Since I arrived to the United States to pursue my undergraduate degree, I made an unfortunate annual habit of asking, "erm, isn't what you call a holiday here, Columbus Day, really a celebration of genocide of the indigenous peoples, racism and imperialism?"
Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, they say. As I found out, historical accuracy and the failures of American colonialism don't seem to mix well together. Neither do uncomfortable truths about race.
See, I barely ever had to check my race on census forms before coming to the United States, so at first I would tick off “white” or “other” interchangeably, having no clear understanding of what I was doing. What I have learnt through my studies and my experiences as a young Eastern European woman consequently, however, is that no matter how foreign I feel navigating certain settings because of my gender, native origin, class, or accent, I am never seen as foreign to them.
No matter how out of place I think of myself culturally in some white-dominated spaces, I always belong. The legitimacy of my presence in this country, or anywhere in the world, really, is never questioned, whether verbally or otherwise. It's called white privilege.
There was a time when I did not want to think of myself as “white” in that sense – except that, I am exactly that. I am white because I am afforded privileges made available to me because of my racial identity.
I am white exactly because I can afford to forget that I am, and to forget means to validate these privileges, as opposed to remember, an act of recognizing these as unearned, unacknowledged, and inherently oppressive, and struggling against them.
Peggy McIntosh, a renowned feminist and anti-racist activist, famously wrote, "As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage." In her paper on correspondences between male and white privileges, she further noted, "I began to understand why we [whites] are just seen as oppressive [as men], even when we don't see ourselves that way. I began to count the ways in which I enjoy unearned skin privilege and have been conditioned into oblivion about its existence."
The existence of white privilege that McIntosh refers to traces its roots directly to the genocidal project so masterfully masked behind the self-congratulatory image that Columbus projects onto American imagination. I figured that was the reason that my conversations about Columbus Day with fellow (white) American students were far from endearing.
It seems that we are not as uncomfortable with the holiday's inaccuracies that are falsified by historical evidence as we are with the way that the process of decolonizing these sheds light onto how we are implicated within these hierarchical narratives.
By all means, to celebrate Columbus means to celebrate a legacy of genocide, racism, imperialism, brutal rape and slaughter of the non-white peoples, but it also means to validate contemporary structures of oppression that have been sustained since 1492, when white racism began to nourish the exploitative logic of global capitalism, and dehumanize non-white lives, consequently lost to centuries of senseless violence and exploitation.
George Tinker, a prominent American Indian theologian and scholar, writes in his chapter on "Racism and Anti-Racism in A Culture of Violence: Dreaming a New Dream, "we must understand that Columbus Day functions to sustain structures of oppression and racism. It becomes a legitimization of the conquest, an act of self-righteous self-justification by white men in North America. It is thus an act in defense of both white privilege and male privilege. Columbus is a sexist, racist, and classist act of self-validation."
The celebration of Columbus Day is an act of forgetting, cementing the status quo, whitewashing the foundations upon which this country was built, and comforting ourselves in the illusions of American exceptionalism.
I am white because I have the privilege to forget that I am, and I have the privilege to forget the truth behind Columbus Day because I am white. Columbus Day is white privilege.
Yet, where there is a privilege to forget, there must be the responsibility to remember. In the holidays' 107th year of existence, which one will it be?