Re-emerging from an Oppressor Family History

My ancestors played a role in colonizing both India and North America. My grandfather was born in India—his father was English and was a magistrate (judge) for the East Indian Railway Company. My mom’s mom’s family allegedly came to North America on the Mayflower.1 I’m not sure if they really did, but in any case they’ve been in North America for a long time, at least since the 1600s.

My grandfather was an architect and designed one of the two towns where the Manhattan Project2 took place. We have a plaque at home thanking him for helping develop the atomic bomb. That, plus my family’s role in the colonization of India and North America, gives me lots to work on in relation to genocide. My family has a long history of killing lots of people. We even developed new and improved ways to kill people. It’s terrifying.

At workshops I’ve led small groups for white people who have colonizer ancestry. The participants mostly do lots of laughing—as they start to feel their fear in facing their family histories. I say rude things and they laugh. I’m never funnier than when I lead these groups. Almost always the whole group gets a session off of each person’s turn. I say things like, “Yeah, my family helped wipe out3 the Native people around here,” and the fear comes rolling off. Saying the true history in a delighted, “guess what I just found out!” tone seems to bring the discharge unfailingly.

Every one of my own sessions on this subject is so fruitful. The first few years I did this work, I did it in three-ways, because they provided enough attention, especially if my counselors had chosen to work on the same thing. Lately I’ve been able to do the work in two-ways and still have a good balance of attention.4

After a few years of working on this, I’m just starting to get to the grief under the terror. I’m just starting to be able to cry. Most recently I’ve been working on what would have had to already be in place for the “Pilgrims”5 to decide that the Native people weren’t really people and it was okay to kill them. I can cry and cry about that.

I’ve done sessions apologizing for the actions of my ancestors. I found I had to do a couple of those before my mastectomy, because I was getting so much help and I felt so guilty for getting it when so many people don’t get the most basic help they need.

Guilt is not something I’ve had a lot of guidance on how to work on. It seems like a version of feeling bad about oneself. When it’s related to actual perpetrator patterns, what to do then? I haven’t figured it out yet, but there’s something important there—something about facing things. I’d love to hear how other people work on or think about the thing we call “guilt.”

I feel like a huge part of my intelligence is tied up in terror and feeling bad about this history. I’ve been Co-Counseling for over twenty years, and I had no idea all this was there until relatively recently. I can’t believe how much attention I’ve freed up by just the small amount of work I’ve done so far. My relationships have improved. I’m less scared around friends and coworkers of the global majority. I’m more able to act like myself and to like them for real, not as a direction. I’m more able to joke around with them.

I have owning-class heritage, but as I lead these groups I find that not everyone with colonizer ancestry has owning-class ancestry. People ask me who should come, and I give a pretty6 broad answer: any white person who has lived in the United States (we’re colonizing Iraq right now) or has English, French, Italian, Spanish, pretty much7 any European ancestry. I ask them why they are interested in joining, and they usually add another ancestry to the list of colonizers I know about.

An unexpected side effect of this work is that I’m more able to be proud of the good things I know my ancestors did. One of my ancestors was Clinton B. Fisk. When he was a child, his family was active in the Underground Railroad,8 and later he was a general for the North in the Civil War9. After the war he helped found Fisk University, a historically Black college in Nashville (Tennessee, USA). I’ve always felt embarrassed to talk about these things, and still do, but now I feel more pride in what he and his family did. Before I did the work on my family’s oppressor history, I felt that talking about him was somehow being defensive, like I was trying to “prove” my family wasn’t racist. Now I feel like it’s a cool10 piece of history.

This work is incredibly fruitful—every time I do it.


1 The Mayflower was the ship the Pilgrims (see footnote 5) sailed on.
2 The Manhattan Project was the U.S. government project that built the world’s first atomic bomb.
3 “Wipe out” means destroy.
4 “A good balance of attention” means enough attention on good reality to be able to discharge.
5 The Pilgrims were a group of English people, many of them seeking religious freedom, who in 1620 sailed from England to what is now the state of Massachusetts (USA), where they formed a permanent settlement.
6 “Pretty” means quite.
7 “Pretty much” means nearly.
8 The Underground Railroad was a network of people who helped African-heritage people enslaved in the southern United States escape to Canada or to the northern U.S. states where slavery was illegal.
9 The U.S. Civil War, fought from 1861 to 1865
10 “Cool” means good and interesting.


Last modified: 2022-12-25 10:17:04+00