Is it okay to say… Happy Thanksgiving?
By Mo Edjlali, Mindful Leader Founder and CEO
Growing up in elementary school we would all hear this story of Thanksgiving, it goes something like this -
A long time ago when the pilgrims first arrived in America they were struggling to get settled in. As winter approached they feared for their survival and were facing possible starvation. Then they meet the Indians. They formed a friendship with the Indians based on mutual respect and sharing of food and resources. They became friends and allies and embraced a spirit of sharing and gratitude.
Sound familiar? The truth is far from this as more and more people have come to realize. Indigenous people were horribly abused in every way possible, genocide, rape, enslavement, and for centuries. This false story continues to be perpetuated in the mass media and our culture.
I am no expert on native American history but at an early age, I questioned my teachers and school history books. For those who are not familiar with my background - I was born in Iran and came to the States at an early age. In school, and in the media, they did not speak truthfully of my native country or culture so I learned to question everything. I picked up the Autobiography of Malcolm X in middle school and was inspired to challenge what I was told and speak up. So much so that in my freshman year of high school - after a heated debate with my history teacher on American Middle-Eastern intervention she shamed me in front of my classmates and said “if you don’t like it here go back to your country.”
I persisted. In my mid-twenties I read Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States and was touched by what I learned of the atrocities that were committed against Native Americans among other marginalized groups throughout the creation and rise of this country. I saw the hypocrisy of Columbus Day and support the movement for Indigenous People’s Day. There is still a great deal more to be done, and it's good to see more and more people coming to better understand our complex history and work toward healing.
Last year we shared an article 5 Great Gratitude Resources for Thanksgiving. Every year around this time with Thanksgiving in the air we try to inspire gratitude, appreciation, and community.
With that intent in mind I was really taken aback by the comment that one of our readers left:
“I realize Thanksgiving is a complex holiday for some cloaked in a dominant message of gratitude and celebration of family and friends from the lens of white supremacy and privilege. But the truth of the matter is any Thanksgiving message that ignores the pain of Indigenous communities whose stolen land these observance occur on, continues the invisibility of millions of Native people whose ancestors extended the right hand of fellowship to white people, only to have that generosity met with racism, colonialism, mass genocide, ethnic cleansing, almost complete assimilation and displacement from their culture.
You and your organization have benefited from these atrocities that have provided you sustenance and income. Would it be too much of an ask to reckon with the reality of this western/Eurocentric ideology that has benefited from these hate crimes?”
Click here to read the full comment.
My reaction to first reading this comment was anger. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I have not in years considered the pilgrim / Indian story that we were told as kids in my celebration of Thanksgiving. It was not something that I thought was an issue. And here my innocent desire to share gratitude and joy was met with what felt like a condemnation. Like I had done something wrong or shameful. “lens of white supremacy and privilege.” “In the spirit of moving forward, don’t you think it is time to unlearn, deseed and banish these practices that perpetuate racism, colonization, oppression, and cultural appropriation.”
I felt defensive, and like I was being talked down to. Did I do something wrong? Was I insensitive?
I’d like to think I’m a sensitive and thoughtful person. I don’t consider myself a white supremacist, or a colonizer, in fact, I’ve always seen myself as the colonized and at the receiving end of bigotry. And there was much that didn’t make sense to my immigrant parents, customs, traditions, and holidays that had a heavy western/Christian root that we were unfamiliar with. And then there was Thanksgiving, a holiday that we could understand and get behind.
Dear friend who left this comment, thank you for helping me see your pain and understand you better. I’m sorry that this holiday that I cherish and the way that we talked about it is a source of pain for you. My intention was to share my joy and inspire gratitude. I’m sorry and I hope that you can see and understand me better now. We are not enemies, please do not make assumptions about me or my organization. Allow me to share in a conversation where neither of us is a victim or villain and let's find ways forward where we can better understand and better respect one another.
I believe in the rights and the need to openly acknowledge and work towards healing the pain and atrocities committed against the indigenous people of the Americas. I’d also like to figure out how to celebrate Thanksgiving in a non-offensive way and to hold up the values of family and gratitude.
In the spirit of finding ways to better see and understand one another, please share any thoughts you have - is Thanksgiving a holiday that brings you joy? Or one that reminds you of atrocities that have gone un-repented? Is there a way we can celebrate together while including those who have been hurt by the way this holiday has been represented?
During this time of year, you may find yourself in similar situations. It's not easy to share our pain gracefully and I’m come up with a few simple tips to help me that might be of help to you:
- Shaming people will shut them down, they will not be open to your message
- Not everyone understands or feels my pain - help them by sharing my direct experience
- Beware of righteous cruelty - I can not demand that others “do the right thing” just because I think it's the right thing to do
- What is my real intention? Am I looking for healing and connection? Or to be right / prove someone else is wrong?
- When I’m coming from a place of pain and anger, I’m more likely to cause pain and anger