Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How social work has made me bah humbug-y about Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. It's a holiday that is near and dear to my heart in terms of the memories I have surrounding it--and I think any opportunity to reflect on what we are thankful for is valuable. From a social justice stand point, Thanksgiving is, well, complicated.

Today at my placement, we discussed facts about Thanksgiving. The facts were generally simple, and honestly, no different than what is taught in most schools. Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, made friends with some Natives, and they had a potluck, right? Everything was copacetic. 

One client (we'll call him Ken) is prone to angry outbursts. Most of the time they are completely unprovoked, but it was interesting what he spoke up about today in group. Ken was really upset about some of the facts being shared. He spoke about Thanksgiving as a holiday that celebrates the slaughter of an entire people. This upset some other members of the group who haven't learned anything about Thanksgiving beyond the folklore we tend to pass around as truth in schools and in our families. It got other clients riled up in agreement with him. 

It's also become very clear to me while speaking with clients about their weekend plans how difficult Thanksgiving can be for the chronically poor and mentally ill. Many of these folks are alienated from family. When we go around the room to talk about what we're thankful for, some people can't think of one thing. I don't think Ken's outburst was unprovoked this time around. I am thankful that he spoke his mind. I admire that. 

Another issue I have with Thanksgiving? I'm working in retail these days part-time at a popular store that sells personal care items. I say care loosely because most of the lotions in the store are made of the nastiest chemicals you can imagine and will probably ruin your skin or cause cancer in the long run--but I digress. My schedule on Black Friday is from midnight to 6 am. We open at midnight. Who in the hell needs to buy some vanilla scented lotion at midnight? Absolutely no one. Thanksgiving these days is less about sharing a meal as a way to build community than it is about consuming. Consuming the food, and consuming the sales the next day. The intuitive eater in me looks around and sees people enjoying their food, but not really enjoying their food. We don't savor so much as eat until we feel like we could burst. 

We are so thankful for this Pinot Grigio
While doing a little research on the history of Thanksgiving, I found an article that really brought the point home about Thanksgiving for me. The article is titled Thanksgiving: A Native American View. Let's face it; the Pilgrims were no survivalists. The Native folks saved the white folks' asses, and continued to save their asses, even when Native people were being killed and their land was being destroyed. And thus, the Pilgrims lived. Thus, we have a great White nation, and thus we have a great Capitalist society that means buying stupid candles at 3am is something that is really, really important to some people, and we are so lucky to have that privilege. 

Many Native Americans have lost their lives, their families and their land so that I can sit here, on my comfy mattress in Queens, surrounded by pillows, drinking fresh water, etc. etc. etc. and write this article. I am not so sure celebrating my privilege is exactly how I want to to look at the holiday, but isn't that what it is? Being thankful for privilege? Who am I thanking for this privilege if it's come at the expense of oppressing others? 

So, what is it that all of these random points about how Thanksgiving should suck have to do with one another? Well, nothing. It's just a list of reasons why it's difficult for me to appreciate Thanksgiving these days. Truth be told, I really do love holidays and celebrations, and I think they're important and valuable to everyone. I will probably have plenty of fun tomorrow. And I hope y'all do too, but I also hope that everyone is not only thankful for what they have, but understands how what they have shapes their lives and impacts others.

Sorry for being a Debbie downer, y'all. I'll do my best to be more uplifting about Christmas maybe New Years. 


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