Wherever we are in the world, the vast majority of white people, and others who benefit from white privilege in significant ways, come from a history of displacement: of uprooting.
In the parts of the world I know best — Britain and Ireland — the disruption and trauma of the Industrial Revolution, the Lowland and Highland Clearances, and the Potato Famine are just small parts of what drove the movements of people from country to city, from land to factory, and from home to colonies.
By choice or by force, many carrying the burden of trauma, those who moved from Europe to settle in the ‘New World’ of north America and Australasia forged a new life for themselves in new lands. They did this by participating, directly or indirectly, in taking land, life, and community, often with great brutality, from both indigenous populations, and from West African people kidnapped into slavery.
Those who remained in Europe were also implicated in that brutality, since they benefited enormously from the financial wealth which came to their nations from the lands they colonised. Even those who lived in poverty benefited from the infrastructure of roads, railways, water and sewerage systems built with part of that wealth, as well as the subtler social and psychological bolstering of the white supremacy which underpinned colonialism.
Facing this history head-on can be deeply painful.
It can provoke feelings of anger and helplessness. Recognising how we as white people still benefit from the historical legacies of racism, white supremacy and colonialism, how they still operate in the systems in which we live, and how they live within us, can bring up deep feelings of guilt and shame. In the midst of these feelings, it is easy to see how some choose white fragility and denial.
Many of us turn to personal development or spiritual practice in a search for the connection, wholeness and community which we know could support us to take on the work of challenging racism, white supremacy and colonialism. In this process, some of us look to indigenous traditions (such as those of the pre-Columbian and pre-colonial cultures of the Americas), African diaspora religions (such as Santeria and Vodoun), and Eastern spiritual traditions (like Buddhism and aspects of Hinduism).
They are appealing in their richness, depth, and long history, to those of us looking for spiritual nourishment outside of mainstream Western religions. Some of us attempt to emulate or take on those traditions, in part or in whole, and in the process often appropriate and deeply disrespect both the traditions and their origins.
Embedded in this present seeking, just as in the histories of European colonialism, are the violence of racism and white supremacy.
The irony is deep. Our very attempts to mend our scattered spirits, our relationships with our fellow humans, and our world at large end up doing further harm to all three. Yet what else can we do? We can to reconnect ourselves, not based on what looks juicy in another’s tradition, but based on exactly where we are.
And where we are is always the child of a child of a child, going back and back in time to the beginning of the Universe.
Through the seemingly small and simple practice of researching and honouring our ancestors, we can reconnect with our roots, with both humility and pride, and resource ourselves for challenging racism, white supremacy and colonialism in a deeply grounded way.
Rather than simply researching and finding facts, through the art and creative process of storytelling, we can engage deeply with the life of an ancestor in a way that makes space for the full complexity of a human life: the parts that we can celebrate, and the parts that we must grieve; the parts that bring us joy, and the parts that bring us anger, and sadness.
Because it’s only by facing our inheritance in its wholeness that we can be fully rooted for the work ahead.