Rethinking Thanksgiving in time to face hard truths and create hope

As a white mother who is deeply concerned about the future we are creating for our children, I am both terrified by and hopeful about the complex and dangerous times we are navigating. This is the first year of my life that I will not gather with family members or friends for a Thanksgiving dinner. Although I enjoy the traditional meal and once found the construction paper costumes and cardboard Mayflowers in my children’s preschool classrooms endearing, I have come to question the “Thanksgiving myth,” which historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz says, “obscures the fact that the very existence of the country is a result of the looting of an entire continent, reducing the Indigenous population, and forcibly relocating and incarcerating them in reservations.” This Thursday I plan to watch the Livestream of the National Day of Mourning while contemplating how our nation might begin to heal from and make reparations for our government’s genocide against the Native people who have withstood centuries of persecution yet continue to honor and care for this continent’s life-giving land and waters.

Despite my evolving views on how and why we should or should not celebrate on the 4th Thursday in November, I believe the hard conversations we tend to avoid and ban at dinner tables are crucial if we are to forgive ourselves, our ancestors, and each other; unlearn and learn; and heal together in time to repair our broken world. The fear and misunderstanding that have torn this country apart are dividing my family and while I am no longer willing to be polite and stay silent, I don’t yet feel equipped to nurture redemptive conversations. I’m trying to gather my thoughts in a way that might allow me to keep loving those who seem to either not yet notice or be resigned to the fact that as we stay comfortably numb in these shattering times we risk civil war, nuclear war, and climate catastrophe. Silence fuels violence.

The numbness many white people feel may be a generational legacy from monstrous acts perpetrated by white people throughout U.S. history. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, describes how white people became desensitized to the pain and suffering of others to maintain the racial hierarchy—watching the brutal treatment of enslaved people and barbaric lynchings that began after the Civil War (which were treated as public entertainment for white spectators of all ages). The resulting dehumanization—seeing some people based on the color of their skin, their ethnicity, and other traits as less human—has led to inhumane acts and greed-driven policies in the United States and countries around the world where the U.S. government and the corporations it protects have asserted their power for financial gain. The global vaccine apartheid which is perpetuating the COVID pandemic—driven by the U.S. and other wealthy nations allowing pharmaceutical corporations to profit off of publicly-funded research while maintaining control of production is one example of how racism ultimately harms all people. A November 3rd Fortune Magazine article by Erika Fry and Nicolas Rapp, “Nearly 20 months into the global pandemic, infections are again on the rise,” described and mapped the impact of this profit-driven vaccine distribution model on low-income countries with majority non-‘white’ populations:

COVID, of course, poses the greatest challenge to countries that so far have had limited access to vaccines, a category that includes a significant portion of the world, including much of Africa and parts of the Middle East. While nearly half (49.7%) of the globe’s population has received at least one COVID shot as of Wednesday, Nov. 3, according to Our World in Data, which collects information from local governments, those people are disproportionately living in wealthy nations. Just 3.9% of people living in low-income countries have so far received at least one vaccine, while 72% of those in high-income countries have. Seventeen countries, including Sudan, Nigeria, and Ethiopia, have reached less than 3% of their populations. Another 14 countries, including Syria, Ghana, and Senegal, are short of 10%.

The climate justice movement is raising awareness about another way racism ultimately harms everyone by enabling the destruction of Earth’s ecosystems. Sacrifice zones (communities where residents — usually low-income families and people of color — live in proximity to polluting industries or military bases that expose them to all kinds of dangerous chemicals and other environmental threats) have allowed the climate crisis to escalate. On a global scale, the concept of a “developing world” is white supremacist rhetoric that has allowed the wealthy countries of the Global North to perpetually abuse primarily non-‘white’ nations in the Global South where labor is cheap and people are often powerless as mining, deforestation, harmful agricultural practices, and toxic factories destroy ecosystems and opportunities for healthy ‘development’. When we evolve beyond the evil short-sightedness of white supremacy and recognize that all life is essential and worthy of protection, it will no longer be acceptable to poison anyone’s air, water, and soil. Once we realize that, we will work together to regenerate our ecosystems and create a livable future for all of our children and generations to come.

So far, most voices in our government and mainstream media seem to be sticking to a superficial story of polarization along party lines that fails to unearth or attempt to disentangle the entrenched bipartisan roots of white supremacy that fracture this country’s foundation and threaten our future. President Biden’s response to the Rittenhouse verdict, “The jury system works and we have to abide by it,” — while several Republican officials praised Rittenhouse and offered him internships — was disheartening, to say the least. In his November 17th opinion piece “White Men On Trial,” New York Times columnist and author Charles M. Blow pointed out that, “Trayvon Martin was 17 when he was killed, the same age Rittenhouse was when he did the killing. Martin was thugified; Rittenhouse is being infantilized. That, in one example, demonstrates for and against whom American justice is weighted.”

Nicole Lewis’s November 23rd Slate.com story responding to the trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers in Brunswick, Georgia, “Why Are the McMichaels So Scared? Fear is more than just a way to argue self-defense — it’s the racist dog whistle that’s been present throughout this trial.” further illustrates the prejudice ingrained in our criminal justice system. Responding to this article on Democracy Now, Lewis pointed out that, “The criminal justice system is ill-equipped to deal with these extraordinary issues of race.” In examining the jury selection for several of the ongoing and recent high profile trials focussed on what appear to be racially motivated or influenced crimes, Lewis noted:

The defense attorneys, in particular, treated racism like an open question. And so any (potential) juror who believed that racism is real, that Black Lives Matter is not a terrorist organization, that in fact it emerged in response to state-sactioned violence against Black People, anyone who believed those things to be true was struck from the jury—that it was read as somehow not being neutral, not being objective, not having an open mind. When we know that these are settled and established facts. So I think we just saw the extraordinary limitation here. What can we do if the jury pool is now made up of people whose minds are not made up about nazism; whose minds are not made up about the horrors, the violence, and the evil of white supremacy?

Raising three children who are not immune to the glorification of guns and violence in our culture (more legacies of the U.S.’s brutal slave and conquest origins) and whose white privilege has allowed them to grow up with little fear of the police, I have some sense of the entitlement Kyle Rittenhouse must have felt when he carried an assault rifle into a peaceful protest in Kenosha. The safety he and other white people of all ages feel as they are protected by law enforcement and criminal justice that often fail people of color also stems from this country’s unapologetic history of white privilege contrasted with slave patrols, Indian massacres, Klan terrorism, racial profiling, mass incarceration, ICE raids, and other atrocities of systemic racism. By setting the precedent that anyone can carry an assault rifle, murder innocent people, claim self-defense, and go free—the Kenosha jury may have actually closed the racial safety gap a bit. Now everyone who resides in this country is a target. No one is safe when vigilantism becomes an accepted norm.

White parents and politicians who say that teaching critical race theory and thought-provoking literary works by people of color will harm white children might fear that examining how wealth and power have been amassed in this country could finally lead the moral arc of the universe to reach a point of justice. Were that to happen, this nation might embark on a long-overdue truth and reconciliation process like the one which followed the fall of the apartheid system in South Africa.

Almost all white people, regardless of party affiliation, seem to fear this rebalancing of power and the impact it might have on our privileged lifestyles. What many of us fail to realize is that in a competitive, consumer-driven culture that lacks social safety nets, the comforts we cling to often stress and depress us. Neither possessions nor money can replace the universal love and connection our divided and often distracted society suppresses. And a government that takes care of some people while harming others and attempts to obscure this reality will ultimately be safe for no one.

On Tuesday’s Democracy Now, Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of “The 1619 Project,” said, “It’s quite revealing that the argument (against teaching critical race theory) is that if we teach a truer history that actually reflects the facts of what happened, we’ll raise children not to love their country.” She continues, “We should all, as Americans, be deeply concerned about these anti-history laws because what they’re really attempting to do is control our memory and control our understanding of our country.” She references Timothy Snyder, a historian who studies authoritarianism in describing the memory laws we’re seeing passed all around the country as a sign that countries are veering toward authoritarianism:

The idea of banning books, the idea that politicians will use the power of the state to prevent the teaching of ideas that they do not like… It’s not incidental … that the same states that are passing these anti-critical race theory laws are also passing laws to make it harder for citizens to vote. They’re passing laws that actually pull back on democracy. They’re passing laws that make it harder for women to choose their own reproductive health. All of these things are related.

There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘white’ person or a ‘black’ person. The myth of whiteness was invented to divide people. This false sense of superiority was designed to prevent immigrant laborers and people kidnapped from their African homes to be sold into lifelong slavery from working together for common rights. Similarly, the myths of white supremacy and Christian supremacy were used to justify ‘Manifest Destiny,’ a fancy term for government land theft. As people with various ethnic backgrounds have immigrated to the United States, many have lost their heritage and traditions as they assimilated into ‘whiteness’ in hopes of receiving better treatment in this land. Unlearning these racist myths while learning to love and help one another might lead us all to find the joy, fulfillment, and connection we seek but rarely find in stressful, shallow, alienating times.

Most of us who are feeling the weight of the climate crisis (l live in the burn scar of the 2020 California CZU wildfire) understand that we must relearn how to live in harmony with Nature. Although Indigenous Peoples make up only 6% of the global population, they have protected 85% of the world’s conserved biodiversity — more than national parks and forests — often risking their lives in the process. According to a September 2021 Global Witness report, a record 227 environmental activists were murdered in 2020, all but one in countries of the Global South with over a third of all fatal attacks targeting Indigenous People. The fact that Global Witness counts only one environmentalist murder in the Global North in 2020, combined with the fact that so many Indigenous People have disappeared near fossil fuel extraction sites in Canada in the U.S. has me wondering how they define “environmentalist”.

The underreported and often untold stories of missing and murdered Native American women near fossil fuel extraction sites have received increased attention as part of the Line 3 protests in Minnesota and also in contrast with the 24/7 news coverage of Gabby Petito, a 22-year-old white woman who went missing and was found murdered this summer. A May 2021 article by Julia Stern in Immigration and Human Rights Law Review, “Pipeline of Violence: The Oil Industry and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women,” states, “Native women face murder rates at more than ten times the national average, and 96% of these women experienced violence from a non-Native perpetrator.” The story explains that murder is just one of many forms of violence on the rise near extraction sites:

Since the oil boom, Native communities have reported increased rates of human trafficking, sex trafficking, and missing and murdered Indigenous women in their communities. Workers who come to a region for well-paid oil and gas jobs often set up “man camps.” Placed in largely rural areas these camps strain infrastructures in communities that already have inadequate resources to support population booms. In 2015, violent crime reports increased in the Bakken oil-producing region of Montana and North Dakota, due to the socio-economic changes brought to the area with the oil boom. According to one report, sexual assaults on women on the Fort Berthold reservation increased by 75%. Conversely, there was no corresponding rise of violent crimes in the counties outside of the Bakken oil region. In fact, the overall crime rate decreased during this time. Overall, the potential for harm from “man camps” is exacerbated when they are on or near Indigenous peoples’ lands.

When the United States and governments and corporations around the world stop persecuting Indigenous People; respect their sovereignty; make reparations for repeatedly broken treaties, stolen land, and genocide; and acknowledge—with gratitude and humility—that Native men and women have in many cases risked their lives to protect land, water, and our shared future, we might all have a chance to relearn what it means to be humans caring for a miraculous and fragile planet.

Although I will not gather with my family in person this Thursday, I will call or Zoom and try to initiate a meaningful conversation in an effort to begin again and search for the goodness that exists in all of us which—when cultivated and connected—can create hope for a just, sustainable future. I hope others will join me in breaking the silence to help end the violence. There is no such thing as being “not racist” within white supremacist, racist systems. This is not about any one of us being good or bad, right or wrong.

In a report released Monday by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the United States was, for the first time, added to a list of “backsliding democracies”. Analyzing trends from 2020 to 2021, the study found that more than a quarter of the world’s population now lives in democratically backsliding countries. In this dangerous time, when people in the U.S. and around the world risk losing all freedom and hope—how can we find the courage to face our past so that we can celebrate our common humanity, envision a healthy way forward, and create a world we can all truly love before it’s too late?

All ‘white’ people have a choice to make at this evolution point for the human species: Do we stay comfortable with injustice or actively fight for the just, antiracist transformations we need to create a livable future for ALL? To protect our children and future generations, we must learn to love each other and our Mother Earth and find new reasons to be thankful together.

And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” Sermon, Nov. 17, 1957

For additional ways to stand in solidarity with Indigenous People in the United States, see Take Action for Indigenous Land & Water Defense, a list created by SURJ: Showing Up for Racial Justice.

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Gail McNulty

Gail McNulty

Just a mom dreaming of a future where instead of having the right to pursue happiness people everywhere have enough and live happily in harmony with Nature.