Who doesn’t want to step in the footsteps of our colonial forefathers? We don’t.

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

The EUC Collxctive


“Learning from 400 years of Pilgrim Fathers’ America, what does the future of globalization hold?”


This was the question prompted in a recent essay competition organised by EUR, in collaboration with Leiden, Delft, and Harvard University. The competition sought to commemorate 400 years of Thanksgiving, by calling on students to share their own visions of the future in a short, critical essay.


That we will do.


However, we find that it is hard to address the future if we ignore the past in the process. In light of the passing of Thanksgiving Day last week, we use this opportunity to react to the constant brushing over of colonial violence, and the reproduction of hegemonic discourses. To make sure that our critique reaches those who have prompted the question, we have decided to collectively mail our de-colonial critique to the organisers of this competition. If you would like to take part in this process, you can join the mailing list we have created through the link in our Instagram (@collxctive.euc).


Collxctive Essay

The holiday of Thanksgiving is just around the corner, a holiday that is part and parcel of the imagery of the American dream. For others, it is a moment to reflect on one’s life, on the material and non-material things one is grateful for. It is also a moment to joyously be together with family and friends. Yet, in this short essay, we posit ourselves as ‘feminist killjoys’ (Ahmed, 2010, p.10). We deem it necessary to assume this role in order to problematize the ‘happy talk’ surrounding Thanksgiving; not because we think we should not have happy occasions like Thanksgiving, but to question the belief that some people are entitled to happiness at the expense of others.

Thanksgiving is a holiday forged-into-being after 500 years of colonial and imperialist violence. A colonial history that has post-colonial continuities, amongst others systemic racist inequalities. This essay contest, that EUR invites students to participate in, is a continuation of such ‘happy talks’ - in other words, it reiterates and reinforces a violent hegemonic discourse regarding colonialism. It does so under the pretence that it is justifiable to speak about the “amazing challenges'' brought upon us by colonialism and imperialism, and their favourite love child, ‘globalization’ or shall we say it more explicitly: capitalism. Connoting these “challenges” positively, veils and thus makes invisible the ongoing post-colonial struggle.


Daddy issues

We will begin our ‘journey’ by discussing how the glorification of the pilgrim fathers [1] has a two-folded justification function: firstly, it justifies the historical genocides and enslavements of indigenous communities, secondly, it justifies present-day manifestations of racism and white supremacy. Consequently, the narrative of the heroic father-like colonists perpetuates the misogynist belief that the world is created by men and for men. This part is thus dedicated to articulate our “daddy issues” as individuals living in a westernized misogynist, heteropatriarchal world.

The glorification of the pilgrim fathers is rooted in the historical construction of the Thanksgiving myth. Myths do not “evolve from the ‘nature’ of things”, rather, they are created to further certain narratives which most often serve the interest of the dominant class (Barthes, 1957). In the case of Thanksgiving, we come face to face with a story of the “handing over” (in more realistic words: stealing while exercising extreme violence) of land by the native Wampanoags to the European “immigrants/settlers” (in other words: violent colonizers). This story is reproduced in a celebratory manner throughout the history of the United States. Thanksgiving is narrated as a giving of thanks, a fair and voluntary exchange - overlooking the genocide, displacement, and enslavement amidst this “happy exchange” [2]. In addition, the myth of the “new world” - created under the hands of the pilgrim fathers - furthers the narrative that the US has come into being through the sole effort of a handful of white men.

The language used in describing the myth of Thanksgiving and the “formation” of the “new world” is a glorification of everything that is masculine and white as well as a narrative of colonial validation and white comfort. Therefore, the particular cultural worldview that follows will necessarily be a patriarchal, eurocentric and westernized one (Spender, 1980, p.3). Further, this myth reinforces a history that “forgets” to mention that the US as hegemonic economic power could not come into its effect without centuries of enslaving and exploiting people for profit. Along these lines, the essay competition fails to point out that the arrival of slave ships was not a coincidental occurrence after the first colonisers (referred as Pilgrim Fathers) arrived, but rather a direct consequence.

Perpetuating this mythical story of thanksgiving is violent in itself, taking into consideration the struggles faced by BIPOC [3] communities in the US. Furthermore, failing to address capitalism as the lovechild of colonization and imperialism, while constantly disguising it under the name of ‘globalization’ completely dismisses any de-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-racist fights such as the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement is casually mentioned in an act of name-throwing, instead of properly contextualised into the entire topic of the essay competition.


White innocence

Furthermore, we wish to explore the positionality of EUR as a university existing within the Dutch educational and cultural context, therefore affected by the Netherlands’ very particular, paradoxical and deeply violent relationship to its own colonial past. Although the holiday of Thanksgiving is not so much ‘a thing’ in Dutch culture, the celebration of our seafarers and traders takes a central place in the history books taught in primary and secondary school. Conversations about this topic in the classroom, however, rarely discuss the atrocities that underpinned the “civilizing project” of Dutch imperialism. Why is that the case?

Gloria Wekker (2016) describes that the heinous crimes committed by white, Dutch men against entire communities distort the Dutch self-image of progressivity and tolerance. Today, the Dutch proud and tolerant self- image is (re)produced through colorblind, post-racial and post-colonial discourses [4], which nourish the belief that racism belongs to “sometime and somewhere else” (M’Charek, Schramm & Skinner, 2014; Wekker, 2016). It is through this imaginary of pride and tolerance that race and colonialism become a “touchy matter” (M’Charek et al., 2014; p. 462), and that present-day experiences, narratives and structures of racism and colonialism are glossed over or denied. These violent structures are simultaneously emphasized by the symbolism of the prize of the essay competition, a travel exchange that mimics the white colonizers trip in their points of departure and arrival.

This is the paradox of colonialism and race Wekker talks about, in which white people fall back on discourses of "but in the Netherlands we have no racism and we do not see race" to claim their innocence in the participation and reproduction of colonial practices of racism and whiteness. Speaking in the language of innocence is a willfully ignorant tactic, which hampers white people to understand the racist world we live in, whilst they continue to reap the fruits from this (Wekker, 2016). Wilful ignorance does not only include not-knowing, but also encompasses not wanting to know. As Essed and Hoving (2014) mark, the denial of racism can turn into an aggressive form of ‘smug’ ignorance (p. 24). This paradoxically leads to offensive representations of BIPOC; their invalidation through the perpetuation of everyday racism.


Conclusion

So, how do these two things come together? The mythical glorification of the Pilgrim Fathers and the ‘happy talk’ around Thanksgiving serves to reproduce a violent discourse that glorifies whiteness, masculinity, colonial and imperialist violence as well as Eurocentrism. This is a narrative that ignorantly perpetuates the non-mentioning of violent colonial atrocities; atrocities which violent effects extend until now. While the Netherlands is not directly involved in colonial ventures in the US, and Thanksgiving is not celebrated here, Dutch people have their very own colonial past that is glossed over. Speaking of Thanksgiving as a joyous celebration is white innocence. Not implicating oneself (especially as a Dutch academic institution) in the legacy of Dutch imperialism and colonialism is white innocence. Asking students to hand in essays discussing “happy talks” is white innocence. In conclusion, we repudiate an essay competition that embodies many of the ‘silent’ attitudes that continue to perpetuate colonial and imperialist violence in BIPOC communities as well as fostering wilful ignorance in white students.




Footnotes


1. See the essay competition that reads “the Pilgrim Fathers wanted to create a better world”


2. These atrocities are glossed over and barely mentioned in the essay competition as “wars and pandemics of unintentionally introduced infectious diseases.” Even though the spreading of disease couldn’t have been predicted, colonisers did intentionally persecute and murder indigenous peoples almost until their complete erasure; which also had an effect of malnutrition and decreased immunological systems.


3. Black, indigenous, people of color.


4. An attitude that is also perpetuated through statements that intend to appear aware of socio-political injustices yet remain superficial as seen in “this remains a topical theme today (see the Black Lives Matter Movement).” A lousy attempt that takes racism’s existence as something that could be denied through proper argumentation of this ‘topical’ theme.



Bibliography

Ahmed, S. (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London, UK: Duke University Press

Barthes, R. (1957). Myth today. Mythologies (). United States: Twenty-fifth printing.

Essed, P., & Hoving, I. (2014). Innocence, smug ignorance, resentment: an introduction to Dutch racism. In Dutch racism (pp. 9-29). Brill.

M’Charek, A., Schramm, K., & Skinner, D. (2014). Technologies of belonging: The absent presence of race in Europe. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 39(4), 459-467. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243914531149

Spender, D. (1980). The perpetuation of the patriarchy. Man made language (). London: Pandora Press.

Wekker, G. (2016). White innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race. Duke University Press.



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