“We” the People?


As an educator and an activist I often hear the word ‘we’ used uncritically.  Often the speaker is attempting to take responsibility for the effects of past injustices, perpetuated by their ancestors, and that is an admirable impulse.  Perhaps the person is recognizing the harm done by slavery, or the true history of what colonizers did to indigenous people.  The problem is that when the speaker says ‘we’ did these things, it sidesteps our real responsibility for the here and now, replacing it with a false culpability for the past actions of others.

No one alive today took part in the international slave trade or in the massacres of indigenous people in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries in the United States.  Some of us are descended from the people who did commit these atrocities, but ‘we’ did not contribute to or condone those actions – ‘we’ were not alive.

While many of us are descended from people who chose to participate in the oppression of others, part of the problem with saying that ‘we’ did those things is that we are all descended from many, many people. Every generation of parents and then grandparents doubles the number of people from whom we are descended.

We have 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, and 16 great-great parents.  The generation of 16 great-great-grandparents doubles to 32, then 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, and in the eleventh generation back in our lines of descent we have 2048 people who are our distant grandparents – just in that one generation.  That takes us back about two hundred years, and counts just grandparents, not our aunts, uncles, and cousins.

If all of the grandparents for ten generations are added together we have a total of 4074 people from whom we are directly descended. Those ancestors made choices while they were alive – but they did not all make the same choices.

How many of any individual’s thousands of grandparents owned slaves? How many worked against slavery?  How many of our ancestors killed indigenous people and took their land? How many fought against those practices? How many ignored these things and just went about their lives, as if the suffering of others was not their concern?  (And how many of our grandparents may have been enslaved, or may have been indigenous, while our other grandparents were their oppressors?)

No doubt for most people who say ‘we’ owned slaves or ‘we’ killed indigenous people there are identifiable ancestors in our lineage who did exactly that. But there are likely other ancestors who chose differently. Yet I don’t hear people say ‘we’ fought to end slavery, or ‘we’ tried to stop the slaughter of indigenous people, or ‘we’ opposed the removal of indigenous people from their land. And rightly so – we didn’t make those bad choices or those good ones – our ancestors did.

It is certainly necessary to examine the ways that we have received unfair advantages based on the choices made by people in prior generations within our lineages.  We do need to acknowledge that we receive benefits – often unwanted benefits – from those ancestors who secured for their descendants unearned privileges that have hurt and disadvantaged – even killed – other people.  But there is a problem when we identify with violent racists from whom we are descended. They are not our only ancestors, and their choices are not our only choices.

So where does this leave us? Perhaps the best use of the word ‘we’ is this:  We share a responsibility to choose where we stand and how we will act in regard to the injustices in our own world.  We can choose to perpetuate violence and injustice; we can choose to look away and do nothing; or we can choose to oppose violence and injustice, identifying with our ancestors who did the same.

The question is: Which choice will WE make now?

This chart was published to illustrate how far removed a person who claims o be descended from Pocohontas would be from her, genetically, due to the doubling of ancestors through each generation.

Assuming the average time between generations is 25 years:

Year Generations Quantum
1600 1
1625 2 1/2 a child born in this generation would be 1/2 Powhatan
1650 3 1/4 etc.
1675 4 1/8
1700 5 1/16
1725 6 1/32
1750 7 1/64
1775 8 1/128
1800 9 1/256
1825 10 1/512
1850 11 1/1024
1875 12 1/2048
1900 13 1/4096
1925 14 1/8192
1950 15 1/16384 assuming an adult was born in 1950 or after

This chart found at: http://www.powhatan.org/powfaq.html

For more information about the facts of Pocahontas life see: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/genealogy/true-story-pocahontas-historical-myths-versus-sad-reality/

or read the book written by Powhatan authors: The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History Paperback – January 1, 2007 by Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow (Author),‎ Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” (Author)




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Writing for my life; working for social justice; grateful for community.

5 thoughts on ““We” the People?”

  1. I appreciated the way that you examined many common responses to this issue and even left the question open for one to consider for self. If one refer to biblical text though, God does at some point (3rd and 4th generations) reward the descendants of evildoers who follow in such evil doing with accumulated wrath. The knowledge of such a past allows one to confess his sin and that of generations for personal liberty. Good article!


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