Monday, March 17, 2014

Cultural Amnesia: How The Celts Became White

“A people without a knowledge of their history and culture is like a tree without roots.”
African Proverb 


Where on Earth did all these white people come from?


That’s not a hypothetical or metaphorical question. For years I have wondered, quite literally where on this physical planet white people come from? When did my ancestors stop being called Scottish and when did we start being called “white”? Has it always been this way? Did the indegenous Scots think of themselves as white?

What gives?

Here’s the short story: The Romans colonized the continent and then stuck it to the English. The English Oppressed the rest of the Celts and all of them came over to North America to oppress the Aboriginal people here. Oppression: the gift that keeps on giving.

But the notion of “whiteness” plays a much larger role than most people think in both the oppression of people of colour and the cultural amnesia that is being experienced by the Celtic Diaspora. The root of these two is the same. In this paper in intend to show that the “domestication” of the Celts (focusing largely on the Scottish Gaels) was started almost two thousand years ago but was not complete until the introduction of the term “white” (focusing largely on their immigration to the United States.

In her training manual (p. 7) Sharon Martinez, the founder of Challenging White Supremacy, an anti-racism training institute based in San Francisco, California, poses some crucial questions for us to wrestle with:

  • Is white a skin colour?
  • What does your dictionary and thesaurus say about white as referring to people?
  • Are white people a race?
  • Is white an ethnicity [like Norwegian, Irish, Jewish, Russian]?  
  • Are white people who live in the USA Americans?  
  • Is there such a thing as the white community in the US?
  • If you are person of colour, what you call people whose ancestors come from Europe?
  • If you're ancestors came from Europe, what do you call yourself?

The answers to these questions deeply shape how we not only see ourselves but those with different skin tones.

It raises the question though: why have so many immigrant groups come to drop their own colourful culture identity for the mono-cultured lable of “white”? Indeed many groups have resisted this loss of cultural identity. We can see it to this day in the existence of Mosques, Synagogues, Little Italy and Chinatown. We can see it in the existence of cultural associations, communities and institutions that encourage their own languages to be spoken and their cultures studied at universities.

But where is Gaelic?

Sadly, the Highland Scots were among those most open to the proposition of abandoning their culture and language. It is not surprising, for almost 2000 years they had been ever increasingly marginalized, oppressed, derided, ridiculed and attacked. 

But let’s start are look around 1000 years ago . . .

The Oppression of the Celts:

"Virtually every method of brutality that the Europeans would practice on the indigenous African peoples had already been tried out and perfected on other Europeans." (Martinas 35)

To be sure, the Celts were not always seen as a lesser people but, starting around 1125 things started to change.  By the 10th century, England had grown and transformed to become a political, economic, social and military powerhouse.  It's power had become increasingly centralized and...

"This stood in contrast with its Celtic neighbors who continued to be, for the most part, small, rural, cashless, kin based societies." (Newton 218)

There's an old saying that there's two ways to have the tallest building in town.  One ways to build the tallest building in town -- the others to tear everyone else's down.  In England's case, they did both.  They were a growing Empire and they needed (this is the short version) land for their sheep to graze to get wool, they need pasture for cattle for their beef – they needed, increasingly, the capital that the land represented.

But there was a problem – somebody lived there: the Celts. Leaving aside the fact that the majority of those living in England were (and still are) themselves of Celtic ancestry the fact remained that a sizable and not insignificant obstacle stood in the way of their getting what they wanted. And so they did what every human must do to repeatedly do harm to another human. They did what every colonizer must do to those they wish to colonize – they pretended that they were barely human. These were not ‘civilized’ people they were going to colonize, no – they were animals and savages.

Their incredible commitment to grow their own empire was matched only by their firm belief that they had the right to refashion the Celtic world in its own image.  More than the right -- perhaps, the duty.  

During the next two centuries the English would come to identify the Irish, Scots and Welsh "as having primitive, unrefined, and animal like characteristics and material cultures."  [Newton 218].

In The Beginnings of English Imperialism John Gillingham points out that the 1138 Battle of the Standard listing not just an isolated war between the Scottish and English people's but rather as "a Titanic and ferocious struggle between two different cultures, the civilized and the savage."  It would seem that much of how the English began to define themselves was in contrast to the Celts.

"The consciousness of the solidarity of the English people is implicit in the recognition of the otherness of the Celts: "thus the emerging sense of Englishness came to be partly based on the perception of "Celts" as significantly different and inferior" [John Gillingham, 1998].

And, in this ferocious struggle, the Scottish Gaels [as well as the Irish and Welsh] were treated in one of two ways: they were either intensely vilified or utterly ignored. One can see it in the Imperial documents of the time -- when they were perceived to be in the way of progress they were referred to as savages and animals but when key decisions were being made (that directly impacted their lives) they simply . . . did  . . . not  . . . exist.  Consider that, in 1604 when King James the Sixth of Scotland also became King of England, he declared that God had "United these two Kingdomes... in language, religion and similitude of manners," completely ignoring the vast differences between the Gaels and English in each of these areas.  But the differences could hardly be expected to exist if the people didn't.

"In 1866, The Times could still declare [the Welsh language] "the curse of Wales", while Matthew Arnold, replying in [The Times] defense, commented that "the sooner that the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political, social life of Wales, the better".  Since Arnold was among the most enlightened inspectors of schools, it wasn't surprising that the 1870 Education Act enshrined an implicit hostility in its apparent neutrality in making "the English-language compulsory in all Welsh schools... as was often the case with Gaelic speakers, mockery and caricature attended Welsh attempts to speak English: "if an English dramatist wanted to raise a good humored laugh, he had only to conjure up a Welsh "shentleman"".  Like Scots, particularly the Highland Scots, Welshman were often mocked for their devotion to their pedigrees and claims to high-born descent entertained no matter how deep their current poverty.".
(Newton 30)

Apes and Aliens:

John Wilkes [1727-97] a dedicated English patriot and virulent Scotophobe saw the Scotts as an insidious threat to the British social order.  He and his followers, there Wilkites, argued that the Scots were "inherently, unchanged alien, never ever to be confused or integrated with the English."  [Colley 113-160]. The Highlanders were often compared to the Native Americans who (in the racist world view of the time) were most certainly less than human.

"as desperately courageous as Sioux  or Pawnees", “as alien ... as a war party of Iroquois," "hill tribesmen" with an "a memorial zest for plunder" as various authors describe them [the latest of these quotations states from 1973!].  An early colonial times, commentators could diagnose the Highlanders ability to get on with Native Americans as a sign of their common savagery... it was small wonder in such circumstances that those of us labeled should've been regarded as expendable troops in Imperial wars: savages used to fight savages, and as disposable as the enemy they faced ... the Fraser's were slaughtered on the field of Culloden, 20 years later, they were being slaughtered again in Canada, where in the seven years for the Scotts casualty rate was almost four times as high as that of English or American troops involved.  Like Indian colonials in later years, Highlanders were often characterized as childish, with the charming, angry, volatile and ultimately immature and unreliable natures of both toddlers and adolescents."
(Newton 25 – 29)

The Irish didn’t fare much better. Whereas the Scottish were aliens the Irish were Apes.

"The presentation of the Irish man as ape has a long history . . . In the days before the 19th-century discovery of the gorilla in the codification of the great apes which allow Charles Kingsley determine the Irish "white chimpanzees... if they were Black, one wouldn't feel it so much" Simeon qualities were usually those already identified in the supposedly half human savages of the New World . . .”
(Newton 25-29)

But, over time this relationship began to change.  But, instead of the relationship shifting to become more of an equal partnership, something much more insidious happened.  The English saw the Celts as a savage and dangerous animal.  But, to briefly indulge in their colonial metaphor, instead of coming into a respectful relationship with that animal -- they continued to beat it, starve it and terrorize it.  Then they declawed it and began investigating and training it and its children.

But, of course, the Celts were not an animal.  

They were, and still are, a diverse and complex people with a unique culture.  And slowly, once the Celts had been sufficiently beat in into submission and colonized, the dominant culture [in the Celts themselves] began to find ways to capitalize on these cultures.  But, the attempts in the 1700s of various societies to revive the culture were in no way rebellions.  They were largely apolitical and focus on reaching the middle class.

Kitsch – How An Entire Population of Grizzly Bears Got Turned Into A Teddy Bear . . .

"Ale House bardic coteries were open to the public from 1789, and eisteddfoddau began as a display of cultural particularism which marked Wales out as a place of unthreatening antiquity." (Newton 41) (emphasis mine) These tourist commodities became more popular -- they provided a way for people to experience, explore and, most importantly, ‘buy’ a Celtic experience.  And it's no big surprise that the end product of all of this Celtic tourism was the production of various knick knacks, curiosities and "kitsch".  Kitsch was a safe, nonthreatening way that the Celtic culture could be experienced.  But there's also an unintended side effects for cultures who engage in this kind of practice -- kitsch takes a vibrant, complex culture and simplifies and distorts it into a single product.  What's the end result?  Millions of people around the world who think that Celtic culture is all about -- shamrocks, Leprauchans, bag pipes, kilts and St. Patrick's Day.

“White culture appropriates elements of European ethnic cultures in order to increase the ethnic groups sense of assimilation.  For example, pasta became "spaghetti" and is now available in your local supermarket.” – (Martinas 12)

With kitsch the savage beast is transformed into a teddy bear that you can put in your pocket and take home with you, giving you a certain satisfaction that you have just had an authentic experience with bears.

How exciting.

The worst impact of these centuries of oppression and condescension was not the broken armies but the broken hearts and spirits of the Celts. We see this most strongly in post-Culloden Scotland. The will to fight was gone. The tragedy was not so much the lies that the English told about them – but that they had come to believe them.

It was in this state of low cultural self esteem that the Gaels arrived to America.

The Gaels Arrive in America . . . And Become White . . . After Not Being Allowed to Be White

“The expatriate is in a search of a country, the exile is in search of a self.”
~Eaven Boland, Object lessons

One might have expected some shift in this treatment when they Gaels arrived in North America – the land of the free. Sure there was a lot of racism in the US but they were “white”. A black man would have much to worry about – but a Highlander? 

When most of us think about the term "white" we don't make any distinction about where the person came from.  Perhaps they came from Russia, Ireland, Scotland, Finland, England or anywhere else in Europe.  They might be in a degeneration Brazilian descended from immigrants from Portugal or a 10th degeneration Canadian.  Today, that doesn't matter.  All we see is the skin color.  This make sense: if someone skin is darker and they are "Black" [even though nobodies skin is actually black] and if they're skin is a lighter color they are "white"(even though nobody’s skin is truly white).  This seems so clear to us today that it would be easy to assume that this is how it was always seen.

"The Oxford English Dictionary identifies 1774 as the year in which the year in which the earliest usage of "race" to refer to physically distinct divisions of humankind appears..." (Newton 217)

But, in the early days of their arrival, the Scots and Irish were simply not considered “white”.

"There are indications that English speakers in America saw Highlanders as an alien and unwelcome presence.  When an early group of Highlanders arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina, "There peculiar costume and outlandish language so frightened the town officials that they attempted to make the strangers take an oath to keep the peace."  When commenting on the British forces that fought the Spanish and George in 1742, James Oglethorpe wrote, "the white people, Indians, and the Highlanders all had their share in the slaughter."  This enumeration implies the perception of distinct racial groups, Highlanders not matching the English people closely enough to share their distinction as 'white people'" (Newton 225)

The Birth Of “Race”: The Great Deception

How is this possible? If the notion of “white” wasn’t based on skin colour – then where did it come from? And how did it come to be? And how did it come to be applied to the Gaels in America?

Europeans: Seeing the Human Race Through "Race Coloured" Glasses:

"Yet, an historical analysis of the origins of racism in racialist thought demonstrated to be a relatively recent cultural construct, particularly of the 18th and 19th centuries . . . as political rhetoric in the hands of imperialists, is polarize the world into inferior in superior races so that those in power can justify dominance of superior races: when the manifest destiny of the Anglo-Saxon over native America; the mastery of African slaves; the right of Anglo America to property in political power over those unfit for those privileges; and so on."
(Newton 216)

An Historical Definition of "White":

The "white race" was given birth to by a small group of colonial slave owners. It was then created as a formal, legal distinction by the Virginia legislature in 1691 after series of 10 servant revolts in the mid 1600’s (the earliest being 1663), in which “African and English servants, free workers, frontiersmen and farmers, demanded land and pay for their labor.” (Martinas)  

There had been slave revolts from the beginning but elite Whites feared even more that discontented whites -- servants, tenant farmers, the urban poor, the property-less, soldiers and sailors -- would join black slaves to overthrow the existing order.  As early as 1663, indentured white servants and black slaves in Virginia had formed a conspiracy to rebel and gain their freedom.  In 1676 came Bacon's rebellion by white frontiersman servants alongside Black slaves.  The rebellion shook up Virginia's planter elite.  Many other rebellions followed, from South Carolina to New York.  The main fear of elite Whites everywhere was a class fear. (Martinas 4)

And join they did.

These culminated in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676, which came close to bring down the colonial ruling powers.  

Too close. 

Jamestown, the colony's capital, was burned to the ground and the colonial rulers were forced to call in the British army to quell the rebellion. This left the elite considerably shaken.

Things were simply getting out of hand and it was becoming clear that the elites were no longer simply out-numbered they might also soon become outgunned if this pattern of revolution were allowed to continue. Something had to be done. But a standing army would be expensive and no guarantee. The couldn’t simply kill off the Africans . . .  they were the bulk of the labour supply. They couldn’t disarm the servants and slaves – they needed them to keep these servants armed to guard the frontier against Indians or thieves. The issue was sheer numbers. If things were allowed to continue it would only be a matter of time before they won and the elite were thrown out of power.

Something had to be done. And fast. But the situation was precarious: the solution needed to be both rapid but also lasting. It needed to be sustainable. One couldn’t simply go running to the British army every time a rebellion got out of hand.

The answer that was arrived at is something that Sharon Martinas calls . . .

The Strategy of the Slave the Owners:

“Government has no other end but the preservation of property.”
- John Locke

Divide and conquer has long been a favored strategy of the elite. If you can get those you are fighting to fight each other – they do all your work for you. Or enough that you can comfortably retain power over all of them. With no united front, the oppressed never stand a chance. The Strategy of the Slave Owners was created over 300 years ago, but it still works perfectly today.

The strategy had three core components:

1) Instituting a Sustainable System of Rewards and Punishments
2) Eradicating the Material Basis for Unity Among the Oppressed
3) Cultivating a Sense of Entitlement Amongst the Newly “Whited”

Let’s look at each in more detail.

1) Instituting a Sustainable System of Rewards and Punishments: the first order of business was to create an artificial division amongst the lower classes. They had to find some way to put them into separate groups, give rewards and privileges to one of those groups and then punish them for trying to work together and reward those who conform.

Skin colour seemed as good a place to start as any. It was visible and created plenty of opportunities to use specious science and religious dogma to reinformce the divisions.

“Civil government . . . is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.”
– Adam Smith

So, certain privileges were given to white indentured servants. An important point to note – until that point in history they had never been legally referred to as “white”; they had been called "Christian" "Englishman" or "Irishmen," etc.

It was in the very act of giving these privileges that the term “white” came into creation. These privileges were given solely based on the colour of skin and continent of origin. Though it is largely a lost fact in the history most of us are taught in school - the term “white” would never have come into existence had the elite not felt threatened by a rumbling lower class.

“That made them "superior" to blacks [and Indians].  Thus whiteness was born as a racist concept to prevent lower class whites from joining people of color, especially blacks, against their class enemies.  The concept of whiteness became a source of unity and strength for the vastly outnumbered Euro Americans -- as in South Africa, another settler nation.  Today, unity across color lines remains the biggest threat in the eyes of a White ruling class." (Martinas 4)

They were given the legally supported right to: 
  • join militias
  • carry guns
  • acquire and own land 
  • have the right to become citizens (for the men but not women), 
  • bring and to live with a family
  • travel in search of work, 
  • vote
  • practice their own language and religion without interference 
  • organize mutual self-help societies and small businesses without being broken up by white mobs, 
  • a public-school education, 
  • bring suit and testifying court, and the right to hold public office. 

And here is the key. These rights were specifically not allowed to those of African descent.

2) Eradicating the Material Basis for Unity Among the Oppressed: With these new laws the conditions for those of African descent were much worsened – the impact was devastating. They were reduced to mere chattel slavery or bare survival. It drove a profound wedge between the “whites” and the “blacks.”; not only legally but in their daily lived experience, which began to differ profoundly. As their common ground crumbled from beneath them and the whites were no longer so oppressed as the blacks, their partnership came to a grinding halt. 

"If they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us at night."  
Taken from a letter to Angela Davis by James Baldwin

Ever since this point is history, “Each subsequent generation of European immigrants has gained acceptance into the white mainstream when they have  . . . consented, by silence or action, to the oppression of peoples of color.” (Martinas)

3) Cultivating a Sense of Entitlement Amongst the Newly “Whited”: Over time this strategy came to have a third, and perhaps the most powerful effect of all: it convinced the European Americans that they had hit a homerun (when they had been born on third base. The began to believe two lies which blind them to this day.
  • The First White Lie: That they had achieved economic and political greatness soley through their own “moral fortitude” and hard work – this resulted in an almost total blindness to their privileges.
  • The Second White Lie: that what privileges they had been granted (at least the ones that white people were willing to even admit they had) were given because they were better than black people – they were superior solely based on “race”. These were the entitled rewards for being “white”.
What it means is that person of European descent agrees, consciously or unconsciously, to give up parts of her/his European ethnic heritage in exchange for becoming white, that is, accepting white privileges, and a sense of superiority over peoples of color, especially African-Americans. (Martinas 22)

“Perception is of course intimately tied to preconception.”
Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words

The Strategy of the Slave Owners worked brilliantly.  

The system of rewards and punishments was a more than sufficient deterrent for all but the most courageous and committed Europeans.  

How do we know? 

After the construction of white privilege, there were no more multiracial servants and slave revolts. Bacon's rebellion was the last multiracial revolts of the oppressed during the colonial era.

What it means is that person of European descent agrees, consciously or unconsciously, to give up parts of her/his European ethnic heritage in exchange for becoming white, that is, excepting expecting white privileges, and a sense of superiority over peoples of color, especially African-Americans. (Martinas 66)

And so, entering into this context, weary from centuries of oppression and with flagging belief in the value of their culture the Gaels were forced to make a choice:

  1. To hold onto the culture and language they had been taught over many centuries to look down upon as backwards and savage and risk being marginalized in a new country by the rest of “white” society.
  2. Abandon their ancestral language and culture and accept the racist lable of “white” in its place thereby guaranteeing they would receive tremendous legal and economic benefits.
The choice was all too clear.

Works Cited:

Colley, Linda. Britons. New Haven: Yale University press, 1992 [Looking For Ourselves: Uses And Abuses Of The Heritage Idea Times Literary Supplement, May 2, 1997, 8-9]
Martinas, Sharon. Challenging White Supremacy Manual – Self Published. 1997
Newton, Michael. A Handbook of The Scottish Gaels. Oregon: Four Courts Press. 2000.
Newton, Michael. We’re Indians Sure Enough. Auburn, NH: Windhaven Press. 2001
Pittock, Murray G.H. Celtic Identity and the British Image. Machester, UK: Manchester University Press. 1999.