Heritage Identity and Resiliency
In her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Joy Degruy contrasts the resident populations of two small villages in South Africa. She then goes on to draw similarities between the South African tribes with Black Americans, presenting a argument for her concept of the post traumatic slave syndrome. This comparison shows the benefits of a shared cultural tradition and the detriment that losing that Identity can have on a population. I have seen a similar transition in my own life when I moved from my rural Minnesotan home to Denver, and I believe that while the contrast is not equal, I am able to compare my own experiences with her examples to explore how knowing family history and having a clear sense of communal identity can help children be resilient, and how this can be applied here in America on a broader scale.
She mentions that during her time In Onverwagt, a village comprised of refugees from different tribes, she found a people with many different languages and no shared tribal tradition. Their village struggles with poverty, crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and the people’s hopelessness is apparent through both their posture and their seeming refusal to look the visitors in the eye. they often apologized for their lack of education when speaking and their children were unruly and aggressive. However, her experiences in Ndebele, whose population had a shared tribal identity, were completely different. The children were diligent, hardworking, helpful, and obedient.
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The children waited for several hours while the adults met with the visitors (sitting quietly in the room with them, not speaking) and afterwards participated in the welcome by singing them songs and asking questions. They seemed peaceful, and showed pride in their village and their children. While both tribes were poor, the way they responded to their surroundings were very different. Because the people in Onverwagt had all experienced trauma during their history as refugees there are additional factors weighing on their current situations, however when contrasted with the people of Ndebele who are also poor but thriving, the benefits of a shared communal identity showed. (1.)
When compared to a wealthy nation like the united states the living situations of those poor rural communities would seem extreme even to america’s poorest, with very little exception. However as the middle class in america dissolves, more and more of its population are falling into poverty. This growing distance between the richest of the rich and our poorest is creating a very perceivable tension in the country.
The census methods that the government uses to measure poverty are hardly an accurate description of the american living standard , and yet it seems entirely accepted as ethical for a business to offer a position of employment that does not allot an individual the means for even a bare existence while still telling them they aren’t poor (2.). As our politics become more an more polarized, race inevitably becomes a focus point (3.). Otherness, as opposed to embracing our neighbors, starts with fear, and it’s been shown that communities that are struggling are far less likely to be accepting of of those coming to them in need.
And we have seen that same fear in our media for years now. And with the revival of the civil rights movement we have seen a revival in white supremacy as well as an opposition movement which was capitalized on in our last presidential election to great effect. Since then we have seen an increase in violence, and but as a positive we have also seen an increase in people talking about these tougher topics.
Comparing the differences between the South African villages to my own experiences I see a lot of overlap between my rural community in minnesota verses my experiences here in the city of Denver, and what that experience has been like for me personally. I am from Pipestone, MN, which is a town of four thousand people in the southwest corner of the state. It is a national monument that is sacred to the Sioux people, and the surrounding areas are primarily small, quiet Dutch and German towns. The town is primarily conservative, and other than the Native American locations and festivals the town is also almost completely christian.
I was raised christian protestant, and if my name doesnt give me away I am partially of German descent on my father’s side, but I grew up learning family history from my maternal grandfather. He completed a family geneology when I was still a baby that traced our roots all the way back to our old homes in norway and sweden, and reconnected with distant cousins who still live there. He would tell me stories about our history whenever I came to visit, and after he passed away I got all of his notes and kind of took his place as unofficial family historian.
As long as I can remember I have considered myself a “Scandinavian American,” and was reminded of this by my community as distinctions were drawn between the Dutch (being the majority) and others in a playful social way. The same being true for the Polish, Irish, Scandinavians in the area. There was also a mixed view of the native americans as most people celebrated their culture and festivals, but there were still some deep seeded hatred in individuals that I met on both sides. I should also say for context that we grew up quite poor.
But despite the fact that my father was a pastor and my mother was unable to work we lived humbly and were thankful despite the seemingly endless hard times. I am the oldest of four, and we were also home schooled, so I was expected to help with the house and the children while also being responsible for my own school work. I had some opportunities through the church to travel some and had been exposed to cultures and ways of life outside of our little bubble even when I was still young (traveling to native reservations and once to the slums in mexico city,) but it really wasn’t until I moved to Denver that I felt real effects from any kind of loss of identity.
Identity is a complicated thing, and it is difficult to fully explore in this format without straying too far off of topic, but somethings have come to my attention since moving to Denver. I moved here for school in 2014, and have struggled to scrape by ever since being financially independent despite working full time while in school. Prior to moving here I had lost my faith, and with my shift in personal politics away from my conservative upbringing, there was a lot at play outside of just my ethnic heritage, and being grouped by others into a majority I felt to meaningful connection to outside of skin tone classification.
I have always known I was “white,” but it wasn’t until I started having more conversations about with race, be it with friends or colleagues (especially leading up to the 2016 election and afterwards) that I started to realize that we were perceived as a whole, with supposed traits and culture to go along with it. I started to notice that people think of White American as an identity, and there were some learning experiences for both myself and the people that I’ve spoke with. But on of the trends that I’ve seen is that both sides seem to push for a uniform white identity.
The left doing so primarily as a focus on the injustices that are being served to the minority and the right doing so as an arguably racist method of creating a stronger nationalist kind of unity, but most of us see ourselves outside of the media, I know I do. As a non-christian, that opposes vehemently the concept of capitalistic economy that allows people to open a business despite not being able to fairly pay its workers, that believes our country is ripping itself apart through identity politics, while spending endlessly on war while neglecting our medicine and education, what kind of American identity is left?
Even other white people have told me ” you’re not scandinavian, you’re white,” or “you’re not scandinavian, you’re American,” as though I’m not allowed to be both. So if I can’t be what I was, then what’s left? Celebrating bastardized corporate holidays that serve only to increase civilian spending while stripping away concepts like self reflection, purification, and family? Our one holiday (of questionable origin) devoted to being thankful is followed IMMEDIATELY by the biggest spending day of the year. Or is perhaps the global reputation of being lazy, ignorant and dangerous something that we can all take pride in? (4.)
There is a lot of dissonance for me writing this as these are deep topics that I have only begun to sort through for myself, but even after my loss of faith and naive patriotism that I possessed as a child, I am still proud of my heritage, the cool things my forefathers did in our family history, and the great things our country has done and is capable of doing (while still making an effort to actually educate myself on the true history and accepting the bad while working towards the good.)
Those children in Ndebele remind me of how my family lived, we were humble but happy. I look around me and I see stress and anxiety that constantly cascades over everyone I meet in a way that I never saw in my rural buble, and since coming here I have felt a decline in mental health, I lost thirty pounds my first year here because I couldn’t afford a steady diet, and both of my maternal grandparents past during my time here.
After they died our family had a falling out, and since then our branch of the family is complete cut from that tradition. I carry the history that my Grandpa collected, but I dont have the same traditional festivities and events that we had growing up. I feel that loss and it has changed a lot of my perspective in the recent years. So I guess I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be me in America today, whiteness and all, But my heritage has played a larger roll than any political alignment or religious association as a reminder of the people who have supported me and the strength that I have seen from them, and I believe knowing my history has helped make me resilient.
As the country becomes poorer, we see a rise in stress and hopeless and anxiety, and I believe that this is tied strongly to the fact that the White American Identity was basically just the picturesque middle class christian existence sold to americans after the second world war. People were prosperous, and that comfort led to people being willing to strip away previous heritage and practice for this new prosperity. That American Dream.
We feel it as that comfort is stripped away as the more and more of us become poorer, blaming it on the Other, resisting change. But I think that an open discussion of what whiteness is, and what its not, is something that people have avoided. I think that this avoidance to discuss what this empty shell of an identity is has led people to cling to something damaging and hollow out of fear. I always prefered the old motto of “E Pluribus Unum,” and I think that the only way that white people can truly change our end of the racism problem in America is to deconstruct this overriding identity that forces the assimilation of similar cultures as opposed to accepted and celebrating our neighbors regardless of origin.
As a final thought, I realize that I am writing this from my own perspective, ignorance and all, and I know the topic of race can be difficult to approach but I hope I have been delicate. I have certainly been honest, but I also realize that there is an entire other side to this and I would have loved to go into more detail about other cultures, with my experiences outside of Whiteness, racism, etc, but there is far too much to even begin to do it justice.