Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day?: raceAhead

October 14, 2019, 6:17 PM UTC

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I’m writing to you today from the ancestral lands of the Hopi, Yavapai, Apache, and Navajo people, who were themselves preceded by the Sinagua. Later this week, I will be moderating panel discussions on land once inhabited by the Wappo, and next week, when I join my colleagues at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, we will be meeting on the ancestral lands of the Anacostan, Piscataway, and Pamunkey people.

Yes, I do travel a lot. 

Land acknowledgment statements are more common in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but are increasingly being adopted at meetings and convenings in the U.S. as a small but powerful step toward addressing the violence and erasure experienced by Indigenous people across the continent. 

Saying their tribal names out loud is the very least we can do.

Questions of what more should be done are raised the second Monday of every October, as colleges, towns, and cities are increasingly choosing not to mark the arrival of Christopher Columbus, a violent colonizer, and instead embrace Indigenous Peoples’ Day. 

“Today we understand that while [Columbus] was an explorer and is credited with being one of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas, we now know a great deal about the history and the way that he and his people behaved when they came to this continent,” Shannon Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and director of the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, told NPR. “Which included pillaging, raping and generally setting in motion a genocide of the people who were already here. That’s not something we want to celebrate. That’s not something anyone wants to celebrate.”

It feels like a loss for plenty of Italian Americans who still believe that the holiday is a way for their broader contributions to be appreciated. But it’s worth noting that the appreciation came at a steep price. Columbus Day became a holiday after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a 1934 decree in the wake of a concerted campaign by the Knights of Columbus, a charity that has long provided services to Catholic immigrants. 

“When Italians first arrived in the United States, they were targets of marginalization and discrimination,” notes UNC history professor Malinda Maynor Lowery, who is both a scholar of Native American history and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina.

“Officially celebrating Christopher Columbus—an Italian Catholic—became one way to affirm the new racial order that would emerge in the U.S. in the 20th century, one in which the descendants of diverse ethnic European immigrants became ‘white’ Americans.”

But the unfortunately binary fight over which holiday to celebrate erases the terrible acts of violence, including terror lynchings, experienced by Italian immigrants. This history also deserves to be known, even if a retreat to whiteness makes it feel unnecessary.

But it’s all necessary.

Consider this: When I make a land acknowledgment statement at a corporate event, even (or perhaps especially) Fortune’s own, the likelihood that a Native American executive will be in the room is exceedingly low. 

It makes the statement that much more poignant. Until all are able to present in every room they aspire to, the only way forward is by understanding the past.


On Point

How Italians became white New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples contributes to the historical record with this opinion piece which begins with the deliberate steps Congress took in 1790 to ensure the racial purity of the young country. Immigration quickly changed their calculus. "[T]he surge of newcomers engendered a national panic and led Americans to adopt a more restrictive, politicized view of how whiteness was to be allocated," he notes. Some immigrant groups were whiter than others. "The story of how Italian immigrants went from racialized pariah status in the 19th century to white Americans in good standing in the 20th offers a window onto the alchemy through which race is constructed in the United States, and how racial hierarchies can sometimes change."
New York Times

Welcome to the glass floor. Now, please step aside I suspect many raceAhead readers will chortle with satisfaction at this sharp HuffPo piece that lays the facts bare: The poor and middle class are increasingly unable to rise up the income ranks while the undeserving rich are increasingly taking up space that they haven’t earned, and for which they are wholly unqualified. "There’s a lot of talent being wasted because it’s not able to rise, but there’s also a lot of relatively untalented people who aren’t falling and end up occupying positions they shouldn’t," said Richard Reeves, a Brookings Institution researcher and the author of this barnburner of a book, Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. But I also suspect that the chortles will turn to chokes of rage. The problem is bigger than a Trump kid taking the phone during a presidential call. "Over the last 30 years, nearly every institution of social mobility, from education to work to government spending, has been systematically tilted toward the wealthy," reports Michael Hobbes.
Huffington Post

A Pennsylvania middle school teacher on leave after a racist rant was caught on video The video, which begins after the accident, shows no damage to the car, but it nevertheless triggered an angry rant. She accused the other driver, a young Black man, of being on welfare and of targeting her because she is white. She used the n-word, and a homophobic slur, and threatened him—all in the parking lot of her own school. CNN reports that she is currently on leave, and also notes that the Upper Darby School District, where she teaches, is increasingly diverse: 46.6% are African American, 31.76% are white, 14.4% are Asian/Pacific Islander, 5.62% are Hispanic, and 1% are other. When you read this story, and I do encourage you to read it, ask yourself this question: What is going on inside a person when profoundly racist stereotypes tumble out of their mouth when faced with a minor inconvenience?

A wealthy white community in Baton Rouge has seceded The largely white suburb of Baton Rouge voted over the weekend to incorporate themselves right into a new city called  St. George, a move which effectively removes money, services, and resources from their increasingly diverse neighbors. While only 54% of voters supported the measure, it was a stinging rebuke to community leaders and a sign of a deeply divided community. "When we create a better St. George, we’re creating a better parish," says one local lawyer. "Whether it be issues like drainage or transportation or our economy," says mayor-president Sharon Weston Broome, "we will have the highest level of success the more we stay united."
New York Times

On Background

The devil in the advocate Maya Rupert holds nothing back in this essay on the painful folly of playing "devil’s advocate" when it comes to something as important as race, particularly now. Discussions about race are already necessary, but now, in a time of heightened white supremacist threats, there is "a dangerous tendency for white people to engage in these discussions with people of color by summoning the devil himself and treating racism as a political disagreement around which two opposing viewpoints can reasonably form." What you’re asking when you play devil’s advocate is for a person of color to justify to you their own value, safety, and status. It’s an act of cruelty, she says. "There is no way to productively ask a person to participate in an argument that questions their equality as an epistemological experiment," she says. And yet, we still try.

A young Native rapper explores his past and future Frank Waln, a rapper and member of the Sicangu Lakota in South Dakota, uses music to process his own bouts with depression to explore what it’s like to be a modern Native American, inextricably linked to a history of genocide. He finds inspiration in the parallel journey of African Americans. "Hip hop just resonated with a lot of Native youth from my generation, especially growing up on reservations because we could relate to the stories being told in the music."

A Japanese town that is filled with life-sized dolls The scarecrow looked so much like her father, recently passed, that neighbors spoke to it with reverence. It was then that Japanese artist Tsukimi Ayano began to see an opportunity to replace the dwindling population of her rural village with life-sized human tributes of friends and neighbors. Now, Nagoro has more dolls than human inhabitants, working in fields, waiting for the bus, teaching in a now- abandoned school. "When I make dolls of dead people I think about them when they were alive and healthy. The dolls are like my children." The effect is both haunting and beautiful, as this six-minute documentary shows. Enjoy.
National Geographic


Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.

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"I believe in white supremacy. We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people. I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves. Now, I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us. I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [Native Americans], if that's what you're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."

John Wayne

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