Part 2: Exploring the Core Wound of Whiteness
Separation, Dominance, and yes, Witches.
First, if you haven’t already read the first part of this series, I’d encourage you to pause and go read that now, where I outline why I’m exploring this question, we discuss some high-level human history that gets us to about 10,000 years ago, and I name a lot that I really am an amateur here, not an expert historian, scientist, or anthropologist.
Okay, on to part two of this series exploring the core wound of whiteness, and really asking “what sets of events shaped us to believe and behave in the ways we do?”
Let’s start with yet another thing that all of us humans do, because it’s central to our story today. We are unique (perhaps, who’s to say we won’t know differently in the future) in our species’ absolute obsession with meaning making. It’s one of the things that drives us. We make stories up about the patterns in our own lives, telling ourselves we’re not good enough, loveable, hard-working enough, and more. We make stories up about the patterns we observe in others, saying in our heads or even aloud to those in our group that they don’t care like we do, they are self-centered, they aren’t competent, they are reckless, and more. (We also, it’s worth noting, make up positive stories about ourselves and others.) Absolutely every single human on this planet has been and is obsessed with meaning making. Neurobiologically, it’s a mechanism our brain utilizes to, as efficiently as possible, keep us alive. Socially, it allows us to form both a personal identity and a sense of belonging with others. Culturally, it shapes our religions, worldviews, politics, laws, and more.
Last time, we talked about the role climate change played in shifting human behavior and how the advent of husbandry fundamentally shaped our relationship with the earth, each other, and the beings with whom we share this planet. Over the course of about 10,000 years, most human civilizations had been touched by this new technology and with it, our inventions of wealth (and poverty), private property (and “destitution”), production (and the concept of laziness), and more. One thing that’s important to repeat and underline from last time is that across all human cultures where we began to raise, tend, and cultivate plants and animals, hierarchy - and therefore power over and power under - simultaneously arose. Today, our story looks at when, where, and how western white people started to diverge from other humans and how those forks in the road still shape us today.
Before we get to the promised witches, I think it’s also worth naming three specific things I didn’t get to last time and that begin to shape the meaning making that western white people have of the world still today:
Alongside the domestication of plants, humans of course domesticated animals. The group that is perhaps most famous for domesticating horses (because they were also the first to do it) are the Indo Europeans (whose impact on human history is...enormous). There are many philosophers who believe this particular domestication allowed them to migrate faster, dominate others better by waging more effective (and brutalizing) war campaigns, and spread culture and language across Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age. Lots of experts disagree about their origins, but many subscribe to a theory that puts their origins in and around the Caucasus Mountains (the area from which we derive the word Caucasian, which has its own very problematic story and we should stop using it to refer to all white people, imo). The headline here is that this group used the domestication of horses to dominate their fellow humans and the animals around them, they did it perhaps the best of any humans at that time, and their link to the civilizations that shape nearly every modern white culture (Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Italian, and Greek) is well established.
Also in the Bronze Age, and early in the Greek Dark Ages, the Minoan Civilization flourished. They were the first advanced European civilization and, yet, they disappeared. There’s a lot of theories, still, about what happened to this thriving civilization on the isle of Crete. Some posit a volcanic eruption is responsible for their ultimate demise; others say it was most likely a tsunami caused by the eruption; still others say their deforestation practices on the island caused them to exceed the environmental capacity of their homeland. What is clear is that their civilization ended (ultimately by fire and what was left of the people were conquered by the Mycenaeans) and the core reasons as to why was related to “nature”. It’s not definitive what role - if any - this played into the next note here, but I personally have to imagine that an advanced civilization like that falling because of factors to do with nature really shapes the Greeks’ thinking and meaning making about the world around them.
An interesting thing happened about 2600 years ago that I think is particularly noteworthy about a (potentially first?) “fork in the road” in terms of the patterning - or meaning making - that happened in two cultures whose thinking still dominates the East and West today. In India, Siddhartha Guatama sat beneath the Bodi Tree and arose as the Buddha. His teachings shape a religion and practice that has played a prominent role in the East and whose core teachings are about interconnection (between heart, mind & body; as well as between beings, and between beings and the universe), the inherent good of all beings, impermanence, and minimizing suffering. In the West, Greek philosophers hosted symposiums and established schools where prominent men would spend hours discussing and debating ethics, morality, society’s responsibilities, law, mathematics, and the meaning of life. The Greeks believed deeply in rational thought and reasoning and their works focused on understanding the world around them via separation: philosopher from the ignorant; observer from the observed; man from the Gods; man from Earth and nature; mind away from (and superior to) body and heart. Greek philosophy forms the root of Western intellectualism, science, the Abrahamic religions, and the shape of our societies. (It’s important to note that I’m condensing a lot both about Buddhism and Greek philosophy here, and that I really am not intending to say that one is better or righter than the other; simply that they are powerful catalysts of the differences between Western and Eastern patterning.) The Greek’s focus on separation and rational thought (or what was deemed rational thought to the intellectual elite) is a critical distinction that begins to shape whiteness across every aspect of our worlds, and significantly.
So, that was all percolating in the consciousness, and it set the stage for how Europeans began facing and shaping the world about 500 years ago, when Europe and parts of North America (exclusively) began to experience the little ice age. If the difference in how the Greeks and the Buddhists made sense of the world was the first fork in the road, this regional climate event and its impacts forms the second.
While climate minimums hit different parts of Europe and the north of Turtle Island at different points over the 15-19th centuries, between roughly 1460 - 1540, Europe experienced 80 years of harsh and cold weather. This impacted their ability to grow food and transport said food and other goods. Famine, sickness, epidemics, starvation, and more spread across the continent, leaving people terrified, angry, and very wary of nature. As we’ve noted that all people do, Europeans needed to make meaning of why this was happening, and it was already in their institutions, thanks to the Greeks, to think of nature as separate from man and, thanks to patriarchy, for men to be dominant over women.
The [Catholic] Church made meaning for the masses of these various changes of nature as the forces of the Devil - and women, who were seen as more in tune with nature via healing practices, herbal medicines, their own menstrual cycles, and more, were used as scapegoats as agents of the Devil who’d brought this plague upon the people. In 1485, Pope Innocent VIII began the official witch hunts, which lasted for 300 years. Europe would emerge from this time transformed, its people obsessed with the separations of Man (and God) from Woman (and Nature), and the brutal treatment, torture, and punishment of women (and others, including men) was common practice as part of enforcing the law and preventing future societal harm. Truly, the torturous interrogation and punishment practices developed during the Witch Trials (and during its predecessor, the Inquisition) are some of human kind’s most violent ways of treating one another.
I think it’s important to explore the level of devastation we white people wrought on each other during this time. Truly, what must it have required from our souls, our psyches, our very being to have been able to not just accuse and drown our neighbors, but to cheer it on? What kind of learned behavior is stored within those of us of European descent that allowed us to burn women alive for public spectacle or draw and quarter fellow humans as entertainment? What emotional numbing must we have learned in this part of our history that would allow us, on a new land, to participate in, profit from, or even simply “idly” ignore chattel slavery and its grotesque practices? How must this fear of each other be stored and carried in modern day distrust of neighbors, even family? What wounds are uniquely in white women from this time that shape the way we form relationships based on tests of trust and exclusion? What wounds are uniquely in white men from this time from seeing the women society tasked them with “protecting” (and that they, perhaps, loved) destroyed, vilified, maimed, or killed?
This period of violence in Europe - heightened by climate change - undeniably shaped white people and our collective culture. We carried these practices with us to Columbus’s America, and they shaped how we treated Native Americans and enslaved Africans once there and the systems we enacted to create and maintain our newly created racial hierarchy. There is so much more to be said about the violence that was and has continued to be created once white people started to want to escape each other’s persecution in Europe by colonizing Turtle Island and enslaving Africans to build their “new world” and wealth; for now, I’ll simply say it was and is abhorrent and that it did and does wound all of us, though of course in different ways, with different impacts to our lives and opportunities.
The specific ways in which we western white people have relied on the themes of dominance and separation to make meaning of the world and shape our role in it has had profound consequences on us, on others, on the land. Even the great parts about our culture and civilizations (and there are many, I would argue: the Scientific Revolution, the Renaissance, the French and American Revolutions, to name a few) are shaped by theories and practices of dominance and separation. These very practices have led to the corrosive nature, I would argue, of capitalism's reliance on extraction, growth, and scarcity thinking; of white supremacy’s imperative that white people are superior to others; of western belief that democracy is the only “right way” to organize a society and its use of imperialistic and militaristic force to defend this belief and protect capitalist interests abroad; of our continued inability to do the work to heal and repair the impact we have had on others in the form of systemic racism, genocide, and other ways we’ve contributed to the suffering of others.
I’d join others who argue that this patterning of separation and dominance are the root or core wound of whiteness, and that healing it is imperative. If any of what I’ve shared in this edition and the last is, in fact, true, there’s a lot of power and potential in exploring what it might look like to - individually and collectively as white people - choose connection and cooperation; choose interdependence; choose a relationship with nature (and see ourselves as nature, since we are); choose to position rationality alongside and only equal to the other ways of knowing.
I’ve been exploring what choosing these paths looks like for me as an individual over the last year or so and it’s been difficult, and I’d also encourage all of us to explore what it might look like for ourselves to take this work on. It feels slower than I’d like as a possible solution for us all out of this mess and that’s frustrating to me, given the suffering that others are still experiencing. Doing it alone isn’t the answer (and rarely is it for anything, especially in the realm of social change), though there is unique individual work for me (and all of us) to do. If you’re interested in this, but stuck, I’d be very jazzed to connect and talk it through.
I believe there’s power in us learning together what it might look like to reexamine how we make meaning of the world and to act upon new beliefs. I think there’s great relief - and responsibility - in seeing that we’re not inherently evil, but that we have made meaning of the world in such a way that has caused enormous pain. The patterning we have that’s stuck in dominance and separation is not fixed, except that we keep choosing it. We can choose to act on a different story. Given the potential of climate change to exacerbate this story of ours if we don’t - to say nothing of how it has ratched up our violence in the past - I can’t think of a more urgent time to get serious about acting on a different story than now. It was already urgent, given the suffering that’s been created in its wake; the idea of it worsening and getting more violent is, at least to me, completely untenable.