What is Colonialism? A Thanksgiving Reflection

image shows table with plates and trays being passed around - colonialism thanksgiving reflection
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Content warning for descriptions of violence against Indigenous people.

Just a note: I will be eating turkey and green bean casserole next week, like so many Americans across the country. My words are not intended to place a barrier between myself and others. We have choices to make under a continuing colonial system, and one of those choices is to complicate simple narratives that hide fuller truths. Being thankful for the harvest is possible even in spite of exploitation. We can hold both at the same time. You will also see that some of my reflections have white people as their target audience. I speak from my social location because I think that personal understanding lends itself to greater opportunities for dialogue.

A History of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving, as you probably know, is the romanticized notion that colonialism has not harmed us.

While celebrated regionally since before the Revolutionary War, Thanksgiving was named by Abraham Lincoln as a national holiday in 1863. Advocated for by influential New Englander, Sara Josepha Hale, the naming of the holiday was conceived of specifically as a balm to ease North-South tensions. The Civil War raged on; it would ultimately kill 750,000 Americans, the largest death toll of any (named) war in U.S. history.

Of course, the tradition of Thanksgiving begins with a quaint-sounding story of cross-cultural connection. As History.com expresses: “In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Native Americans shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the first Thanksgiving celebrations in the colonies.”

While this act of goodwill would be cause for celebration under the course of a different history, the reality is that the colonists, fleeing religious persecution in England, reenacted horrific and ongoing violence on the Indigenous communities with which they came into contact. Colonial settlers were compelled by the lies of Manifest Destiny, which claimed that God had given them the right to claim the land.

Before colonization began in the Americas in 1492, scholars estimate that there were as many as 100 million Indigenous people living on the land (with about 18 million living in the North America).

By the time the English colonists arrived on Indigenous land, 90% of the population had already been slaughtered by illness and targeted violence: across the Americas, “More than 50 million Indigenous people perished by 1600.” So many people were murdered, in fact, that the climate cooled.

Due to illness, slavery, sterilization, war, and genocide enacted as an intentional depopulation strategy by white settlers against Indigenous people, there are now only 6.79 million Indigenous people living in the U.S. today, despite massive population increases in other populations.

The original inhabitants of this land now make up less than 2% of the national population.

The Marks of Colonialism

Indigenous people continue to be targeted, as a matter of policy, across the United States and the Americas (see this report for details). While Thanksgiving was founded in an attempt to stop the hatred that permeated this country at the turn of the twentieth century, it masked a longer legacy of hatred, one inherent to the colonial project.

Colonialism, as described by post-colonial scholars, is:

The imperialist expansion of Europe into the rest of the world during the last four hundred years in which a dominant imperium or center carried on a relationship of control and influence over its margins or colonies. This relationship tended to extend to social, pedagogical, economic, political, and broadly culturally exchanges often with a hierarchical European settler class and local, educated (compractor) elite class forming layers between the European “mother” nation and the various Indigenous peoples who were controlled. Such a system carried within it inherent notions of racial inferiority and exotic otherness.

Put another way, colonialism both structures and permeates our daily lives as citizens of a Western colonial country. Colonialism in the setting of the United States was enacted by white European settlers, which means that white people – regardless of their immigration background, country of origin, or economic status – have inherent privileges under colonialism.

These privileges can often seem like basic human rights and not something to celebrate, but the important thing to remember is that people of color – Black people, Indigenous people, and other non-whites – are not afforded basic human rights as a rule. What’s more, white people and Western European culture are seen as normative, and are often used as the yardsticks by which all other people groups are measured.

In a way, white privilege is the ability to opt out of being measured at all.

Even in spite of hundreds of years of agitation for recognition of civil rights, the colonial system and its enablers find creative ways to continue to suppress and oppress those deemed other. There is a brutalizing fear underneath the surface of our social systems that to demolish colonial power structures would be to lose access to what we need. This is not true.

group of friends making toast
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Colonialism Hurts Everyone: A Message to Fellow White People

While whiteness as a cultural-social category is held up as the norm, the reality is that a system of oppression as powerful as colonialism hurts everyone. It is a totalizing system – one that impacts everyone – not just a set of behaviors performed by one party (oppressors) to harm another party (“the oppressed”).

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the very exercise of enforcing belonging and otherness is inherently self-dehumanizing. It is a dangerous practice with violent results, but it is not as if the malicious forces of white colonialism actually benefit white people when the possibilities for flourishing are expanded and reconsidered.

Don’t get me wrong: Colonialism and accompanying white power structures brutally impact non-white bodies in a targeted, explicit way. Yet the structure upholds white power at a cost of rampant objectification for all. We are all pawns in this system, playing a part.

White people often feel that we are being benefited because we see that we are avoiding certain types of harm done to people of color and other marginalized groups. But as journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates once suggested (at a talk I went to at UVa), we’ve got the scale all wrong.

There is nothing ultimately beneficial about retaining basic human rights for ourselves at the cost of true abundance for ALL.

We continue to reinforce behaviors that oppress others just to maintain a fledgling sense of control. But the very act of keeping this system alive makes us preoccupied with trying to compete for resources and clout with others. It distracts us from the reality that abundance is available to all. This is why Coates prefers (at least circa 2016) the term white supremacy over white privilege.

Rather than seeing the power dynamics as a spectrum of haves and have nots, there’s an embedded norm that whites as a category will always have more power. The colonial system is not focused on living the good life – it is only focused on power.

What Now?

In my view, individual white people are not being called to confess our individual sins before an anonymous public. Colonialism and white supremacy are collective sins that we are complicit in; we were not the first actors, but that doesn’t exclude us from transforming work. That means that we can lay down our defenses, knowing that our call is to see the system as it really is in order to disrupt it.

This work is (or should be) life-giving, not life-taking. We can embody it with a sense of conviction, and even joy. In fact, modeling possibilities for an abundant, joyful future are imperative to maintaining the work.

That’s why we cannot afford to spend our time wallowing. We must avoid trying to one-up every white person with our performative anti-racism. Non-dialogical takedowns on social media are in and of themselves a product of colonial power structures. They are a way for us to try to take back power instead of entering new narratives, where collective abundance is the ultimate goal. Relatedly, activism that demands compensation, likes, or shares is the pernicious product of Capitalism, colonialism’s economic partner.

We are tasked, instead, with continually reimagining the world. That means reimagining our responsibility to one another outside of one-to-one economic relationships. The commodification of “activism” ignores the fact that we are ALL called to be engaged in our communities; it’s what we owe each other.

We are being called to see the system in a fuller scope. We are being called to find what was once comfortable deeply uncomfortable. We are being asked to stand up, not as tools of the oppressive system, but instead in defiant recognition of our shared humanity.

White people are not being asked to self-annihilate or hide behind BIPOC to disguise our own identities. We are being asked to be coworkers in a project that rejects the story of colonial history as right, good and true, instead making a way for a new story in which all can thrive. This new story is not simply a toppling of one power structure for another; it is a world in which “empowerment” is rooted in shared dignity, not in Empire.

As post-colonial preacher Sara Travis writes:

Instead of confronting others as oppressed or oppressor, the possibility arises for us to become engaged in a common struggle against the structures of oppression and domination that attempt to hold all of us captive – Travis, 129

In order to fight oppressive power systems, we must first acknowledge them. But we must never forget that our work does not rest in removing ourselves from the story. Rather, we must decolonize our stories, which means letting go of the need to be the loudest voice or have the final say.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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