The past wasn’t so good for everybody
Columbus Day falls on the second Monday of October. It’s one of just a few federal U.S. holidays, meaning that all non-essential government offices will be closed, some people somewhere will receive holiday pay, and Italian-Americans will take to the streets of Jersey City to celebrate their heritage.
How Christopher Columbus — a 15th century Italian who paved the way for the colonization of the Americas and all the torture and disenfranchisement of indigenous people that followed — became a symbol of Italian-American identity, I don’t entirely understand. Yet despite decades of effort to turn the focus from Columbus’s brutal legacy to the history and dignity of Native Americans, it is 2019 and another Columbus Day is being observed as a day of national celebration.
Defending the holiday on their website, the National Italian American Foundation says:
We believe that Columbus’s courageous voyage was the catalyst that initiated over 500 years of immigration to the Americas by people from every corner of the earth who were seeking a better life for their families.
What the foundation fails to recognize is that the so-called courage and altruism of their celebrated figure spelled death and destruction for the native inhabitants of the land he colonized. Yes, European settlers may have wanted a better life for their families — and they were willing to take it at the cost of native culture, identity, and resources.
Columbus Day is just one example of the problem of white nostalgia.
White people in America love to celebrate their heritage, except the parts that involved the subjugation and systemic oppression of indigenous people and people of color.
We love to think about the far away lands that grand daddy came from, and fondly look back to the “good old days” — failing to acknowledge that the old days weren’t good for everybody.
In the case of statues and symbols commemorating the U.S. confederacy, we seem the same problem arise. Some southern whites claim the confederate flag is an honorable symbol of their ancestors, and casually ignore the historic pain it awakens in their black neighbors. In that case as in the case of Columbus, whites are valuing their warm feelings of nostalgia above the generational trauma that continues to weigh on Black and Indigenous Americans. They insist on the glorification of their past at the cost of dignity and comfort in the present lives of others.
When we smile and laugh about America’s past but deny those who have been continually been pushed into the margins the space for their stories, we are enacting white supremacy.
Yes, change can be uncomfortable.
But for white folks in America, we have been holding off a debt of discomfort and making others foot the bill for centuries.
It’s time to shift the burden.