Thankgiving and the Conundrum of Cultural Racism

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. Way too many poor people do, too. That’s how the culture of capitalism works and why it’s so hard to counter-balance the drive to make profit with compassion.

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, white folks 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 popular 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.

Thanksgiving is a disgusting annual propaganda campaign during which U.S. history gets a major shellacking.  Thanksgiving glorifies colonialism, religious fundamentalism, and gross opportunism, not to mention dodging accountability and telling lies.

Yet year after year, we squash our kids’ critical thinking faculties with nonsensical, materially unsupportable accounts of the days of the pilgrims.  Kids hear these stories and then look around them for evidence.  Finding none, they adopt the kind of irrational thinking that will one day make them susceptible to crazy product pitches (a thigh cream that melts away fat, anyone?), and the paranoid delusions of those who believe that Obamacare will lead to death panels, euthanasia lotteries, and eventually socialism, which of course loves the devil and hates Christians.

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 raise a glass to embracing conjecture and creativity in our activism. It’s time to get bolder.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Thankgiving and the Conundrum of Cultural Racism”

A place to begin in unraveling this conundrum might be to begin with Abraham Lincoln’s original proclamation establishing the current Thanksgiving service. It makes no mention of the Native Americans or the Pilgrims. Lincoln’s own theology about slavery and the civil war as God’s divine judgment against sinful is more deterministic than we generally subscribe to today. However, the proclamation does squarely address the racism and evil endemic in the society. He said, “I recommend to them [Citizens] that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

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