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White and nonblack people: I have spent years doing anti-racist work, reading and signal boosting voices of color (especially black voices), and reprogramming my brain from the racist messages society has taught me.
And still, when a white friend mentioned some young nonblack people feeling discomfort around an older black man, I immediately leapt to forgive the actions of those nonblack folks by checking to see if the person in question had harmed them. Even thinking back on the situation, I find myself making excuses for why I did this: “I live in a predominantly white town, so, knowing an older black male with an interest relative to my friend’s experience, it’s logical that I clarified that it wasn’t him. If it had been him, the discomfort my friend described could have been similar to discomfort I and others I know feel around that person, which might have to deal with misogyny, so it makes sense”. My friend mentioned the age and race of the person to indicate that he believed the group of young nonblack people was being discriminatory. The instinct I have to find out why their actions weren’t problematic is, in itself, problematic.
So how can I claim to be involved in anti-racist work? Because I’m trying. Because reprogramming myself doesn’t happen overnight. I can be honest with myself – I’m still racist. The excuses I made for myself are racist. The instinct to support the nonblack people’s intentions and even to begin to think of blaming the black man for their discomfort is racist. I’m a recovering racist. I hope this acknowledgement will help me be less racist in the future. I hope white people read this and learn more about themselves and the anti-racist work they have to do.
This acknowledgement that I’m racist is not enough. Still, I forgive myself for it. Because without forgiving myself I would be swimming in shame. I’d rather swim out of shame by changing my actions. Maybe next time I’ll catch my instincts a little sooner. If I continue trying, maybe they won’t happen at all.
This holiday represents a bloody history and present of genocide of the people who were living in North America before European colonizers arrived. What is often referred to as the “first Thanksgiving” is merely one of the first harvest celebrations that settlers had on what would become U.S. soil. The settlers didn’t reach out to invite the Wampanoag people to feast with them; they invited them only after they showed up in response to hearing gunshots, a celebratory act of the Europeans over the harvest. There wasn’t enough food, so some Wampanoag warriors went out to bring back deer (Tirado, 2011). What I and many other students learned in elementary school is that this was a friendly meal shared between different groups of people.
History surrounding the “first Thanksgiving” and what Thanksgiving means to the Wampanoag
When the Mayflower arrived, a majority of the Wampanoag tribe had recently been wiped out due to plague brought by the Europeans. Tisquantum, a Wampanoag who had been enslaved while his people were dying of the plague, negotiated release and returned to his village (present-day Plymouth) just before the Mayflower arrived (Johnson, 2017). The Wampanoag still living nearby saw that the Mayflower carried women and children, and therefore must be coming in peace. The Europeans arrived in winter without sufficient food. Tisquantum, who could speak English from his enslavement, taught survival skills to the settlers. He organized a meeting with Massasoit, a Wampanoag leader, and John Carver, the European’s governor to negotiate a peace treaty (National Museum of the American Indian).
After the “first Thanksgiving”, Massasoit continued to honor the peace treaty despite aggressive actions toward the Wampanoag by the European colonists. However, over four decades after the colonists arrived and over a decade after Massasoit’s death, the Wampanoag were defeated in war, and only 400 Wampanoag people survived. The population has increased since then to about 2750 (Wikipedia, 2017).
Today, people from indigenous tribes across the U.S. use the national holiday of Thanksgiving as a day of mourning for the beginning of the ongoing genocide of their people (Tirado, 2011).
History surrounding the U.S. holiday and what Thanksgiving means to many non-indigenous people
Two centuries after the colonists taught by Tisquantum celebrated their first harvest across the Atlantic, Sarah Josepha Hale began writing letters to politicians and publications promoting the importance of a day for families to feast together and express gratitude toward God (History.com, 2009). As President Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday during the civil war, it was a harvest celebration devoted to God, the continual provider of food even in war-torn times (Baker, 2007).
Somehow a story of pilgrims and Wampanoag people feasting peacefully together emerged in schools a few decades (Plimoth Plantation, 2017). Plimoth Plantation claims that schools adopted this story in order to teach values of “freedom and how to be good citizens.”
Dissecting Thanksgiving in school
How does the Thanksgiving story teach values? The colonists from Europe exercised freedom to find a new land where they were free from religious persecution. To exercise this freedom, Sarah Josepha Hale, Abraham Lincoln, and others recognized a day to express gratitude toward their God. While this might have seemed like a freedom to them, naming a holiday for a specific God is hardly freeing to people of all religious affiliations. Referring to a capitalized God is referring to a specific god that might not hold any meaning to some people. Worse, this God holds a negative connotation to many non-Christians, who are erased by the assumption that everyone should dedicate this day to thanking God for the gifts of nature.
It is especially harmful that in order to encourage thankfulness, a story is told of an event that occurred near the beginning of the genocide of peoples who practice daily gratitude. It is cruel and insensitive that a holiday centers on gratitude toward a Christian god, who is believed to love all people, yet has been the excuse for persecution throughout the continent on which the holiday is celebrated.
The other value Plimoth Plantation refers to is being good citizens. Where in the story of the “first Thanksgiving” are the good citizens? The Wampanoag were invited to feast with the colonists, but only after they stumbled on the feast. Do we want to teach students to raise only enough food for themselves? Do we want to teach students to exclude others until guilt stares them in the face? Likely not. Plimoth Plantation must, then, be referring to the generosity of the Wampanoag.
The Wampanoag brought additional food to the harvest celebration, since there wasn’t enough for everyone. This is not overly generous, though it does reduce stress, much like an organized potluck. The overly generous person in the story is Tisquantum, whose generosity extends beyond teaching survival skills to the colonists; he negotiated peace between the Wampanoag and the European settlers, and encouraged other tribes to trade with colonists as well. While this act might seem generous to the Eurocentric mind, Tisquantum’s generosity may have enabled or hastened the speed of genocide of peoples native to the continent. Yes, Tisquantum was generous. But we can only speculate on his motives. After having been enslaved, was help offered out of pure generosity or perceived self-preservation? Schools should teach self-preservation for what it is; sometimes people do things they don’t want to do in order to survive.
Actual Thanksgiving story lessons
Sharing skills is a great way to help others become self-sufficient.
Sometimes helping others goes without thanks.
Sometimes people do things they don’t want to do in order to survive.
Peace is often not from actual shared understanding and respect but for tactical advantage.
White people have a history of using and abusing people who are not white.*
White people are fairly unpracticed in gratitude.
*White people are not the only people to exercise racism, and white people can also abuse white people.
Wikipedia. (2017, 11 16). Wampanoag. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wampanoag
Baker, P. M. (2007). The Godmother of Thanksgiving: the Story of Sarah Josepha Hale. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Pilgrim Society: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Godmother_of_Thanksgiving.pdf
History.com. (2009). History of Thanksgiving. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from History.com: http://www.history.com/topics/thanksgiving/history-of-thanksgiving
Johnson, C. (2017). Tisquantum (“Squanto”). Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from
NMAI. (n.d.). Harvest Ceremony: Beyond the Thanksgiving Myth. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from National Museum of the American Indian: http://nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/NMAI_Harvest_Study_Guide.pdf
Plimoth Plantation. (2017). Thanksgiving History. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Plimoth Plantation: https://www.plimoth.org/learn/just-kids/homework-help/thanksgiving/thanksgiving-history
Tirado, M. (2011, 11 23). The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story. Retrieved 11 20, 2017, from Indian Country Day: https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/the-wampanoag-side-of-the-first-thanksgiving-story/
I spent three years strategizing, meeting with legislators, and writing/publishing my thoughts and experience. I spent four or five months of those three years doing solely that, until I no longer knew who I was outside the co-op experience. Now I know that every aspect of who I am has been shaped by co-ops, and without them I really, truly, do not exist. Co-ops are the only space that consistently validate my averseness to capitalism. Co-ops provide the conversations I need in order to understand my identities, including but not limited to my queer identities, even when no one else in my household identifies similarly. Co-ops encourage constant personal growth, which allows me to stay alive and have something to work toward in this f-ed up world.
And yet, there is so much red tape causing co-ops to consistently focus on paperwork instead of the real work they exist to put into play. My co-op put off extremely important work in order to focus on legalization so that we could have each other in the future. We lost a housemate in the process, who was affected by that delay in a manner that made the home unbearable. We collectively held back our emotions for two months in order to get through the paperwork. We experienced burnout similar to my burnout after running for city council. And for what?
City council members know how exhausting the demands of other people can be. So why place that on us? We wasted two months of our existence trying to meet the city’s demands, and now we received a letter in the mail requiring 9 more items. Out of 38 items. Almost a quarter of our work wasn’t good enough for the city.
I know that no level of burnout will ever be good enough for some people, but I thought the city workers were on my side. I learned years ago that I should have kept my mouth shut, and waited until people like me were literally being killed to start a revolution. Except I did. Forcing people into homelessness is equivalent to killing some of these people, especially people with marginalized identities such as trans women.
F- the city. F- the people who say that want to be inclusive and do whatever they can to look the part while doing whatever they can to not act the part.
We’ve done what we can to be civil. I need to rest, but all I feel is unrest.