Over the years I’ve noticed an attempt to rehabilitate Thanksgiving. Some folks change the name, some people make clear that “it’s not about genocide, it’s about food!,” others share that they use the day to reflect on Indigenous peoples in the United States. All of this is problematic.
My own relationship with Thanksgiving is complicated–I love people and I love eating with people and I love green bean casserole (made from all canned goods, thankyouverymuch). But as I continue to reflect on my role as a researcher within the colonialized space of higher education, I find myself extending that reflection to the traditions I participate in and what my participation signifies.
For a detailed history on the invention of Thanksgiving, I encourage you to read this article in The New Yorker by Phil Deloria, and this article in the Smithsonian.
One common thread in my research with Natives learners is the harm the Thanksgiving myth creates for them in schools. It stereotypes, it reduces Native contributions, and it presents Natives as a relic of the past. And as long as Thanksgiving exists, this harm will continue.
It’s easy to think that you can celebrate Thanksgiving without reinforcing the damage Thanksgiving creates toward Native people because you aren’t the ones asking your children to make fake headdresses in schools or leading the family in a rousing game of “Pilgrims and Indians.” But by participating in any Thanksgiving celebration you are acknowledging the day and its existence. This is how narratives are maintained.
Thanksgiving represents an opportunity in racial justice that is more complex, than say, protesting police brutality. For many white people, their engagement in racial justice exists at arms length with their every day lives. It’s why you see mass protests against racial injustice in our judicial system, and silence on how white flight and white school choice creates an unjust public education system.
This is also why you see folks argue for decolonization yet continue to hold a Thanksgiving dinner.
If you are white, and celebrate Thanksgiving (in any form), I’m not going to ask you to stop. But I am going to ask you to think about how traditions maintain narratives, and to think about how your traditions align with your practices and values. There are no easy answers here. I engage in a lot of practices (particularly within academia) that make me feel very uncomfortable. I sit with the discomfort, interrogate what it’s telling me, and adjust as necessary.
Also, canned green beans, canned mushroom soup, and canned french onions are available year-round. I can have that, and a big meal with friends and family any day of the year.
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