Get REAL This Thanksgiving

Warning: this post may seem harsh. “Thanksgiving” is a sly and misleading name for the part of American history it commemorates. It has a dark side, but it’s so hidden by turkey and stuffing and family drama and football that most of us can easily forget it’s even there. With Thanksgiving, Americans have created a holiday that connotes all things wonderful, gratitude and family and patriotism and perseverance, but Thanksgiving is also a holiday commemorating our exploitation of the land, resources, and people who were here before us. As explorers, intruders, colonizers, Americans came to a land that was already populated, and made up and imposed rules on this country. The people and culture who were exploited continue to experience oppression and marginalization to this day. Like anything with a dark side, we came up with reasons for why this was necessary, even helpful, rather than recognizing such oppression. Celebrating Thanksgiving as purely positive, without mentioning the genocide that ensued, is a whole lot of ignorance and denial.

Go ahead, call me cynical or a downer. React however you’re going to react. At the end of the day, I’m giving voice to something real.

Confession time: I did not know anyone who identified as Native American while I was growing up. I generally consider myself to be a pretty flexible, open-minded, accepting person, and I appreciate diversity in all aspects of the word. But as I’ve mentioned before, I started this blog as a challenge to myself to practice what I preach. To uncover blind spots and biases, to bring them into awareness, and to move through them in the most honest ways that I could. So while I am embarrassed to say this, I’ll put it out there and deal with my consequences: I used to love Pocahantas. Okay, I said it. I even dressed as her for Halloween once. I have lived in multiple cities with sports team mascots derived from Native American symbols and that portray Native peoples (think Redskins, Blackhawks, Braves, Chiefs) in completely racist and dehumanizing ways, and I often did not notice.

When I was 26, I moved to Minneapolis for a year to complete my pre-doctoral training at a chemical dependency treatment center. Minnesota has a much larger Native community than anywhere else I’d ever lived, and I began working with colleagues and clients who were Native. If I’m being honest (which, let’s face it, I’ve kind of signed myself up for Honesty Boot Camp here, being both a writer and a psychologist) it was almost as if Native Americans weren’t real to me until I met people who were Native American. The ignorance I had muddled through for much of my life began to dissipate as the Native American story slowly became more real and alive to me. I struggled with feelings of sadness, shame, and the residual “white guilt.”

Oftentimes, when we (humans) realize we were racist, ignorant, or naive in some way, we feel such overwhelming shame that we get defensive. We react to those uncomfortable feelings by denying that we were ever so off-base, or making up excuses for why we had a right to do what we did and think what we thought. I’d be full of shit if I didn’t admit that I was tempted to do that, too. The thing is, once you learn something, it really does more harm to un-learn it than to incorporate it into awareness. I have developed more empathy related to what Native American people have experienced. Recognizing that I had this unconscious bias, working through my initial guilt and defensiveness, and then allowing myself to become a more respectful and compassionate person has been uncomfortable, but guess what? It’s been fine. I didn’t spontaneously combust. I know I’m not going to rewrite history, so denying it is pretty useless. The systematically-induced shaming and ignoring of Native Americans in this country has been happening for centuries and it blows my mind that before I went to Minnesota, I was never exposed to it. It was glossed over in my textbooks.  All that I can do today is give the history some validation here.

While I understand how offensive and insensitive it is to dress in costumes of another culture for amusement, or to turn other human beings into mascots, I also know that it’s unproductive for me to get stuck feeling shameful, guilty, and pissed off at myself for being so ignorant. I truly did not know any better, and now I do, and so I’m choosing to change my attitudes. Simple… but not easy.

We all can relate to and connect with others, however different we may appear on the surface, and I think we need to get better at recognizing that. I was ignorant, and in many ways, I still am ignorant and don’t even know it (which is kind of the definition of “ignorance,” right? It’s not conscious). When I realized that I had been unwittingly, blindly, albeit innocently following traditions and practices that dehumanized Native American people, I felt horrible. I also realized that I have a choice, and I choose to own up to it, apologize for it, and become a more accepting and compassionate person.

Confession, Part 2: despite my awareness, I still celebrate Thanksgiving. I think there are many wonderful things about Thanksgiving, as it can be a lovely opportunity to connect with loved ones and enjoy a meal together. As a big fan of mindfulness, I also really like the idea of taking some time to be thankful, to intentionally recognize what we appreciate in life. However, it’s necessary to paint the whole picture for ourselves. We can make space for both the dark and light sides of history.

I encourage you to take a look inward, and recognize whether you, too, have been unwittingly, innocently following along with views that are unbalanced or ignorant of other human beings. Try to resist the urge to disown your experiences and instead, let yourself feel uncomfortable for a minute. Nobody is built completely bias-less, but everybody seems to want everybody else to think we are. Let’s get real.

I believe that through continuing to be vulnerable at different levels, we can learn to strike a balance between accepting ourselves, accepting others, and feeling accepted by others. This Thanksgiving, and every day, I think we owe it to ourselves as human beings to let ourselves get called out on our biases, and instead of reacting with defensiveness and denial, instead of trivializing or sinking into shame, respond with clarity and acceptance.

I wish everyone a safe, healthy, and meaningful holiday.

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