I’ve been following the actions of the water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota since the summer. The images coming out of the camp are at once beautiful and alarming, and when I look at them I feel a kind of longing. I harbor these fever dreams in which I gas up my car and make the trip out, abandoning my job, my school, and my cats.
I can’t do that, and that’s not what the longing is about anyway. The longing is about culture. I think a lot of white folks feel this, I think it can also express itself as a kind of resentment or dismissiveness. And I think it’s what leads well-intentioned white folks to appropriate the cultures of other people for new agey rituals, etcetera.
The bulk of my ancestors were Irish, which means at some point they traded in a part of their humanity to accept whiteness. They assimilated; they gave up their folk music and dances and folk arts and names and accents in order to be perceived as white. It was a way to get out from under the boot of the oppression that they were experiencing at the time, but it was also to fend off the fear of ending up at the bottom of the social ladder, the same fear that seems to be driving some of the Donald Trump madness currently happening in this country. I understand why it happened, but I also recognize it as despicable in its own way. The Irish of early America were happy to allow and even further the oppression of those whose skin was darker than their own as long as they could have the jobs and the lives that they wanted.
I see men and women dancing and singing and drumming at the camps in North Dakota, and it strikes me that these people have struggled desperately to avoid that. Despite constant attempts to extinguish their cultural ways, spanning pretty much the entire history of this country into the modern day, they have saved whatever they could. I feel that longing, but mostly I admire these people for finding a better way than my forebears did.
It’s stuff I’ve seen in my travels as well. In Bhutan, in Singapore, in Mexico, in Thailand, in Malaysia… we are the dull birds of the global forest. And while whiteness has taken over enough of the modern world that we can go through our days thinking that the native dancers, the bhutanese family with a penis painted on their house, the dancers wearing wild demon masks are the odd ones, the fact of the matter is they aren’t.
This is part of a sickness that infects the soul, this breaking down of folkways and communities and traditions. We, as human beings, need these things to be whole, I think.
It can seem unfair; we didn’t make the decision to give these things up. But we have lived with the millions of advantages, some big and some tiny, that are granted to white people. How we become whole again is a thing I’ve thought about often, and it’s a difficult question to answer and the actual answer lies in some realm of thought that I don’t have access to.
You see, whiteness, the privilege we’re afforded, also colors our thinking and our worldview. I can’t see past the whiteness to get a complete answer, if such a thing exists.
But here’s what I currently believe to be true.
The very first steps in becoming whole again is to acknowledge that these things are and can be sacred.
So much of the culture that most of us white Americans have lived in for our whole lives is about money, value, trade, debt, and theft; nothing is sacred to us in macro. Everything is for sale by someone. This is a colonial mindset.
I’m going to be wading into concepts here that I’m not a hundred percent that I completely understand so bear with me.
The colonial mindset, among its many other crimes, prevents us from understanding that some things are sacred. We can know things are sacred. We can listen when someone tells us this and we can file it away in a mental box labeled “sacred,” but I think a lot of us, even the religious among us, don’t really understand what this means. It is outside the colonial mindset.
The way that white people start to become whole is by overcoming this mindset. By decolonializing the way that we think. And part of that, and I think it’s important to note that it’s just a part, means understanding sacredness, and accepting that some things are sacred. This includes the folkways of other people. These things are sacred. The dances that I watched Bhutanese monks do in the restaurant of the hotel we stayed in at Thumphu are sacred. The songs that water protectors in North Dakota sing, those are sacred. They are important. They are vital.
This doesn’t mean that we adopt them. In fact it kind of means the opposite. We understand that they’re important enough, sacred enough, that we won’t fuck around with them. We listen, we learn, we read, and we try to stand up and help when we can if these sacred things are threatened. We value them without needing to possess them.
We can’t have our own folkways until we do this. Because until we can understand the sacred nature of these things, we’re still trapped in colonial thinking. It’s funny to say that, because I think white people get defensive when people tell them to decolonize their thinking, but the fact is we’re prisoners of this kind of thinking.
I don’t know, this is all kind of half-formed.
I guess it can be summed up thusly: for white middle class folks like myself to earn that back, we have to stop being assholes, and try to stop other white people from being assholes. We have to defend the sacred, and stand with those who do too.