Those Damn Paper Turkeys

by Helle Bent

Being able to look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving, should I so choose, is a privilege. Only recently did I understand this was a privilege, and one not shared by many.

For much of my life Thanksgiving meant a day off from school (and later, work), a meal with the family (which remains its own maelstrom of obligation and dread unrelated to the privilege of HoLiDaY ChEeR), and of course, mandatory gratitude. “Don’t talk politics, let’s just have some food and family time. Isn’t this nice? Boy, it’s almost Christmas! Where does the time go?”

Like many of you, Little Helle Bent made construction paper turkeys in school by cutting out a tracing of her hand. We learned that colonists graciously shared their kindness and their ways of life with the folks who already lived on the land they “discovered”, and in exchange for generously being permitted to remain on this land, the Indigenous folks shared their maize and everyone was merry and bright and full of turkey. There was lots of thanks and lots of giving.

I now know this is white supremacist bullshit. I should have known this a long time ago, and I’m angry I didn’t. At 45 years old, I’m still trying to decipher which of the “facts” I was taught in school are based in truth and which are propaganda. History is written by white men and everything is through this lens. When other cultures are introduced, they’re exactly that – other. A cultural novelty depending on what month or day of remembrance or celebration it is, but certainly not the default. They’re foreign customs and solitary contributions demanding a dismissive “isn’t that nice?” before circling back to how a bill becomes a law.

White Supremacy is a scary term because we know who comes to mind and we don’t want to be associated with them. I’m guilty of benefiting from a white supreme culture. I’m white. The end. I didn’t get a special “month” because I didn’t need one. Of all my challenges, my skin color was never one of them. My skin color did not require of me another truth. Another history.

When I learn appalling truths about our history that we should have been taught in school, I understand more about the system that’s in place today – how privilege builds upon itself, how power begets more power, and how trauma is passed down through generations (it literally changes our DNA). If we were taught even a fraction of what’s accurate or omitted, it would be impossible to look at ourselves and justify our existence without utter shock and revulsion.

I’m seeing how simply participating (and hopefully succeeding) in a system designed by and for white men perpetuates a white-washed history and reinforces the supremacy given to white skin, whether you and I agree with it or not. It’s there, like flour baked into a cookie. And I’m realizing how fucking sinister the construction paper turkeys are (to speak nothing of speciesism).

When I celebrate the life I have made for myself, I have to acknowledge the truth of the history that enabled me to get here, and the fact that it’s a privilege to not be fully victimized and traumatized by an American holiday. White Supremacy is the foundation of our existence, not just a racist belief we can choose to deny. It’s the default setting of the values held by the men who stole this land, wiped out the existing peaceful, matriarchal civilizations, and built the infrastructure that paved the way for atrocities like slavery, forced sterilization, mass incarceration and extermination, concentration camps, not to mention the sex- and gender-based horrors brought on by their patriarchal puritanism.

It shouldn’t have taken me this long to get here. This is why they keep this history locked in the cellar behind the door with the construction paper turkey on it.