Rethinking Thanksgiving


Yesterday I wrote a newsletter and a blog post with the intent of expressing gratitude, offering encouragement, and sharing my own perspective as a white woman trying to grapple with the long, long process of peeling back the onion layers of disinformation that whiteness has surrounded my consciousness with, throughout my whole life. My intent was, partially, to be open about my own journey specifically as a white woman, so that perhaps some white readers might resonate with it and draw some encourgement from it.

However, despite my intentions, the impact of what I wrote was, at least in one regard, harmful and damaging. I was extremely grateful to receive several responses from readers, and one in particular has spurred me to write to you again with an apology for my message.

This reader kindly challenged the perspective on Thanksgiving I shared yesterday. Upon reflecting and doing some reading, I want to apologize for my simplistic, unreflective, and limited portrayal of the holiday. I did not consider the Indigenous perspective and I want to address that now and address some of my unexamined assumptions about the meaning of this day.

Please accept my apology for my glib portrayal of Thanksgiving as a neutral, positive celebration. I am sorry for the harm my email caused, and grateful to have the chance to address these assumptions now.

For many people, especially Indigenous people, Thanksgiving is an annual “white victory lap” in the words of Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation, and a journalist and activist, as quoted in the article “A Thanksgiving Message from Seven Amazing Native Americans“. Read more below.

Thanksgiving is nothing less an annual white victory lap. It’s a celebration of aggressive Christian domination and imperialism. Any other description is P.C.

The holiday, as presented, is an affront to inexorable truth and history as it occurred.

Indeed, the Thanksgiving narrative belies the rape and murder and genocide that was committed against this continent’s first peoples – men, women, and children.

Instead of a day of gluttony and excess, the day should be reserved to honor Native Americans; recognize that the U.S. committed incalculable atrocities against us because we weren’t white Christians.

Native Americans should be lauded for our continued resilience and fortitude.

To bury the truth behind what Thanksgiving means to Native Americans does nothing but set us back as a country.

It’s time this nation faces the facts about its actions, its crimes – the ones they’ve committed, and continue to commit.

In a similar vein, Terra Trevor, in the article With Thanksgiving: A Native American View, writes:

Many Native American people do not celebrate Thanksgiving Day as it is observed in America. For Native Peoples, thanksgiving comes not once a year, but always, for all the gifts of life.

I find it ironic and sad that Thanksgiving and Native American Heritage month have been braided together in the month of November. Thanksgiving, as it has come to be observed in America is a time of mourning for many Native People.

It serves as a reminder of how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many Native people from disease, and near total elimination of many more from forced assimilation and as a reminder of 500 years of betrayal.

[When youngsters ask about the meaning of Thanksgiving], I tell them about the Wampanoag people.

About this tribe of Southern Massachusetts and how their ancestors ensured the survival of the Pilgrims in New England, and how they lived to regret it, and that now the tribe is growing strong again.

I tell them Native people have a history largely untold and that gathering to give thanks for the harvest did not originate in America with the Pilgrims, it was always our way.

The reader who sent me the email that led me to learn more about Thanksgiving said that they use this time as an opportunity to rest, enjoy good food, and give thanks, and also to donate to the Native American Rights Fund. That seemed like a great idea to me!

If you are interested in learning more, you might want to check out the other six essays by Native writers on the website from which the passage above by Simon Moya-Smith was quoted, or the New York Times article Everything You Learned About Thanksgiving Is Wrong, or the Native advocacy network Cultural Survival’s page of resources, 8 Ways to Decolonize and Honor Native Peoples on Thanksgiving.

And to that reader who reached out to help me see what I was carrying around inside of me, and had never stopped to examine in the light of justice:

Thank you for helping me grow. Especially, thank you for sharing your own history as a white person and specifically your evolving perspective on Thanksgiving.

I was writing from a limited understanding and experience with the holiday, and conceptualizing it as a simple day of focusing on gratitude, without considering how my perspective is, like every aspect of my mind, rooted in the web of lies that whiteness tells, to excuse, justify, and perpetuate white supremacy.

Like so many aspects of the dominant white supremacy culture, formed as it was for the maintenance and defense of white privilege, Thanksgiving is a much more multivariate concept than I conveyed in my simplistic portrayal.

I was so focused on how the holiday seems to me, that I failed to incorporate into my conception its historical roots in the European theft, exploitation, and intentional genocide of the Indigenous people whose lands they invaded and stole, as well as the nature of gratitude and the role of generosity and sharing in many Indigenous cultures.

I would like to close by sharing a little more about myself, because I think it is a good illustration of how insidious white supremacy culture is, and how deeply it is buried within our unconscious minds, in the hope that other people, and especially my white readers, can see how even when we are consciously striving to outgrow our programming, it stubbornly persists if we aren’t asked to examine and rethink and learn and grow.

I consider myself pretty well aware of the history of European genocide and exploitation of people of Color worldwide and here in these stolen lands we call the USA. I have even taught many units on colonialism and guided students to understand the colonizers’ horrific genocide and theft. So, my conscious mind is well aware of the facts.

That does not mean that I am “over it” in the deeper, more invisible realm of my unconscious mind. Our unconscious minds have been poisoned by white supremacy culture. And the work of undoing that programming is much, much deeper, and more personal, and more challenging, and more painful than learning facts with our conscious minds.

I share this because I think it is important to come to terms with how much work we have to do, and how deep and hidden the white supremacy operating system is programmed into our minds, in a million ways, day in and day out, our whole lives long.

Showing Up for Racial Justice’s list of Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture is a good starting point to learn more about how normalized the assumptions of whiteness are in our lives, and certainly worth a read. The American Friends Service Committee’s list of 10 ways white supremacy wounds white people: A tale of mutuality is another valuable starting place. But again, reading and understanding with the conscious mind is the easy part, a good first step. It is the deeper work, the personal perspective-taking, and the deprogramming of our unconscious minds that is where the real work begins.

I will leave you with the words of Dana Brownlee, from the article “Dear White People: Here Are 5 Uncomfortable Truths Black Colleagues Need You To Know,” which advocate the kind of productive discomfort that is needed in acknowledging and dismantling the destructive, racist assumptions that undergird so many of our inherited assumptions and perpetuate systems of oppression.

The first step of problem solving is generally better understanding the problem and in this case that also means confronting uncomfortable truths.

In this pivotal Black Lives Matter moment, corporate leaders and ultimately everyday workplaces have an opportunity to do something different.

Instead of nibbling around the edges by pursuing the path of least resistance, we can push into territory that’s both uncomfortable and transformative – to truly dismantle systemic racism and transform organizational cultures in a way that invites everyone to show up at work as their authentic self.

Thank you for reading this far, and, again, I offer my sincere apologies for passing on my unexamined assumptions yesterday and, if you were hurt by my words, I am deeply sorry for for the hurt my words caused you. When we know better, we do better, and I have learned a lot thanks to the wonderful feedback from this sweet reader!

As always, I truly value your replies so please do not hesitate to reach out!

Please enjoy the holiday, rest, recharge, and connect with your loved ones!

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