How Racism Began as White-on-White Violence

by Resmaa Menakem

The 1500s and 1600s in England and Europe were anything but gentle times. People were routinely burned at the stake for religious heresy, a practice that began in the twelfth century and continued through 1612. Torture was an official instrument of the English government until 1640. The famous Tower of London was, in part, a huge torture chamber.

Indeed, during much of the Dark Middle Ages (roughly 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.)in England, torture wasn’t just wildly popular; it was a spectator sport. As historian Sean McGlynn notes, “Throughout the whole medieval period there was popular demand for malefactors to receive punishment that was both harsh and purposefully terrifying….Mutilations sent out a message of warning and deterrence….with few prisons and no police force, severe punishment was deemed invaluable as a deterrent to crime.”

It is not hard to understand why so many people from England fled to the American colonies. Indeed, many of the English subjects who were colonized and in turn colonized America had been brutalized, or had witnessed great brutality first-hand. Others were the children and grandchildren of people who had experienced such savagery in Europe.

For all their talk of the new Jerusalem, the Pilgrims and Puritans were not explorers. Some were refugees fleeing imprisonment, torture, and mutilation; others were businessmen looking to get rich through land theft, genocide, and enslavement.

In her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, Dr. Joy DeGruy asks, “Isn’t it likely that many of the enslaved Africans were severely traumatized? Furthermore, did the trauma and the possible epigenetic and other pass-down effects of such horrific abuse end with the abolition of slavery?” These are good questions — yet we also need to ask these same questions of the English colonists who made their way to America. Isn’t it likely that many of them were traumatized by the time they arrived here? Did over ten centuries of decontextualized medieval European brutality, which was inflicted on white bodies by other white bodies, begin to look like culture? Did this inter-generational trauma and its possible epigenetic effects end with European immigrants’ arrival in the “New World”?

As DeGruy observes, the trauma that now lives in the bodies of so many African Americans has been passed down from multiple generations of enslavement and brutality. Yet this brutality did not begin when Black bodies first encountered white ones. This trauma can be traced back much further, through generation upon generation of white bodies, to medieval Europe.

When the Europeans came to America after enduring 1000 years of plague, famine, inquisitions, and crusades they brought much of their resilience, much of their brutality, and, I believe, a great deal of their trauma with them. Common punishments in the “New World” English colonies were similar to the punishments meted out in England, which included whipping, branding, and cutting off ears. People were routinely placed in stocks or pillories, or in the gallows with a rope around their neck. In America, the Puritans also regularly murdered other Puritans who were disobedient or found guilty of witchery.

In such ways, powerful white bodies routinely punished less powerful white bodies. In 1692, during the Salem witch trials, eighty-year-old Giles Corey was stripped naked and, over a period of two days, slowly crushed to death under a pile of rocks.

We know that the English in America, and their descendants, dislodged brains, blocked airways, ripped muscle, extracted organs, cracked bones, and broke teeth in the bodies of many Black people,Native peoples and other white colonists. But what we often fail to recognize about this “New World” murder, cruelty, oppression, and torture is that, until the second half of the seventeenth century, these traumas were inflicted primarily on white bodies by other white bodies — all on what would become US soil. (There were some exceptions, most notably the war with the Pequot tribe in the 1630s.)

It was in the late 1600s that wealthy and powerful white Europeans and European enslavement trade countries such as the Portuguese,British, French, Spanish and Dutch Empires began to deliberately refocus their violence through institutions and law on Black bodies. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, white immigrants, enslaved Black and Native people worked and lived together on plantations that were owned by powerful white male bodies and supported by powerful white female bodies In fact, in several early revolts, Black and white people rose up in their shared interests against plantation owners and white body elites. These revolts posed serious threats to the power and supremacy of wealthy white landowners and their kin.

In response, these landowners (and other powerful white bodies) came up with a divide-and-conquer strategy. They gave white workers small parcels of stolen native land to work, thus essentially creating an invested white peasant class in the “New World”. Remember the idea of a “white person” is only 338 years old and its relative malleability did not exist before this. People were Spanish, Portuguese, English, French,Dutch etc but not white. The land owners taught these white people through sermons, plays and law, “You’re just like us: you’re white, you have land to work and you have privileges to partake in”. The racist idea of “white” had and has great utility not only in the colonies of America but also in the colonies of Spain, Portugal, England, France and the Dutch empires. They also gave some poor white people quasi-leadership positions as plantation overseers and other black body management jobs, providing them with supreme white dominion,authority over and unfettered access to Black bodies and lives. This in turn instilled a Entitled and Aligned Plantation Master Race Syndrome deep in their white bodies and the white bodies of their children for generations to come. At the same time, they forbade Black people from owning land and later giving preferential immigration and land status to people from white countries, or having any dominion over their own bodies and told them, “You’re Black, deviated and you’re completely unlike us and we are the standard of humanity”. They created and spread the idea that the white body is the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured and thus ushering in the species myth of race in general and the myth of the mastering white race specifically by utilizing science,law,religion,history,economics and other institutions to cement the myths to the body. “What we often forget is that the premise of race in this country started out as a scientific species question and that much “Thingafying” theory and “Othering”work went into validating that enslaved Africans were more akin to monkey and ape rather than belonging to the standardized white body humanity-Charles Blow” Mentioning law there are Five very important dates to remember. In 1667 the Virginia assembly established that Christianity did not change the conditions of Black and Native people in bondage. In 1680 a few short years after the Bacon rebellion the Virginia assembly established that enslaved persons shall not raise a hand to a white person regardless of station. In 1691 laws preventing intermarriage between white and black people were enacted. In 1705 the Virginia assembly decided that poor whites could own property but the enslaved could not. In 1823 the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the Doctrine of Discovery gave European white nations the absolute dominion and ownership over “New World” Native American lands and created the basis for western expansion. This was adopted from the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery by Spain that gave them the rights to Indigenous lands. The unhealed class traumatic effects of the dark ages created fertile ground for the poor white body to except the seeds of white body supremacy as a means to reflexively protect themselves and their progeny from further powerful white violence. Powerful white violence and brutality that continues on poor white bodies well into this century but now it is obscured by reflexive decontextualized privilege and overwhelm. The creation of white body supremacy didn’t not assuage the deeply embedded contempt of the powerful white bodies towards the less powerful white bodies. The less powerful white missed and continues to be blind to this most salient point. Powerful white people also created formal structures and institutions to reinforce these notions of supremacy by which poor white bodies benefited from and fully participated in. Black and Native bodies were deliberately presented as straw men for white bodies to blow their ancient unhealed historical trauma through. What had been white-on-white (or, usually, powerful-white-on-less-powerful- white) trauma was transformed, in carefully calculated fashion, into white-on-Red and white-on-Black violent trauma, which was then institutionally enforced.

Throughout the United States’ history as a nation, white bodies have colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered Black and Native ones. But well before the United States began, powerful white bodies colonized, oppressed, brutalized, and murdered other, less powerful white ones.

The carnage perpetrated on Black people and Native Peoples in the “New World” began, on the same soil, as an adaptation of longstanding white-on-white traumatic retention strategies and brutal class practices. This brutalization created trauma that has yet to be healed among American bodies of all hues today.

Resmaa Menakem is a therapist, licensed social worker, and police trainer and consultant who specializes in trauma work, addressing conflict, and body-centered healing. His most recent book is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.