During a meeting last week one of my students commented that she loves Thanksgiving, but feels guilty about it.
She didn’t need to explain—she was in my Culture and Identity class last year which focused on Native Americans and First Nations people. We talked about the problematic nature of Thanksgiving and the many myths surrounding the holiday that are destructive to Native peoples.
I can relate to her comment. As a White multi-racial woman, Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday for me. My mother is Irish and Cherokee. My father is English American, and our family narratives are filled with pilgrim origin stories. See. Complicated.
I will offer for my student and others what I try to do instead of attempting to suppress White guilt, or feeling overwhelmed by White guilt, or congratulating myself for experiencing White guilt (none of which are particularly helpful actions). Instead, I suggest these strategies:
1. Expand your knowledge and awareness of Native history, current events, and Native peoples.
This year, I am focusing on Indian removal policies and the implications of living on stolen land.
The National Museum of the American Indian released online curriculum about Indian removal policies. The curriculum is designed to support Social Studies teachers for grades 7-12, but I am gonna go out on a limb and guess that most of my readers were never taught this material in school, so this can be a good place to start.
The Indian Removal Act was signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830. It was this act that led to the Trail of Tears. In the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, over 7,000 troops were sent to Cherokee homes, where people were removed at gunpoint and forced to march west. Approximately 4,000 people died along the way. The Indian Removal Act also directly impacted the Choctaw, Creek, and Chickasaw Nation.
Pennsylvania reflects the deep impacts of removal, as there are currently no federally recognized Indian nations within the state today, despite the fact that the area was once home to the Shawnee and Ohio, the Erie, members of the Iroquois nations, the Munsee Delaware and Lenape Delaware and the Susquehannock nations.
One of my friends recently commented that the term “removal” seems to be a way to dismiss the horror of these laws and policies. Which is by design. Tools of state sanctioned genocide are often given fluffy names to avoid calling them what they really are.
The Indian Removal Act was just one piece of legislation among many laws, policies, coerced and broken treaties which moved native peoples from their homes and historic lands. These policies continue to infringe on the rights of Native nations and endanger the health and well-being of Native people today. (Think Standing Rock) They also mean that the United States is a nation built on stolen land.
This week I attended a conference in Minneapolis for the Interdisciplinary Research Fellows, a group collaborating on community engaged research for social change. The conference opened with a Dakota language specialist (Neil T McKay) who asked us to consider what it means to be working toward building equitable communities on stolen land.
I think this topic is especially important to examine at Thanksgiving. This is a time when many people focus on home—going home or welcoming others into their homes. For Americans of all ethnic groups, home is not an uncomplicated place. Homecomings may be fraught with anxieties of past family conflict, different political beliefs, or the impacts of trauma.
For Native peoples, home is often the place that was stolen.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I am struggling with my own family’s history of homelessness and being uprooted through removal, living in poverty on reservations, avoiding Indian boarding schools, and forced assimilation. All of these policies and traumas interrupted the ability for my family to have an embodied experience of home. The loss of my own home last spring makes this particular soul wound especially raw for me this year.
I am thankful that I will spend this year's holiday with dear friends—the people I call my Pittsburgh family. This week I will also be reflecting on what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving on stolen land.
In addition to buying supplies to make a sweet potato casserole and stocking up on white wine, I will be learning more about the people who once called Pittsburgh their home. People like the Shawnee who were pushed into Ohio and forced to sign a treaty in 1831 that removed them to eastern Kansas.
While I drink my morning coffee I will be reading As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson) and learning about the ways Indigenous communities continue to engage in resistance to protect their land and people.
As I hike the beautiful woods of Western Pennsylvania, I will reflect on those who called this place home before me. I will work to heal my own wounds as I strive to live in a way that honors my ancestors. And I will continue to reflect on the meaning of doing equity work on stolen land, even as I dedicate myself to building a space that I may call home.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
One night in graduate school I found myself leaving a coffee shop later than I had planned to get on my bike and ride home. I had spent hours studying and I was tired and ready to be in bed. A group of guys across the street shouted out to me—some stupid pickup line I don’t remember. I am not sure exactly what I said, but it was something belligerent and sarcastic (not surprising to anyone who knows me).
Suddenly, my exhaustion turned into fear. The guys got angry.
They had felt 100% entitled to say whatever they wanted to me, fully expecting me to just put up with it.
I left the situation quickly and safely.
And then I got angry.
That week I marched myself into my advisor's office and told her I had figured out my project for my master’s thesis. I wanted to document the experiences of harassment that most women dealt with every single day of their lives. It wasn’t that this incident was unique. I was just fed up. Tired of being honked at during my morning runs. Sick of the male grad students in my department making belittling comments about women. And absolutely done with being afraid. Afraid to walk home alone at night. Afraid that rejecting a stranger’s unwanted attention could result in my physical harm.
So, I studied women’s experiences of harassment.
In fact, I conducted multiple studies in which I examined college men’s and women’s everyday experiences of various forms of gender prejudice. In the first study, college students kept daily diaries about their experiences ( College students’ descriptions of everyday gender prejudice ). College women reported experiencing an average of 18 sexually objectifying events over a 14-day period. More than one per day.
You read that right, on average, college women experienced sexual harassment EVERY SINGLE DAY.
And the harassment happened everywhere—on campus (including during class), within dorms, at grocery stores, in the gym, at the gas station, at work, while walking down the street….
So, when the #MeToo campaign recently went viral, I was not surprised to see most of my female friends participating. I also know that I likely have friends who have experienced sexual violence who did not want to disclose that info on their Facebook page.
I am striving to be hopeful that we are seeing a tide change. It is amazing to hear about the number of individuals (predominantly women, but a few men) coming forth to publicly share their stories of sexual violence committed by men in power. It is a brave move, as men in power tend to look for ways to keep that power and to retaliate against anyone who challenges it.
It has been even more amazing, and sometimes surprising, to hear about the number of men who have actually lost their jobs, TV shows, endorsements as a result of these accusations.
Maybe things are changing….
But as reporters dig into these stories, it becomes quite clear that in most of these cases, victims have been reporting their experiences of sexual violence perpetrated by these men FOR YEARS.
While I support the consciousness raising element of the campaign and appreciate that many women (and some men) have felt less alone by sharing their experiences of victimization, it is time to move beyond just awareness raising in order to eradicate sexual harassment (and sexual violence of all degrees).
First of all, men need to take accountability. Accountability for the ways they support, enable, and protect perpetrators. And accountability for the times that they have unwittingly participated in sexual harassment themselves.
And we need more women in positions of power. Because, ultimately, sexual violence is about power.
Feeling powerful enough to treat another person as an object. Using power to keep people from speaking out.
When boys grow up in a society where girls and women consistently have less power than men—where they are paid less, where women make up only about 20% of Congress and 6% of Fortune 500 CEO’s, where the United States has yet to have a female President—they get the message that women have less power than men.
So, how can any of us be surprised that some of those men decide that they are entitled to treat women however they want?
Which also explains why girls and women of color are even more likely to experience sexual violence than white girls and women.
I hope we continue to hear that when victims step forward they are believed, and there are consequences for the perpetrators.
I hope to hear more men stepping forward to talk about the ways they will hold themselves and other men accountable for preventing and stopping sexual violence. And how they intend to support more women (especially women of color) holding positions of power.
I dream of the possibility of a world where my students don't assume they have to endure sexual harassment by male faculty. Where my nieces might get to walk down the street without cringing when men open their mouths. Where girls and women are not expected to view sexual harassment as a daily nuisance they must tolerate.
Until then, I will stay fed up, and angry, and outspoken, and belligerent. And probably sarcastic.
Britney G Brinkman, Ph.D.
EMPOWERTAINMENT aims to take a critical look at media in regards to how gender and women/girls are portrayed. From popular articles, videos, and websites, to original submissions, we want to not only examine the media and its relation to gender, but help shift it.