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Friday, June 26, 2015
The Roots of White Supremacy: Human, Cultural, Religious
Part II: Human, Cultural and Religious Evolution
The Roots of White Supremacy
By Heather Gray
This is Part II of what I began a few months ago on religion, namely "Part I: History and Violence of Christianity" (click here for the PDF). Given the tragedy of nine members of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston being ruthlessly killed on July 17, 2015, I am expanding upon this.
The reason is because I've also realized that there is so much history
that invariably gets left out of mix in our understanding of western
culture and the advent of white supremacy.
this series I will summarize thousands of years of human evolution and
culture, which I realize is a formidable and treacherous task. It's a
look at our early formative history - and to repeat, it is a "summary". I
don't think it is practical or possible to understand western religion
and subsequent arrogance vis-a-vis the world's vast cultural and
religious diversity as well as western white supremacy without some
understanding of how we evolved - particularly from being
hunter-gatherers to agricultural based societies. I am not exploring the
nuances of religion and messages that I know many find inspiring and
important. Rather, I am looking at the evolutionary/political/cultural
and societal facets of it all.
many of the changes we have made in our human experiences have not
always been advancements - in fact, in many or perhaps most instances
the reverse has been the case. But we do have the opportunity to learn
about our past so that perhaps we can explore ways to improve and
advance toward a more humane and just world.
in subsequent articles in this series, I will share my
personal experiences in witnessing or having knowledge of international
violence being supported by or in partnership with right-wing
fundamentalist Christians and what I would call quasi-government
terrorist groups in southern Africa and southeast Asia.
define "West", in this instance, primarily as Europe (East and West)
and Britain, in particular, along with its former white settler
colonies, as in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South
lived in Canada, the United States, Australia, Singapore and for a
brief while in the Philippines; and also working/observing in the field
of agriculture in the U.S. and internationally and/or witnessing its
impact; and coupled with studying anthropology, as a student, a lot of
what I write below comes from some 40 years of my personal experience,
study and observation.
Out of Africa and Its Impact
humans (homo sapiens) evolved in Africa some 200,000 ago and then,
according to geneticist Samuel Wells, some of us began to leave the
continent to travel throughout the world 60,000 to 50,000 years ago,
largely due to changing weather patterns and lack of food. Australian
aborigines, according to Wells, were of that first group of humans
leaving Africa. There were ultimately various waves of us leaving the
In fact, there were 2 major flows of humans going north into Europe and
Central Asia from Africa starting about 45,000 years ago and it took
some 15,000 to 20,000 years to "colonize" it (Wikipedia). See
below the map of our movement out of from Africa. The wave of humans
into central Asia is critical for understanding later European
different routes out of Africa, successive waves of early humans
migrated into new territories, eventually populating the entire globe
save Antarctica. This map shows this complex web of migrations in
their broadest strokes. Maps by Joyce Pendola. http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/07/genographic200707
I know this is likely old hat to some, and is a repeat from a footnote in my recent article "The Massacre in Charleston",
but I think it valuable to yet again refer to how we changed while
migrating around the world. As humans left Africa and then further away
from the equator our skin color changed and became more varied over
time. Our black or white skin or variations of color have largely to do
with our adaptation to heat - the closer we are to the equator the
darker our skin, as the"melanin
is an effective absorber of light; the (darker) pigment is able to
dissipate over 99.9% of absorbed UV (ultraviolet) radiation" (Wikipedia)
and in this way we can better survive in an exceptionally warm climate;
consequently the further away from the equator, the lighter our skin
because we need to absorb more heat and vitamin D (Smithsonian)
in order to survive (see the world map of skin color below). There is
also a third factor that effects our skin color and it has to do with
diet combined with UV rays:
peoples who eat diets rich in seafood enjoy this alternate source of
vitamin D. That means that some Arctic peoples, such as native peoples
of Alaska and Canada, can afford to remain dark-skinned even in low UV
areas. In the summer they get high levels of UV rays reflected from the
surface of snow and ice, and their dark skin protects them from this
reflected light (Smithsonian).
different skin colors mean an environmental adaptation, with the
exception of diet plus environment for Arctic peoples. That's it! But
this also demonstrates how important nature and the environment is to us
humans. We are not separate from it, but part of it!
Race differentiation? There is no such thing. It's a myth. We are all of the same species with a variety of different colors (Robert Wald Sussman).
is not the only factor that the West has used as a way to distinguish
Africans and other people of color as different. Another difference that
the West has tried to use is "racial essentialism", as in biological
intellectual capacity or other characteristics such as industry and
character. This is yet another fallacy by the western propagandists and
colonists as a way to control the masses for their own intent.
Yet, as Professor William Richman has stated: "There
simply are no genetically-based pan-"racial" differences in character,
intelligence, or any other set of traits crucial to individual or
societal success or position; racial essentialism is intellectually
In the quest to explain human culture,
anthropologists have paid a great deal of attention to recent
hunter-gatherer, or forager, societies. A major reason for this focus
has been the widely held belief that knowledge of hunter-gatherer
societies could open a window into understanding early human cultures (Yale).
we left Africa we would have been hunter-gatherers, which we have been
for most of our human history. It was only some 10,000 years ago that we
began the mass production of agriculture and/or to grow food and store
it in bulk. In fact "food production took over to such an extent
that, in the past few hundred years, only an estimated 5 million people
have subsisted by foraging" (Yale). Agriculture also
radically changed they way we had lived as hunter-gatherers from an egalitarian to a hierarchical society.
generally had small bands of people of about thirty individuals who
were quite independent. They were, however, usually connected to a
larger tribal group or other similar small groups. In the
hunter-gatherer groups, resources were equally shared.
hunting and gathering were largely separated by the men and women with
men being the hunters and women the gatherers there were times that
these tasks were shared. However, women as gatherers brought in from 60%
to 80% of the food eaten by the group (O'Neil).
It's true that some hunter-gatherer's brought some animals to extinction but "most groups lived thousands of years in the same area without destroying the environment"(huntergatherers.org).
realize it is possible to romanticize the hunter-gatherer societies and
they did vary but there appears to be some basic threads. Also, the
research findings suggest a radically different and positive life than
ours today. Here's more about the culture:
bands will usually move from place to place in a semi-nomadic way,
although some may remain in permanent settlements. Each band will have a
leader, or chief, who usually is an organizer and mediator, but has
little power beyond that. Remember that these groups do not possess
hardly any stockpiles of material wealth, and leaders particularly avoid
having any more possessions than other members of the group so that
there will not be any resentment or jealousy from the group. So a chief
usually will not have much power over the rest of the members of the
group. All members of the band have an equal voice in decision making.
A chief only organizes those voices. In fact, if one person becomes
too aggravating to another person of the tribe, that person can simply
move to another band (huntergatherers.org)
With respect to some of the "ideals" of hunter and gatherer societies overall, below is a description by psychologist Peter Gray
which you can see is vastly different from what we have now in our
western societies. It is definitely a model for us to consider or
citizens of a modern democracy claim to believe in equality, but our
sense of equality is not even close that of hunter-gatherers. The
hunter-gatherer version of equality meant that each person was equally
entitled to food, regardless of his or her ability to find or capture
it; so food was shared. It meant that nobody had more wealth than anyone
else; so all material goods were shared. It meant that nobody had the
right to tell others what to do; so each person made his or her own
repeat, the definition of a "chief" in hunter-gatherer societies is
not the "big man" who has considerable power but rather one who seeks
consensus. In fact, Peter Gray refers to research indicating that
hunter-gatherers were "fiercely egalitarian" and would not tolerate
anyone putting on airs or boasting. In fact, Gray refers in his article
to the concept of "reverse dominance". He writes:
Christopher Boehm proposed the theory that hunter-gatherers
maintained equality through a practice that he labeled "reverse
dominance". In a standard dominance hierarchy - as can be seen in all of
our ape relatives (yes, even in bonobos) - a few individuals dominate
the many. In a system of reverse dominance, however, the many act in
unison to deflate the ego of anyone who tries, even in an incipient way,
to dominate them (Gray).
equality and the relationship between men and women in hunter-gatherer
societies are referred to below from recent studies reported in The Guardian in May 2015
being that sexual equality, as some might think, is not recent. In
fact, it appears to have been the norm for much of our human history. In
her fascinating article, entitled "Early men and women were equal, say scientists", Hannah Devlin notes that it was with the advent of agriculture "when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged" (Devlin).
Devlin goes on to say that the egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer societies was distinct from our closest primate cousins, the chimpanzees that "live in quite aggressive, male-dominated societies with clear hierarchies" (Devlin).
Unfortunately, with agriculture we devolved from egalitarianism
societies to those, in most parts of the world today, that are male
dominated and somewhat like our chimpanzee cousins.
there have been many false assumptions about hunter-gatherers that they
must have lived short lived and grim lives, when quite the reverse
appears to be the case:
research carried out over the last half century has largely demolished
this myth that foragers in the past had to struggle for existence. In
fact, they usually had a food supply that was adequate and reliable.
Most of them only had to expend minimal labor to provide for their basic
needs. What is particularly surprising to people in industrialized
nations is that foragers often lived well into old age with few signs of
anxiety and insecurity" (O'Neil).
important aspect of hunter-gatherer societies, therefore, was their
closeness to nature, which is also expressed in the description of their
spiritual lives. As they foraged they also had a very diverse diet with
a variety of minerals. In fact, archeologists who have compared the
bones of hunter-gatherers have been rather shocked at how healthy they
were (tall and strong) compared to those in early agricultural societies
whose diets where severely limited. Plus, in agricultural societies the
masses worked excessively long hours - as in women grinding grains.
Their bones and spinal cords reflect this strain on their bodies (Manning).
a testament to the limited or unhealthy diet of agricultural
communities, in the 1930's my father worked as a dentist in the
Northwest Territories in Canada around the Arctic Ocean. His patients
were Eskimos and Native Canadians, many of whom lived in settlements,
but also hunted and gathered food. He described how the teeth and health
of his patients deteriorated as they were exposed to and eating the
western diet - primarily sugar. As he treated them on a barge in the
Arctic Ocean, he said he was probably the only dentist in the world
whose patients would spit in the Arctic Ocean. He was probably right!
Hunter-Gatherer Spiritual Life
hunter gatherer lifestyle was not the only quality of life factor we
took with us as we left Africa. It was our spiritual beliefs as well. We
started developing our spiritual selves (largely with many gods) from
the outset long before leaving Africa, took these beliefs with us as if
we traveled from Africa, and then we altered our beliefs largely based
on our new and different environments. Relating to our early spiritual
expressions, scholar Karen Armstrong writes:
study of the history of religion has revealed that human beings are
spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens
is also Homo religiosus. Men and women started to worship gods as soon
as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same
time as they created works of art (Armstrong).
In my previous article, "Part I: History and Violence of Christianity", I referred to the creation story in the European Christian Bible as having its roots in the Pygmy culture of Central Africa (Murdock).
This is because the Pygmy story emulates much of the same themes and it
developed far earlier, of course, than the North African or European
version. And while the Pygmy's religious traditions overall are very
complex, the creation story is itself monotheistic. Nevertheless, as
Murdock has noted, our earliest form of worship was relevant to nature
that included "wind, water, trees, mountains, animals". But also in the
mix were celestial bodies such as the sun, moon, stars, constellations,
planets, etc. as well as goddesses and gods both male and female (Religious Tolerance).
virtually all of us human groups also developed creation stories in
some fashion, and, as stated below, they tend to have the same basic
themes and we all considered our beliefs to be true:
A creation myth is a symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it. While in popular usage the term myth
often refers to false or fanciful stories, formally, it does not imply
falsehood. Cultures generally regard their creation myths as true. In the society in which it is told, a creation myth is usually regarded as conveying profound truths, metaphorically, symbolically and sometimes in a historical or literal sense....
Creation myths often share a number of features. They often are considered sacred accounts and can be found in nearly all known religious traditions. They are all stories with a plot and characters who are either dieties, human-like figures, or animals, who often speak and transform easily (Wikipedia).
is important to note again that as we became agricultural based
societies we lost much of our honoring and respect of nature which is
ultimately reflected in many of the new religions we developed in the
have been assumptions that seem to stay in the American psyche - likely
as a way to justify slavery and other white supremacist beliefs - that
we have different human species, such as between whites and blacks. This
fallacy is perpetuated in any number of ways but it is a social and
cultural construct, primarily as a justification for oppression. Yet, we
are all homo sapiens and of the same human family, but we have
different colors because of the environment where we lived thousands of
years ago. And "racial essentialism" inferring different intellectual
and other capacities of us humans, as Richman and others note, is
I need to add here from the profound 1982 book by George Fredrickson, "White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History"
that every step of the way Europeans attempted to rationalize their
oppression of Africans or indigenous people wherever they were.
Examples of the rationalization could be color of skin; "racial
essentialism" as above; hunter-gatherer use of land for hunting rather
than agriculture; a religion other than Christianity; etc. Whatever
rationale it took, they used it in order to grab land, take the
resources, and exploit the labor.
the hunter-gatherer culture, I was but touching the surface here.
Nevertheless, what the culture offered in many instances should give us
pause to reflect and, in fact, encourage us to explore ways that the
egalitarianism and respect of the other could be emulated in our
contemporary society. Therein lies the challenge, given the life we have
in an intensely hierarchical capitalist society that prevails in the
world today. But there is always hope and paradigms, including economic
systems, do change! But, rarely without a struggle!
mention the creation story above as well, of course, in that all of us
humans ultimately sought a way to understand our life and world. The
concept by the West and others via their religions is of stating that
they have the truth, as it were, and that anyone who doesn't believe the
same is a heathen (defined as someone who does not worship the God of
Israel or is lacking in cultural or moral principles, etc.). Religion is
not static. It did not come out of thin air. It also had its
evolutionary development out of Africa. And the West, in fact, did not
suddenly come up with many of these religious ideas or even the concept
of monotheism. They were the beneficiaries of virtually all of the basic
concepts, as in the creation story and much more of course, from their
African ancestors. Mother Africa was and is the fount of our humanity
both biologically and spiritually.
In Part III, I will continue with a history of the advent of agriculture and new religions.