most of us have forgotten.

These grandmothers and grandfathers set the ancient medicine of Welsh blue stone upon my aching heart. Their chants danced like the flickering light of Tuscan cave-fires. Their joyous laughter echoed on and on like Baltic waves against Scandinavian shores. They blew worlds through my mind like windswept snow over Alpine mountain crests. They showed to me the vast and beautiful world of Indigenous Europe. This precious world can scarcely be found in any literature, but lives quietly within us like a dream we can’t quite remember.

As all this was happening, I peered into the flames of our Diné hoghan fireplace. These Ancient Europe voices whispered to my heart to help me understand. “See, our songs are not so different from your Diné songs,” they seemed to say with a smile.

In this moment, the moment I first acknowledged and connected with my beautiful European ancestors, I could do nothing but cry. It was one of those messy, snotty, shuddering cries, where my face flowed over with tears of joy and sorrow. It was the cry of a woman who met her grandmother for the first time. I always wondered where she was. What she looked like. What her voice sounded like. Who she was. And now, for the first time, I could feel her delicate hands run through my hair as she told me she loved me. I sobbed and I sobbed and I sobbed.

Intermixed in there were also tears of regret. My whole life I was taught to hide my European “side.” All I knew was that my father came from Dallas and that was all I needed to know. These pale-skinned mothers and fathers were to be forgotten, I was taught. They carried violence in their blood and avarice in their smile, I was taught. They were rubbish, I was taught. There was no need to ask questions about them or think about them, I was taught. Whenever I wrote down my race on official forms, I would only write “Native American,” as I was taught.

But then, as thousands of European ancestors swirled around me and reassured my fearful heart, I wished I had honored them sooner. I wished I hadn’t disowned them. I wished I knew how beautiful they were. I wished I could have seen through the thin wall of time that dominates our understanding of Europe. I wish I could have realized the days when Indigenous Europeans were deeply connected to the earth and to kinship. In my mind I told them I was so, so sorry for forsaking them. But, of course, they did not care. They only held me tighter and assured me they would be with me to the end.

The sweetness of this precious experience changed me forever. I have come to believe that if we do not wholly love our ancestors, then we do not truly know who they are. For instance, I get very offended when people call Native Americans “good-for-nothing drunks.” Because by saying this, people don’t take into account the centuries of attempted genocide, rape and drugging of Native American people. They don’t see the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. And now, I am offended when people call European descendants “privileged good-for-nothing pilgrims.” Because by saying this, people do not take into account the thousands of years that European peoples were raped, tortured and enslaved. They do not understand the beauty of who we were before the onslaught. They do not understand that even though we have free will and the ability to choose how we live our life, it is very hard to overcome inter-generational trauma. What happens in our formative years and what our parents teach us at that time can be very hard to reverse.

They estimate that 8-9 million European women were burned alive, drowned alive, dismembered alive, beaten, raped and otherwise tortured as so-called, “witches.” It is obvious to me now that these women were not witches, but were the Medicine People of Old Europe. They were the women who understood the herbal medicines, the ones who prayed with stones, the ones who passed on sacred chants, the ones who whispered to me that night in the hoghan. This all-out warfare on Indigenous European women, not only harmed them, but had a profound effect on the men who loved them. Their husbands, sons and brothers. Nothing makes a man go mad like watching the women of his family get burned alive. If the men respond to this hatred with hatred, the hatred is passed on. And who can blame them? While peace and love is the correct response to hatred, it is not the easy response by any means.

The Indigenous Cultures of Europe also sustained forced assimilation by the Roman Empire and other hegemonic forces. In fact, it was only a few decades ago that any Welsh child caught speaking Welsh in school would have a block of wood tied to their neck. The words “WN” were there-inscribed, standing for “welsh not.” This kind of public humiliation will sound very familiar to any Native Americans reading this who attended U.S. Government boarding schools.

Moreover, our indigenous European ancestors faced horrific epidemics of biblical proportions. In the 1300s, two-thirds of Indigenous Europeans were wiped from the face of the earth. The Black Death, or Bubonic Plague, ravaged entire villages with massive lymph sores that filled with puss until they burst open. Sound familiar?

The parallels between the genocide of Indigenous Europeans and Native Americans are astounding. It boggles my mind that more people don’t see how we are the same people, who have undergone the same spiritual assault. The only difference between the Red Story and the White Story is we are in different stages of the process of spiritual warfare. Native Americans are only recently becoming something they are not. They are only recently starting to succumb to the temptations of drugs, alcohol, gambling, self-destruction and the destruction of others. Just as some Native American people have been contorted and twisted by so many centuries of abuse, so too were those survivors of the European genocide. Both are completely forgivable in my eyes.

Now I see I have a double-duty. I must not only honor and revitalize my Diné culture, but also that of my European ancestors. This ancient Indigenous European culture is just as beautiful as Native American culture and was just as tragically murdered and hidden from history books.

And so, some years later, armed with this new understanding, I traveled to Europe. I scaled a beautiful mountain in Switzerland to see if I might hear hints of ceremonial songs in the wind. I stepped upon the earth guided by those grandmother and grandfather whispers. I plucked a strand of hair from my scalp and placed the offering upon the earth, still wet from morning dew. I ambled through the forests enchanted by the new sights and smells. And I did see glimmers of visions of the villages of yesteryear. And they were full of Earth People living out harmonious community. And, they had beautiful music.

As the sun went down, I fell back on the grass and looked up to the sky. At the time, I was going through a very painful separation from a person I loved. To my surprise, it felt as if the earth was pulling all the sorrow I was carrying down into her core where she could transform it into beauty. The sky was speaking to me about how I didn’t need to worry, that I would be happy again one day. The earth and the sky healed me that day from the great weight I had carried for months. It was a special reunion with the mountains of my foremothers.

My mountain experiment yielded astounding results: the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe is still alive and breathing and waiting for her children to come home! She is waiting for us to ask her for songs so that we may sing to her once again. She is waiting for us to scratch past the surface of time, into the B.C. period when our languages were thriving and our dancing feet kissed the face of the earth. She is waiting. She is waiting for us to remember who we are. If you hold this descent, or any forgotten descent for that matter, I am asking you to join me in this prayer to remember who we are. I have a feeling this prayer will heal the whole world.

In 2009, archaeologists came across a female effigy believed to be the Goddess of the Earth buried inside of German soil. The radiocarbon dating tests came back. They indicate that this clay deity was molded by European hands 40,000 years ago. 40,00 years ago. This is the time she beckons us to. This is the world she hopes we will remember: where man and woman alike held the soil in their hands and saw the value and sanctity of women and of the Mother Earth. This is the world that still flows through our veins, however deafened we have become to it. With prayer we can learn to hear it once again.

I compare this earth-based, Indigenous European culture to the witch-burning psychosis of the first and second millennia. I cannot help but ask myself, when and how did this egalitarian, earth-loving, woman-honoring culture, become the colonial, genocidal conquerors that washed upon American shores? Could it be that our beloved Indigenous European ancestors were raped and tortured for so many thousands of years that they forgot who they were? Could it be they lived in a pressure cooker of oppression for so long that conquer-or-be-conquered is all they knew? Yes, I believe so.

Our task is to shake the amnesia. To not be ashamed of our European-ness, but to reclaim our beautiful grandmothers, to reclaim our venerable grandfathers, to reclaim our lost languages, our lost ceremonies, our lost homelands and become one with the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe once again. The European diaspora is spread all throughout the world, searching the planet for something that lives is inside. I promise you will hear it when who climb the mountains of Switzerland! Of Scotland! Of Tuscany! Of Hungary! Of Portugal! Of the Great Sacred Motherland of Europe! Just because bad things happened upon her bosom does not mean she is bad.

Our task is to honor our ancestors, even those who caved beneath the weight of systematic destruction and became conquerors themselves. Our task is to remember that we are those beautiful Earth People. The ones whose love and prayers were so strong that they could carry 25-ton blue stone monoliths for miles and miles and build the sacred place of prayer known as Stonehenge. That is who we are. When we remember this, the healing of our lineages comes full circle. When we remember this, we will no longer need to borrow spiritual practices from other cultures (although that can be very helpful when there is nothing else to hold onto.) When we remember this, we will remember that the fates of all beings are intertwined with our own. When I remembered this, I found whole-ness in my self—no longer a half-breed, but a daughter of Two Great Lineages, Two Great Rivers that ran together to make one precious child.

This is the story of how I became whole. Some days, it feels like both fire and water live within me. They dance and swirl around one another. In the morning when I wake up, each bows to the other, honoring themselves as equals, as beautiful. When I go to sleep at night they wish each other good dreams. They teach me how it could have been when Columbus first stepped upon Taino shores: a meeting of two long lost brothers, embracing each other and celebrating their unique cultures. They teach me how things can be for our children in the future.

Because that’s what matters most, doesn’t it? Not how the story goes… but how it ends. We each hold a pen. Let us co-author a story of how humanity fell in love with itself and its Mother Earth once again.

All Nations Rise | Performed by Lyla June at the 2016 Black Hills Unity Concert

Lyla June Johnston was raised in Taos, New Mexico and is a descendent of Diné (Navajo) and Tsétsêhéstâhese (Cheyenne) lineages. Her personal mission in life is to grow closer to Creator by learning how to love deeper. This prayer has taken her on many journeys and materializes in diverse ways.

In recent months this journey has taken Lyla to Standing Rock: “In the face of this we pray,” she says. “In the face of this we love. In the face of this we forgive. Because the vast majority of the water protectors know that this is the greatest battle of all: to keep our hearts intact.” (EcoWatch)