The past few hours have seen me treading in some dangerous literary waters. It’s maybe a little presumptuous to take it upon oneself to create a new word, but sometimes the dictionary just falls a bit short. When it came to putting a word to the thoughts that have been stirring up inside my head, the first one that came to mind was displacency, which I have to admit, was a word I’d never heard or used before and indeed, thought that I had fabricated until I looked it up. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s an archaic word that refers to “dislike, dissatisfaction, or displeasure.” While this alluded to elements of what I was trying to define, I decided that it just wasn’t the right word.
Before we go any further, maybe I should describe exactly what it is that I have been attempting to define. Possibly due to the current civil unrest we are experiencing, I’ve been thinking a lot about ethnicity; what it means and how people relate to it. I consider myself lucky that my circle of friends and the vast majority of people I follow online are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, celebrating indigenous communities, and promoting education on the struggles, the accomplishments, and the traditions of these people. As I personally continue to learn more about BIPOC traditions, I find myself captivated by their ancestral connections, whether the roots run deep in the lands of the Americas or even overseas, despite the atrocities of displacement or enslavement that brought them here. Although these people continue to suffer the residual pain of their ancestors, a certain sense of belonging still permeates; knowing that one belongs to a land or a people. I cannot say I’ve ever felt that sense of connection.
This got me thinking about my own heritage. Growing up, my mother’s family strongly identified with their Irish/Italian roots. My maternal great-grandfather was a first generation US citizen and, with my great-grandmother, owned an Italian restaurant in Binghamton, NY. These were my maternal grandfather’s parents. I knew my maternal grandmother’s family was Irish/German, but any mention of them was always vague. On my father’s side, I knew we were French-Canadian and there was an old family rumor that we may have had some Native American ancestry as well, though no one seemed to know much more than that.
A couple of years ago, I got extremely curious about this family rumor in particular and decided to submit my DNA to ancestry.com to see what I could find out. I’ve always felt a strong interest in Native American traditions, rituals, and their relationship to the earth and I really hoped to be able to identify with this as part of my heritage. When I finally got the DNA results back, I was disappointed. I have no Native American ancestors. In fact, my genetic map proved that I really couldn’t be any more white. My mother’s family’s Italian obsession is barely even reflected in my DNA (only 2%). Nationally, I’m still a bit of a mixed bag, but overall, my ancestors are Western European, mostly Irish, a bit from Germany and France, a smidge from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean.
This news wasn’t really anything unexpected, but I was disappointed all the same. It wasn’t that I held a deep desire to be less white, more that I was hoping to make an ancestral connection that I could actually relate to. If I have family over in Europe, I have no idea who they are or where they would be. I know there are many “Berube’s” in Canada, but the surname seems common up there and I wouldn’t know where to start. I might have discovered my genetic map, but I truly felt and still feel more disconnected to my roots than ever before. Even my immediate family is quite distant as we are spread out all over the country. Aside from my parents and one of my second cousins, my closest relatives live about a four hours’ drive away. Manageable, yes, but also inconvenient, and (I’m sorry if this offends anyone) western Central New York is not one of my favorite destinations.
It was as I ruminated over all of these feelings about my scattered family, my disappointment in my ancestry, and where I could really trace my roots to, that I started making up words to define how I was feeling, and finally settled on nonplacency, which I define as “a feeling of environmental and/or familial disconnect; non-affiliation with one’s surroundings or ancestry; feeling out of place.” I’m sure these definitions alone could be highly debated, but if you’ve been reading my work for some time now, you understand that I sort out my thoughts through writing, so just bear with me here.
After I was able to put a word to the emotion, my next step was to assess why I might be feeling this way. On the surface level, I’ve only ever been close with a few members of my family, and as we’ve grown older or moved further apart, and especially after the deaths of my maternal grandparents, these relationships sort of naturally dissipated. I’ve also lived through a few different, though no longer legally bound to, step-families. Needless to say, the archetype of “family” has been a bit non-traditional in my experience. After the DNA results (which I realize may not be completely accurate and yes, my partner scolded me afterward about how my DNA is probably now being used for some big data bank somewhere to be put to who knows what sort of uses), I lost any sense of heritage that I may have had at one point in my life. The tiny strand of hope that I may have Native American blood, which would then at least allow me to feel more connection to living in the US, was eradicated, and with it, most of my sense of “home” in this country.
Even before this surge of civil rights activism and before the pandemic, I’ve harbored some residual, ancestral guilt about European invaders coming to the Americas and committing mass genocide of the native peoples. It fucking sucks. I can’t even begin to relate to the ancestral trauma of the Native Americans and the Native Africans who were enslaved and brought here to serve said European invaders. I feel shame that my ancestors may have (and probably did) engage in and benefit from these horrific acts. Identifying as a descendent of these people is abhorrent to me.
This conversely led me to think about those who feel pride in where they come from… hold on here, don’t get offended just yet… about those who passionately identify with their Irish, Italian, or Norwegian roots, for example. Most of the people whom I know personally that have this strong ancestral connection are great people who also feel shame over the enslavement and desecration of other cultures. They find ways to celebrate their own cultural traditions while still respecting those of other cultures. Someday, if I overcome this nonplacency I hope to be more like them.
However, there are those out there who, I think it’s safe to say, over identify with who and where they have come from. This over-identification is one attribute that can certainly lead to racist beliefs and behaviors; thinking one’s own culture is superior to any other. We see this with the confederate flag dilemma. I’ve had people (born and raised in upstate New York nonetheless), argue that the confederate flag isn’t about racism for them; it stands for rebellion in general (cue the Dukes of Hazzard theme). I try my best not to roll my eyes when I hear this argument. As someone who unnecessarily rebels against many things, I try to remind these people that the confederacy was indeed rebelling against the eradication of slavery, not the bourgeoisie. Deep breath.
In one way I feel as though we are seeing some of this nature of over-identification reflected back to us within the current social movement. White people are now being asked to make space for the celebration of BIPOC traditions, celebrations, traumas, experiences, voices, and creations. This doesn’t mean white people need to give up their own heritage or traditions (unless, of course, these practices were rooted in and continue to uphold racism). No one’s taking away St. Paddy’s Day, chill out. What we should be doing here is giving these oppressed people a chance to freely identify with their ancestry and their traditions. There will always be those who take things too far, but to feel threatened by this, as though these people are going to become so powerful from being able to openly celebrate themselves as to start committing evils against those different from them, reeks of guiltiness. We’ve already seen the effects of a white dominated world; I still have enough faith in humanity to think that if the power rested in the hands of indigenous peoples, the world would be a much more compassionate and healthy place, though certainly still not perfect.
Coming back to my own feelings of nonplacency, I have been trying to think of a way to alleviate them. Instead of feeling a connection to any historical or blood related traditions, perhaps I am looking for a more progressive path, one that goes beyond national borders and settles instead into a deeper connection, one led by heart and soul. This sounds great, but it’s also very problematic. I’d love to be able to follow the vibrations that arouse my heart and soul, exploring different traditions and areas of the world, establishing my roots on my own terms, but I also feel as though this treads a fine line between the innocent exploration that I’m dreaming of and the beginnings of colonialism.
Wait, what? In my own mind, it might be okay for one or a few people to independently seek out a way to redefine themselves in an ancestral context, one that offers a deeper connection to their earthly experience, but if large groups of people, especially those that may have a lot of political or economical power begin to attempt this, well… we’ve seen what colonialism can do to a native population and to the environment.
So how can one potentially and appropriately assess how and if they can reestablish or redefine themselves in a certain place? For example, as I stated earlier, since childhood I’ve felt an affinity to Native American culture, specifically the tribes of the Northeast (Iroquois) and the Southwest (Hopi). Now as an individual, I could certainly move to Arizona and explore Hopi traditions, dress, and art, but as a descendent of white, European settlers, it’s highly unlikely that I’d be accepted into the Hopi community. Even if I weren’t trying to immerse myself in their community, but instead to independently find solace in the land, I’d be trying to settle myself upon land that has seen too much turmoil, upheaval, and exploitation. I’m not saying that a venture such as this is impossible (people rehome to these areas all the time), but these particular circumstances should be approached with a great deal of informed awareness and respect.
Now I could take this same example and apply it to another corner of the world, let’s say India. I don’t claim to know anything about Indian immigration regulations, but I’m not trying to approach this in a bureaucratic way. We know that Indians have seen their share of oppression and colonialism from white Europeans as well. There has been bloodshed, land theft, and struggle against Imperialist rule. However, I feel as though I may find an easier time immersing myself in the Indian culture and possibly even a bit of success of rooting myself in that land. India, as a country, has certainly had more opportunity for progressive cultural evolution than the Native Americans, whose country and authority was stolen from them. While these two examples share some parallel elements in their histories, it is a very different matter for an outsider (especially of white European descent) to be able to redefine oneself within these cultures. I wouldn’t say that the Indian people have forgiven the past, nor would I say that Native Americans hold grudges against all white people; the biggest difference between these cultures is their current independence. Native Americans are still losing land, battling big government, receiving little to no medical assistance, and limited education. India has had a chance to thrive as a nation, even though its overpopulation contributes to some of these same problems as well.
The question I am now beginning to ask myself is when and if there will be an opportunity for more cross-cultural exchange. In this time when part of our society (in the US) is finally encouraging the amplification of BIPOC voices and giving these communities the chance to truly celebrate themselves without interference from white people, will there be a chance for cross-cultural merging? In the current social climate, I feel as though it may take generations before these oppressed communities are ready to invite white people to share in their customs, if ever at all. I know that is a vast generalization and that there are millions of mixed race marriages and families. I also know how important it is to these communities to have a chance to heal and preserve their identities. However, if I were applying that same statement to white people, I admit, I would throw out a caution flag. After all, aren’t the limitations resulting from the preservation of identity part of the problem with white supremacy?
This is such a layered issue and, coming from my perspective (western European descendent that I am), sounding quite superficial. Poor white girl, feeling displaced in her ancestry, with her middle-class upbringing and college education. This dream that I have, that I’m projecting here in this post (cue the Miss America “world peace” drivel), is almost entirely self-serving. What it appears that I’m asking for has come down to this; that oppressed, raped, murdered, enslaved, and exploited peoples across the globe might find space in their broken hearts for someone like me to finally feel an ancestral connection (no matter how far removed from the gene pool) or guilt-free environmental comfort. Yes, I do see how laughable that is.
Perhaps in time, decades, centuries even, some of these deep and permanent wounds can begin the process of healing and cross-culturalization can advance. Some of the best innovations and creative minds are a product of the mergence of cultures and traditions. In my opinion, humanity hasn’t been around long enough to see forgiveness for its past attacks upon itself. White people were not the first to enslave others, but the time since white people seized power through Imperialist means has not been all that long, yet it has been much too long. There is a difference between honoring and revering the past. Respectfully acknowledging what has happened while making space for all, but especially BIPOC, voices in the future will be a never-ending practice. Evolution doesn’t occur just once; it is cyclic, sometimes repetitive, but always in flux. We have a choice to ascend within this constant change or to descend to the threat of extinction, for the latter is the pattern that we have witnessed for millennia now. When humanity chooses to eradicate something, be it a species, a people, or an ideal, there is always residual effect back upon humanity itself.
I suppose it’s time to end these thoughts in true COVID-19 fashion; in a state of uncertainty. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a place in the world that will allow me to lay down roots or be among people to whose ancestors I think I feel a connection, even if that connection goes back to the very first humans. I do know that while my journey isn’t all that important to the world, I shouldn’t give up on exploring it. The best I can do now is to show my descendants (I have a child, so I actually have the possibility of having some!) what it means to fuel a global and energetic curiosity within the grace of ahimsa (do no harm).