The other week I was lying awake in the middle of the night and thinking about the extreme right and their anger. Not the most soothing of night musings but this was after the Florida high school shootings in the US and I had earlier that evening watched the powerful speech by student Emma Gonzalez.
The backlash was quick, vicious and there for the whole world to see.
If Trump has done one thing well, it’s to bring the hidden hate and prejudices to the top, shit floats style, and while this fast food style politics might influence a new click bait generation, it also seems to be activating some of this generation away from dumb obedience to a flag and into a place of political discourse and critical thought.
Yet, as I read the comments after Ms Gonzales speech, (Yes, I read the comments because they can be very interesting but only if you’re in the right headspace) it got me thinking about the anger of poor white of middle America.
In his tough love book ‘Deer hunting for Jesus - Dispatches From America's Class War’, Joe Bagent was one of the first liberal American’s to ask the democrats to look at their prejudices against the poor working class of America. He warned there would be a backlash.
Oh maybe, that’s another thing Trump did well, (or those that got him into power) he saw this growing mistrust of the impoverished whites and milked it like snake venom.
Bagent himself was born into working-class Appalachian stock and in his book, spoke of the cold class war that is fought with condescending snubs, distrust and mockery between the chardonnay swilling liberals and rural conservatives. Where you have the educated liberal left thinking the inbred hicks of the middle states have no idea of what they really need, and conversely, you have a group of white blue-collar workers fed up with being told what they need.
Middle America was ripe for the taking.
And get taken, they did.
So what does this have to do with cultural grief?
Well I reckon this anger has to do with grief.
Let me define what I believe to be cultural grief; cultural grief is an individual or group grief of either perceived, or tangible cultural loss.
Here are some examples of perceived cultural grief,
In Australia the extreme right nationalist groups believe their cultural ways and heritage are being taken over by minorities who are not culturally similar to the white colonial Christian heritage of Australia.
Enter, The National Front. Boo Hiss.
Another example is in Myanmar (Burma) where the majority of the Buddhist populace (88-90%) are currently supporting the genocide of the Rohingya people. The Rohingya who are descendants of Arab traders Muslim and have been in Myanmar for over 500 years, are only 4% of the population yet are not recognised as citizens. At the time of writing, half a million Rohingya people have fled and 80% of those fleeing are women and children. The majority Buddhist nationals believe that the presence of the Rohingya people threatens their Buddhist faith, cultural and religious traditions, and that the Rohingya have no place in their country.
In this climate, extremists flourish and we can find a wistful nostalgia and cultural defensiveness against that which is foreign and strange to us. Some people embrace the difference as cultural explorers or voyeurs, some ignore it and some rise against with the gusto of a fish ‘n chip connoisseur in Ipswich and then want to fuck shit up. Eventually, when all this Vesuvian drama cools down, different cultures can learn to co-exist fairly peacefully unless there are big land grabs and then well…. we know what happens then.
Let's explore significant and tangible cultural grief, what is it?
Well it's real and it's impact is enormous.
The one that comes immediately to mind is right under my feet. It’s the loss that indigenous Australians have experienced after the English invasion.
So why is this gubba talking about cultural grief ?
Well I reckon, and I could be wrong, that many non indigenous people who currently live in Australia, and many other parts of the world that have also been colonialised, have lost some, if not all, of their original cultural connection due to colonisation.
Yes, even if they were the colonisers, leaving family ties and lands to start again is traumatic, yet I would still call this cultural grief, even if it's minor.
I’m not suggesting that being a coloniser is anywhere near as horrific as being colonialised and losing most of your language and family, yet as a 4th generation Australian, I still have a great need to ask, what is my cultural identity?
Globalisation has left many peoples of many cultures scattered and while humans are great at adapting, we also crave the comfort of connection and kin.
Hence Chinatowns in all major cities worldwide, except China of course.
This need to group and belong is biological.
When we lose this group and cultural identity, we suffer.
When we lose connection to land, to songs and stories, we suffer.
My understanding of intergenerational violence and how trauma is stored in DNA has given me a deeper insight into cultural grief.
It's unfathomable to think of the loss that the stolen generations in Australia experienced and how difficult that road of healing and re-connection must be.
This empathy is not always shared, when I read statements by some non indigenous Australia's saying things like 'That was 200 years ago, get over it' (it wasn't, the stolen generations are still happening) or 'We all have been through hard times, move on' I can't help but think that the lack of awareness and sympathy might not just come from ignorance but also a uncovered cultural grief of their own displacement.
Hurt people, hurt people.
My own family history has it's own suffering and yet also one of some triumphs.
As far as I know, I am predominantly Irish, Scottish and English. I have mostly lost my connection to my original land, music and culture and now speak only the dominant language of English. I have regained some of this cultural identity in music I have learned to play and in researching the history of Ireland, Scotland and England. I have found great connection in convict songs where the new world breaks from the old in rebellion and grief. You just have to look at what England did to Scotland and Ireland to see the grief.
I am lucky to have many records of my mixed cultural heritage; many people do not have these as the invaders have decimated many of them.
Some of my ancestors were convicts and didn't get a say in where they were shipped, they could have been sent to the West Indies but they wern't. They were shackled and on overloaded ships were sent to Australia.
The healing of my historical past has been a process of understanding the trauma of my cultural loss, then finding the paths to cultural connections and ultimately feeling a sense of pride in my heritage and this process of healing.
Please, don’t get me wrong, I can find plenty in my cultural heritage to not be proud of, but there are also elements of my heritage I am very chuffed my ancestors were a part of.
This is a vastly different idea to the notion of white pride, as firstly, I don’t think my culture is superior to any other and secondly, I can also see my culture’s horrible history, I mean blind Freddy can see that.
Look, as loathe as I am to admit, I get why the whole Make America/Australia Great Again might seem tempting, nostalgia is a nice place to get high.
Admitting there is a void is painful.
Admitting grief is painful and blaming another to avoid this pain is a very common defense mechanism.
It’s also very bloody unhealthy and what a shrink might call maladaptive.
The ability to use critical thought and not viewing my cultures history through white bread glasses helps keep that vision clear. This way of seeing has helped me understand that I don’t need to take from other cultures in order to find meaning in my life.
I don’t need an Ayahuasca ceremony to have profound psychotropic life changing visions, (there’s plenty of DMT in wattles apparently) I don’t need a ‘skin’ name in order to feel like I belong in Australia, I don’t need a Maori tattoo to have strength and power. I have my own cultural rituals. Irish, Scottish and English folk lore is filled with stories and myths of these.
I’m not saying that the sharing of cultures should be forbidden or any cultural ritual, art or totem should be only used by the culture that it pertains to. We just need to be mindful about why we want to use them, and here’s the big one, AND make sure we have permission to do so. We all have multiple cultures and making sure we respect these is a great way of showing pride and connection to our own, and to others.
I don’t need to use another cultures rituals to have a sense of my own cultural identity. Not because I’m more woke but because the stories and mythology I am discovering of my own ancestral cultures are rich, diverse and powerful enough.
Years ago I was in Wales camping with my son who was 4 at the time, and I stood on the edge of a cliff in St Davids thinking of the Arthurian legends and looking at the hoary skies and dramatic, wuthering sea scape. Blustered by the winds, I felt a symphony of story surround me and I was swept up in the glory of this ancient landscape and my ancestral connection to it.
It was an unforgettable moment that I recalled years later after reading Bruce Chatwins- Songlines. While songlines in Australian indigenous culture are mnemonic, connective and serve to educate, my songline felt like a deep whisper of a memory so long ago, almost hidden in mist yet with the faintest mothers breath and sense of belonging. It was a life photo moment and I’d love to write a symphony of the sounds I heard on that cliff or an ancient hymn of longing and loft but I don’t think anything could replicate it.
The loss of my culture can’t be compared to another and I'm not claiming significant trauma but I will acknowledge that my cultural connection is now mostly long gone, four generations in a foreign land have churned my ancestral soil so now my family have begun to create a new cultural garden that I am attempting to plant and enrich with meaning and connection. It’s hard but I care enough to want these seeds planted for the next generation.
While I understand the grief that drives people with a colonial ancestry similar to mine want to nick or mimic other cultures art, rituals and practices, I urge them to think deeper and connect with what’s theirs.
Don't hate everything about your history, it's not healthy and serves no-one.
Be proud of the good parts of your history but don't get too high and mighty, or you'll fall.
That grief of cultural loss can take people to places of hate and that shit needs to stop.
Lateral violence isn't a way forward.
It's true that I've lost some of my culture and it's sad but I want to grieve in healthy ways and find a way back to my own cultural homes, because to take culture from anothers without context or permission is simply poor manners.
It’s also theft and it won’t fill my own void of cultural grief.
That void needs to be filled with my own story and added to my living cultures currency to strengthen and empower it.
And it is, my son singing the song my mother taught me is the living proof of that.