Every time I try to write about culture, I end up stuck with a lot of big words. For instance, the word conundrum. A conundrum is a problem for which the solution is a matter of conjecture. In other words, we can only guess at how to resolve a conundrum.
Our white supremacist culture is a conundrum. I’m not talking here about the culture of cross-burning and white sheet-wearing. I mean culture as in the collective racist beliefs of our society reduced over generations to common sense.
Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines culture:
a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence…
c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization
Our racist culture was created out of the justification for slavery and genocide, xenophobia, war, internment and exclusion. Once created, these justifications were reinforced through cross-generational transfer of values, customs, and norms, not to mention by making these justifications into a patriotic ethos in order to commit such acts and then accept the mantle of hero.
The makers v. takers Republican meme is a good example of how culture works. As strange as it may seem, people who rely on super-exploited workers in order to be rich enough to claim membership in the “maker” class are bought into the nonsensical math and ethical paradox behind the meme. Their addle-brained faith is based on the belief that the richer one is, the smarter, more deserving, and important one is to society. Therefore, what’s good for them is good for everybody. And those who don’t benefit are too broken to fix. There are jails for people like them, whether we’re talking about the paupers’ prisons of our past or our current prison system, full to the gills with poor people caught up in the war on drugs.
And the worst part of this? They aren’t the only ones who believe this stuff. Many poor people do, too. That’s how culture works.
At each point in U.S. history when forces of justice prevailed and racist codes fell, white supremacy survived because the culture of racism lived on. We changed legal codes, even to the extent of reorganizing the economy (the fall of slavery, for instance), but didn’t sufficiently change cultural codes. Individually, many were transformed. But collectively, whites remained trapped within the culture of racism, the most pernicious aspect of which is white privilege.
I’m reminded of this every Thanksgiving.
I’m sure many among you already know that the story of the first Thanksgiving, sweetly sentimental though it may be, really never happened. The truth, or a decent facsimile thereof, is that the pilgrims did indeed once host a harvest celebration with Indian guests way back in the day, but just once. They did it to give thanks to Squanto, the last remaining Patuxet Indian (the rest of his people having been enslaved or wiped out by small pox) and to the Wampanoag Nation with which Squanto had negotiated a peace treaty on behalf of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
This was the one and only time we know of when pilgrims and Indians sat down together to scarf down the harvest in an attitude of gratitude and friendship. All of the parties after that had a strict dress code: white collars and black hats required.
The next day of thanks was declared by colonial churches many years later to celebrate a victory over the Pequot Indians. That successful offensive was just one of many waged during the Pequot War during which thousands of vanquished Pequots were sold into slavery, and many more were murdered.
On that day, colonists commemorated their victory by, among other things, playing pilgrim soccer with the heads of murdered Pequots. The colonists in Plymouth were so full of thanks they beheaded a Wampanoag chief, (who was their ally, by the way) and displayed his head on a stake. In case you thought maybe they got caught up in some kind of psychotic frenzy they would later regret, the head of the Wampanoag chief stayed up on that stake for public viewing for 24 years.
Yet, the story of Thanksgiving we tell children casts both Indians and pilgrims as heroes. Consider for a moment the alienating impact of that story on Native Americans. And then consider the impact of this American genesis myth on the ability of the rest of us to think critically about the past and use that information to create a different kind of future.
The story of Thanksgiving is nonsensical and materially insupportable when balanced against our history of Indian Wars, forced relocation and assimilation, and genocide. So when we share it with kids in that inter-generational process of producing and reproducing culture that Merriam-Webster referenced, they are led into the belief that history is just a story, having nothing to do with us or with how we live today. Or, worse, that whitewashing history is both natural and politically neutral. When we do that, we lose traction in the struggle for justice.
If equity is ever to be achieved, we have to figure out how to change a culture that glorifies genocide. But cultural racism is a conundrum. How we resolve it is a matter of conjecture.
This holiday season, let’s give thanks for all who resist injustice and raise a glass to embracing conjecture and creativity in our activism. It’s time to get bolder.