On Anglo-Saxons, Whiteness, and Cultural Amnesia

There seemed to be a brief moment last week when certain Republicans in the United States were about to launch a new political brand harkening back to supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” traditions that underpin their cultural outlook and ethnic identity. The term “Anglo-Saxon” has long been used by the dominant group in British colonies to lend their interpretation of history and identity a ring of some time-hallowed authenticity. However, as scholars (such as Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm and Dr. Annie Abrams) were quick to point out, the way in which the term has been used is not only a racist dog-whistle, but it contradicts the history of what really happened in the past of Western Europe.

Prototypical Anglo-Saxons looking for lands to conquer

Although whiteness is a social construct that reserves certain powers, privileges, and advantages for those who match roughly “European” physical features, whiteness has a cultural and linguistic core which is anglonormative and anglocentric. Think about the rabid English-only lobby, the rapid assimilation of immigrants to a monolingual monoculture, and the narrow literary and cultural canon which form the basis of universal education in Anglo-America. While people of other ethnic or racial origins may be lauded for their contributions to the anglosphere, the fact that other cultural norms and ethno-linguistic traditions might exist is often ignored.

Whiteness allows people of all of those various backgrounds to forget about those actual roots and become honorary Anglo-Saxons – and guard those vaunted traditions carefully from the Others. What is particularly ironic is that loads of people vaunting these supposedly Anglo-Saxon roots, and supposedly superior ways of being, are descended from the native Celtic peoples (such as those of Wales, Scotland and Ireland) who fought against English colonization for centuries and were racialized as inferior even into the twentieth century (and some, to a degree, to the present). Their ancestry is no more Anglo-Saxon than a Ukrainian.

Assimilation allowed relegating that trauma and conflict to the past, silencing past “defeats” to join the upper echelons of an oppressive system and offered reassurance that a person might no longer be the target of prejudice and persecution – even if someone else would be. Identifying with Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who were ruthless invaders and exploiters, equates to elevating yourself to the top of the food chain, which is why these Germanic groups were fetishized by anglophones in the nineteenth century. But it also entails leaving your actual cultural traditions and expressions behind, and in the case of Celtic peoples, this has left a vacuum of knowledge and experience, usually filled up by silly stereotypes and romantic nonsense.

The United States has a particularly egregious history of dehumanization and brutality which is wrapped up in unresolved multi-generational injustices. Immigrants were usually people who had suffered from conflict and poverty. They entered into a society and system which was itself traumatizing and built on inequality. Modernity itself is alienating and built on objectifying abstractions, and destroys the reciprocity of meaningful community. The world of the working-class is a world of things, made of people who build, buy, and own things. Thingification is dehumanizing. Power corrupts, and racial hierarchies are a form of power, and power is pathological. When you are a member of the working class, you have to work hard against the merciless objectification inherent in the system to hold on to your own humanity and that of others.

Whiteness cuts us off from the ancestral experiences of pain and shame that could open an empathetic bridge to our fellow human beings (and other sentient beings) facing the same injustices in the present. And that is why I think it makes sense for Scottish Gaels as communities – and all other ethnic communities – to understand the events and forces of the past and present as a collective exercise, rather than sweeping them under the rug with the other unwanted reminders of poverty, persecution, and subjugation.

Those are some of the motivating factors I find among participants who join my Radicalizing the Roots course. Liberate yourself from the stultifying fake history of the Anglo-Saxon caucus today!

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