Counternarrative: Thanksgiving Edition

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving is a day to eat. Thanksgiving is a day to spend time with family and friends - and to eat. To overeat, even. To express the bounty of our labor in as grandiose a way as possible.

No matter how many times we are told that Thanksgiving has a different and deeper meaning, these are the images we return to in our advertising of Thanksgiving and its aftermath, Black Friday. There is - as with all US holidays - an inherent layer of consumerism that pervades all the nice feelings that we might think about the holiday itself. There is also a glossing over of the people who are less privileged on Thanksgiving and the Native Americans who were actively displaced historically, though they are linked to this holiday.

Today I want to draw attention to these points. Before we make merry, we have to think critically about the choices we make in regards to our cultural celebrations. We are making active choices to participate in the culture, whether it seems like it or not, and that has to be explored. Thus, I am proud to introduce the first edition of Counternarrative: Thanksgiving.

*By the way, I am not a Thanksgiving hater, no matter how this post may make it seem. I just want to provide some context and thoughts on the ideas that are implicit in our participation in the holiday. As you were.

In some ways, the consumptive attitudes of our culture are expressed all year, but especially around holidays like Thanksgiving. Whatever you eat or buy on this day, you're participating in a marketing dream. Consumer culture and capitalistic incentive - such as with the Black Friday sales - are often unwanted around a holiday that is supposed to be about the family/friends/community relationships you have, and yet it is played up to an extreme. From a consumer standpoint, it is just an annoying slew of ads and holiday sales information. For labor, however, there are drastic consequences. Labor violations and cruel managerial practices are heightened around the holidays because they expect people to work longer hours or more specific hours than they normally would in order to make the most revenue. For a holiday that is supposed to be all about the family and community, Thanksgiving can be a tense time for laborers and those in the workforce who cannot or are not allowed to take time off.

I'm all about this idea of family and community. However, Thanksgiving emphasizes these ideas once a year and does not often create community amidst different groups. Instead, it can exacerbate existing tensions about food, class, and race. Charity, for example, goes through the roof at this time of year. And while it is important to provide people with the means to have a good holiday, it allows the giver to view their actions as a good deed and then forget about it the rest of the year. After the holiday is done, we don't even continue to talk about the tensions created when one makes a practice of giving once a year to those less privileged than them. We cover up the long-lasting problems in order to build community on select days and on the terms of the privileged class. Ultimately, rather than delving into ways we can create greater community, Thanksgiving can separate us based on the have and have-nots and mask a larger problem.

Thanksgiving's pretty innocuous when you're in elementary school. It's one of those cheery hand-turkey holidays, rather than a representation of Western expansionism and subsequent political coverup. The forgotten history of the Native Americans is not presented accurately to children in schools - as so few things are - and there are many adults ignorant of the effects of history on their consumptive holiday tradition. We need to bring narratives of colonialism and its effects to everyday conversation: what better place to start than with talking about the seizures of Native American land and the bloodbath that followed? Or perhaps the cultural appropriation and erasure of contemporary Native American families? No better place to start than the dinner table.*

*Read: not literally. We should just use this big holiday as a jumping off point since its already in the public imagination right now.

End rant. What do you think about Thanksgiving? Do you notice these critiques? Do you just want to get down to some turkey? Let me know!