The second Monday in October is upon us, which can only mean one thing: Let the debate surrounding Columbus Day begin! Or should I say, let it continue?
This debate surrounding the abolishment of Columbus Day has been going strong for decades now, and rightfully so. It is hard to justify honoring a man whose actions led to the genocide, exploitation, and oppression of countless indigenous people.
Columbus and his army raped, pillaged, and tortured without discretion. In addition to living in constant fear of being assaulted, the indigenous people were also forced to work in gold mines as slaves. Anyone refusing such orders was beheaded or had their ears cut off. Those who cooperated were not safe either. If workers were unable to reach their gold quotas, Columbus had their hands cut off and they were left to bleed to death. More than 10,000 people died this way.
And if these acts were not bad enough, Columbus also sold girls as young as nine years old to his men as sex slaves. He was also known to allow his men to use the indigenous people as dog food. To make matters worse, even babies were taken from mothers and fed to his men’s dogs as sport.
You may be wondering how such actions were justified and not stopped. Apparently Columbus was eventually arrested and taken back to Spain in chains for his atrocious mismanagement of the people. He was stripped of his title but eventually pardoned by King Ferdinand. He then returned to wreak havoc on the indigenous people.
With that said, it is no wonder why many cities and even entire states, have given up Columbus Day altogether, replacing it with something worth commemorating. The first city to rename Columbus Day was Berkeley, California in 1992. They declared it a Day of Solidarity with Indigenous People. Since then, twenty-five cities—including Minneapolis, Redwing, Grand Rapids, and St. Paul—as well as the states of Hawaii, South Dakota, and Vermont have followed suit.
I wholeheartedly believe that this federal holiday should be permanently replaced across the country to give recognition to the populations affected by Columbus’ actions. I also believe that our history books should expand on the catchy one-liner, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” to teach our children the truth about the unfortunate sequence of events that unfolded after Columbus’s infamous ocean voyage.
With that said though, is it not time for this debate to evolve? The issue at hand reaches far beyond Columbus himself. Let’s be honest here. Columbus was one man. He was merely a pawn in the quest of Western expansion, and now he has become the scapegoat for the atrocities that resulted. Placing the blame solely on Columbus only scratches the surface of the problem. The Students for Equity and Diversity (SED) at The University of Texas at Austin explained it perfectly:
“Though it’s easy to point to corrupt individuals through history and blame them for the wrongdoings of a society, it is more difficult and complicated to discuss the complex systems of oppression that arose from particular instances of Western colonialism and imperialism.”
The actions of Columbus and others like him throughout history have long lasting and present-day consequences. The discussion surrounding Columbus should not be contained in between the walls of history classrooms as the complex system of oppression that occurred from such Western colonialism and imperialism are anything but history. Entire populations continue to suffer from these past actions AND from present actions like it.
The verdict is in. Columbus is not a man worth honoring. There should not be a federal holiday in his name. More importantly though, guess what else should not exist? Systematic oppression. Forgot the abolishment of Columbus Day. How about we abolish systems of oppression? THAT is what we should be focusing on.
So how do we move forward? The first step is looking within. I know what you might be thinking, “Wait! What?! How is this my fault?”
No one wants to think about or acknowledge that they may be part of the problem. To be honest, that is a big part of the problem. This is not a guilt trip though. This is about self-awareness and collective responsibility. It is about accepting that these systems of oppression have become so deeply ingrained and normalized in our society that we all participate in them, whether we are aware or it or not.
Before you get defensive, maybe a more academic explanation from The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology will better explain this social phenomenon:
“Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behavior directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of blacks and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behavior. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.”
To be clear, no one is blaming you for actions of men like Columbus, but you are being called upon to help clean up the mess.
Dismantling systematic oppression will not be an easy journey, but it doesn’t matter how small of a step you take. It only matter that you take a step. Educate yourself. Read, investigate, talk with your family, friends, even strangers, ask questions, and most importantly, listen.
Here are ten tips if you are looking for more guidance in this journey:
Listen when people of color talk about everyday racism and white privilege.
Honor the feelings of people of color in the discussion. It is not about your white guilt.
Ask plenty of questions. Earnestly seek to understand people of color before trying to have your viewpoint understood.
Educate yourself about racism as much as possible before asking people of color for help.
Challenge other white people in your life to think critically about racism—family, friends, coworkers, teachers, and even public officials.
Direct peers towards the perspectives of people of color. Becoming a “savior” is not cool.
Avoid conflating other oppressions with racism unless it’s directly relevant to the conversation.
If you make a mistake, ask people of color how you can fix it.
Adopt intersectionality as an approach to all aspects of everyday life and start taking it seriously.
Openly call out and reject any and all white privilege you witness or experience.
(Source: Mic Journalism)
This Columbus Day do your part. By all means, disagree with the name of this holiday and what it represents. Condemn Columbus all you want. Write your rant on social media, but then take the next step. Do something about it. Start that journey of self-awareness. Read a book. Have a conversation with your neighbor. Look up some community organizations to get involved in. Don’t let another year roll by before this even crosses your mind again.
Are you up for the challenge? “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It’s 2017; what mark do YOU want to leave on history?