Trying to understand colonialism through the lens of modern racial theory is an ill-advised task. Skip the ‘collective responsibility’ this Thanksgiving and pass the pie.
By Captain Semantics
There is not a day on the calendar that does not mark an atrocity that one group of humans visited upon another. There is not a square mile on this planet that is not soaked in the blood that our species so readily spills. Yet there is a day off from all horrors of the outside world and that day is today. No, not today as in ‘Thanksgiving.’ ‘Today’ meaning any day in which you block out the periphery of the horrible outside world and enjoy precious time with those you love or can at least tolerate.
That is the beauty of holidays — despite what historians advise us on the meaning behind a certain day, we imbue the day with our own meaning. My Muslim family almost immediately started celebrating Christmas upon arrival in the U.S. It was no celebration of the birth of Christ but rather an opportunity to cook many the Arab dishes which required a day or two of preparation and subsequent argument. Ultimately, our Christmas became a culinary holiday/debate tournament. Same for Jews. Somehow the birth of what to them was a false messiah has transmogrified into a day for Chinese food. Therein lies the story of holidays and their very human histories of adaptation, repurposing, and ultimate transmutation into completely different events altogether. It is kinda great.
Nonetheless, many will see Thanksgiving as an opportunity to ‘educate’ us on their cursory understanding of colonial atrocities in the Americas. Indeed, we will all endure heavy servings of sanctimoniousness and posturing alongside the turkey and stuffing this year — and for good reason. Unhealed wounds surrounding race relations and immigration status have proven enough to keep our country on a near constant precipice of unrest.
The ‘institutional’ explanation of Thanksgiving is the myth we were all fed as children: starving Pilgrims were taught to cultivate food by Native Americans and they all shared in this together by feasting at some point in November. Obviously, we all know this story is rooted in as much fact as the mythos behind the Easter Bunny. True to American form, we have replaced this ahistorical myth with another similarly false historical narrative. Right wind identitarians have spent the last few centuries painting rosy pictures of European colonization of these lands while suppressing the worst parts. Taking the bait, left wing identitarians have tried to invert these right wing fairy tales using the very same American Exceptionalism.
Yet are there now more immediate things we can do rather than litigating 14th century conquerors? We can all agree that taking down Confederate monuments is the Lord’s Work. Nonetheless, if we are going to go down the wormhole of collective guilt and historical culpability, we better do our homework rather than rely on disproven, convoluted cultural concepts of ethnicity and race. Besides, is that not what ‘decolonization’ and ‘dismantling White supremacy’ aim to do?
Without a doubt, the European powers which conquered these lands engaged in utter barbarism. The ”peaceful” Pilgrims we associate with Thanksgiving massacred the Pequots, their fucking dinner hosts, they allegedly feasted with. Like many of the British and Dutch colonists in the Northeast, their history is one of spreading disease and bloodshed. Yet if you truly want to understand the full scope of colonial atrocities, one must begin with Spain and their actions well further south than the original British colonies.
.The overwhelming majority of massacres and attempts at genocide/democide were done so by the Spanish in their first 100 years in the Americas. They made brutality ‘mundane.’
Many of their earliest conquests featured some of the worst abuses of the colonial period. The majority of the Translatantic Slave Trade was driven by Spanish and Portugese conquest of Central and South America. In fact, only 6% the slave trade came to the modern U.S with the overwhelming majority going to South America. Between 1502 and 1866, of the 11.2 million Africans taken, only 388,000 arrived in North America, while the rest went to Brazil, the British and French Caribbean and Spanish territories, in that order. These slaves were brought as early as the 16th century — well before the British started making major moves within the Americas. Moreover, during the colonial period (1492–1832), a total of 1.86 million Spaniards settled in the Americas. These nearly two million people killed somewhere between 2 to 15 million indigenous peoples — according to claims by noted historian Rudolph Rummel.
What is the point of shedding light on the pivotal role of the Spanish in colonial atrocities in the Americas? You see, those 2 million Spaniards bred with the natives from South America to North America. Through both rape and consensual sex, the Spaniards distiguished themselves from other colonial powers by their quick interbreeding. Case in point: About 2 thirds of Mexicans are either white or mixed with white — Mestizo. Those white ancestors were of course, the Spanish colonists. A 2004 study showed that the Spanish speaking Americans in San Luis valley of New Mexico are about one-third Indian and two-thirds Spanish-European.
This has all created the paradoxical reality that if you are Mexican-American or Brazilian-American, you are exponentially more likely to have descended from those ‘White’ people who committed colonial atrocities than say Italian, Scottish, Irish, or Polish Americans. Many of which migrated to the U.S. in the 19th or 20th centuries. Simply said, our concepts of who is ‘White’ and how much blame to ascribe to them based upon their ancestry is a fool’s errand. It is the same broken race theory employed by the White supremacists themselves.
Yet these broken narratives have created an environment where the descendants of early 20th century Irish immigrants are ascribed more blame for colonial atrocities than Mestizo Americans who likely descend from the original 1.8 million Spaniards who migrated to the Americas during the colonial period. To be clear, the Irish are guilty of many crimes (alcoholism, Bono, etc.) yet they had little to no hand in colonialism.
To further complicate matters, Native Americans were at war with each other in perpetuity — just as Europeans were. The rise and fall of empires and warrior tribes in the Americas is MORE similar to the constant ebb and flow of conquest within Europe than it is to more ‘stabilized’ historical ethno-geography such as in the Middle or Far East.
The aforementioned problems with applying modern racial constructs vis-à-vis historical colonialism is why recent popular hashtags and narratives around stolen land are problematic. The sentiment behind it is understandable. Labeling anyone ‘illegal’ in a land based on their perceived race is utter hogwash. Yet the convoluted notions about ‘stolen land’ are far too complex to effectuate into policy. First and foremost, all land is stolen land. If you do not believe me, anyone interested in the rich complexity of the myriad native peoples who laid claim to the Americas can visit this rad site.
The idea that any land can be home to but one, specific racial or ethnic group is the shit horror stories are made of. Whether it is Zionism, Manifest Destiny, or Apartheid, the idea that rights within a land be predicated on racial identity never, ever ends well. Plants are indigenous to lands, people are not. The Japanese are from Korea. The Turks arrived in Anatolia, modern day Turkey, and took over what had been Greece for more than 1000 years. Persians, modern day Iranians, are from the Indian subcontinent. Ultimately, the story of human history is the story of human migration.
Further, which group the land is stolen from is a shit sandwich to say the least. Here is an example: The State of Texas, where I live, was inhabited by dozens of often migrating tribes who were at war and usurping one another on the regular. It went as far as The Alabama Coushatta Tribe fighting alongside Texas forefather Stephen F. Austin against the Karankawa. The Kickapoos, Cherokees, Comanches, and Apaches all had various claims to lands that overlapped and resulted in conflict. Further muddying the waters, our state’s history post-colonialism is marred in jumbled race theory. Many in Texas imagine the lone defenders of the Alamo as solely Ango-Saxon while the invading Mexicans were the rightful, indigenous owners. Of course, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Stephen F. Austin were some crackers yet so was the leader of Mexican forces General Santa Anna. The Texian Wars were the last reverberations of inter-colonial conflict — the last vestiges of European power grasping for the spoils. There are no simple lines of racial demarcation within the state’s history that would allow for a sensible redistribution of land back to ‘original’ owners. If the U.S. were ever to ‘return stolen’ land, doing so in Texas would be a geographic Rubik’s Cube. Besides, God knows any natives that laid their eyes upon 6th Street in Austin during SXSW would give the city right back to the paleface.
Pointing the finger at one another over centuries old historical grievances never makes sense after generations of progress, healing, and most importantly breeding. There simply is no dividend or logic to exacting revenge based upon the highly unscientific concepts that define race. It would make about as much sense for me, as a Muslim, to blame Spanish-descendant Mexicans for forcing the Caliphate off of the Iberian Peninsula and thus ending the glorious age of Islamic Spain. But then again, Muslims usurped that land, held it for 800 years, and lost it again. So whose is it? Can I ask that you ‘Give us back our stolen land that we stole’? Oh wait, almost forgot, the Muslim conquerers that usurped Spain bred with the population there for 800 years. Does this mean we should blame Mexicans for 9/11? I guess ‘fuck it’, we invaded Iraq over 9/11, why not Mexico?
This Thanksgiving, remember that most of us do NOT look at every moment through a political lens. Most people embrace holidays as a day off from their jobs and a chance to enjoy family and friends. But if you are going to politicize a holiday, be prepared to go further than a few reductive memes or instagram slides. History is always more complex than you can imagine. More importantly, seeking basic human rights based upon the historicity of one’s presence never did anyone any good. Just ask a Palestinian.