Our Cultures Have Always Been A Weapon Against White Supremacy
It is clear that the cultures of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples are incredibly significant because of how much white people fear them.
Throughout history, cultural traditions have been used to mobilize groups of Black and Brown people together against a common threat—white supremacy. People of color have survived centuries of endless white violence and, at many turns, have used the power and reverence for our many cultures as a means to fight back.
It is crucial that we preserve our cultural roots as much as we can, especially in these times when white supremacy and nationalism are so blatantly on display. White supremacists and nationalists have historically used the concept of “culture wars” to demonize people of color and paint themselves as victims, usually of some form of the white genocide mythos. Racists and xenophobes yelling at people of color for not speaking English, even threatening to call ICE, is one of the many hills they choose to die on. Their fear of other cultures—languages, traditions, religions, ethnicities, ideologies—is apparent in their actions, on both small and large scales.
During the build-up to the 2016 presidential election, National Review’s Reihan Salam described culture wars as the “fight over the future of American national identity in the face of rapid and accelerating demographic change.” Culture wars are, more or less, a seemingly endless contention over who can and who cannot be considered a “True American,” with white, cis straight, conservative, Christians being the ones with the most ability to lay claim to this title and, therefore, also the ones with the ability to determine who else has access to rights in America.
“In almost every case, these culture wars have been conservative projects, instigated and waged by people anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. Their anxiety finds expression first as a complaint about a particular policy, and second as a broader lament about how far the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately we need to restore whatever is passing away.”
—Stephen Prothero, Washington Post
It is clear that the cultures of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples are incredibly significant because of how much white people fear them. Therefore, we cannot forget how our ancestors have used their various cultures as weapons against white supremacy, as tools to work towards their own liberation, and as mechanisms to cope in their positions as marginalized peoples.
We cannot forget how the many children of the African Diaspora have used cultural traditions to combat and subvert white supremacist violences as they waded in the devastation of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Bois Caïman is where the seed that would grow into the 18th century Haitian Revolution and slave insurrection was planted. At this site, the organized resistance began to take form when a traditional Vodou ceremony was performed. Vodou is a religion and philosophy with deep cultural roots and significant meaning that was birthed in Haiti (once called Saint-Domingue) when an amalgam of religious beliefs were carried to the island with the ships harboring people stolen from Africa. During this time, Haiti was under French colonial rule. The island was rich in sugar, coffee, and indigo, which the enslaved were forced to harvest and maintain. Their revolution was a fight against the harsh labor, as well as the dehumanization and incremental genocide at the hands of the French colonists.
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The integral use of Vodou in this successful insurrection no doubt contributed to and continues to influence white perceptions of Vodou/Voodoo. It, along with other religious traditions with roots in Africa, has been demonized throughout the centuries. The religious practice was blamed for the murder and cannibalization of a child in 1864 and the Miami “bath salts zombie” attack in 2012. It has even been called a ‘‘blood pact with Satan’’ and cited as the cause of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.
Vodou eventually found its way to the Bayous of Louisiana and made itself a home in New Orleans, where the infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau wielded her power to help free slaves and protest capital punishment, among other things. Further north, Harriet Tubman was known to use Hoodoo, conjure, and root work as she traversed the Underground Railroad again and again. Oftentimes, she would use songs as a way to communicate with enslaved people. These songs, spirituals like Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Wade in the Water, served as codes containing directions and signals that led to their successful escape. Communal singing was a tradition brought over from Africa and continued on the plantation, providing both a rhythm for the repetitive labor they performed and an avenue of escape from their harsh reality.
In Colombia, where Africans were transported by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century, the enslaved were also able to use pieces of the culture brought from their homeland to work towards Black liberation, like mapping out escape routes with braided hair, weaving together freedom through artistic expression. Different braiding styles and patterns were used to signify when they wanted to escape and which roads were safe to take. Oftentimes, things like gold and seeds were woven into the patterns so that they could carry these small valuables with them to freedom.
Braided hair has a long history and cultural significance in Africa, and those who were stolen were able to bring this with them and use it as a tool against white supremacy. Even now, we have to fight for our right to wear them and other traditional Black hairstyles. These styles are deemed “unprofessional” and out of order in the workplace, and called a dress code violation in schools. People have been wrongfully terminated and children have been unfairly suspended because of these anti-Black doctrines. South African schoolgirls were forced to lead an insurrection in 2016 to be able to wear their natural hair to school, and this is only a small part of the lasting damage from South African apartheid. All of this takes place even while Black hairstyles are continually appropriated by white people and attributed to their creativity and style, rather than their thievery. Both cultural genocide and cultural appropriation are tools of white supremacy.
Cultural genocide has often been strategic and systematic, existing alongside of systemic oppressions. Both a symptom and a weapon of white colonization, cultural genocide is deployed as a way to strip identity away from people of color and bring us totally under white colonial governance.
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The fact that the US removed Indigenous children from native land and placed them into assimilation encampments in the 19th century is not common knowledge, but it should be. When they are talked about, they are typically referred to as “boarding schools,” rather than the prisons of racial containment that they truly were. In these “schools,” native children were forbidden from using their own names, speaking in their native tongue, wearing their clothes, or practicing their religions, and suffered severe punishments if they ever slipped up. Their native names were replaced with Anglo-American ones and their long hair, which bears incredible significance in Native American culture, was cut from their heads.
The US tried to destroy every trace of the Native Americans whose land they had stolen. Since they had failed to murder them all or breed them out of existence, the white colonizers instead prohibited them from practicing their way of life in an attempt to erase them entirely. This endeavor towards total annihilation through assimilation was also a way to de-weaponize them and their power. Wiping away all indigenous culture and assimilating all indigenous people into the colonizer’s culture would mean that the truth of history could be ignored, and the colonizers could rest easy with the confidence that those they had wronged would not remember and never rise up against them.
They failed. Still, the Indigenous people of this land are living under the oppressive rule of white colonialism, as we witnessed at Standing Rock and as evidenced by the fact that Native Americans are killed by police at the highest rates in the nation. Even the violent colonization of Native American land and the genocide of its indigenous people has been openly celebrated by the highest office in the land.
Cultural genocide may not appear to be as sinister as orchestrating the material death of an entire people. It manifests in ways that is sometimes so subtle that you’d hardly even know it’s there if you aren’t looking for it, but it is absolutely one of the most insidious parts of white colonialism. In the U.S., the desecration and destruction of the cultures of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people have been integral to maintaining an oppressive system of institutional racism, especially through the enslavement of African people and the removal of Indigenous people from their lands.
Do not think for a moment that cultural genocide is a thing of the past. It is happening even now, and it happens right alongside the appropriation of our cultures. We cannot forget how white colonialist violence tried to stamp out those who came before us, and how they found ways to preserve pieces of identity and culture for us. We cannot forget how our ancestors fought to defend their right to life, and how they used their cultural traditions in their fight. And we must be just as brave in the face of the “culture wars” that white supremacists and nationalists continue to wage against us. Our culture is still a weapon.
– With contributions by Monica Cadena
Art work by Dania Alexis
This article was made possible thanks to our patron Rahim Ladha, whose support on Patreon helps ensure that we can pay one writer every month!
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