What Are You Celebrating?

By Will Syldor

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Editor’s note: An update column has been posted to better reflect the intent of the columnist before it was submitted for editing.

In my four years at the University of Massachusetts, I have seen many instances of celebration. I have seen groups of people cheering for sports wins, political victories encompassing the wide range of the political spectrum, people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries and so on. Sometimes I wonder why some people are so jovial, so accepting of certain forms of celebration. I wonder what those who dress in Ku Klux Klan robes for Halloween are celebrating, in light of that organization’s history of committing acts of terrorism against black communities.

When people dress up in “Indian wear,” feathers and “war paint” all over, sometimes banging drums indiscriminately, in light of the extensive and present process of the near (and sometimes complete) genocide and colonization of hundreds of tribes and city structures all across the Americas, with no analysis as to what it means for the descendant of the colonizer, to take and use the culture of the colonized for the purpose of amusement, what is it that those people are celebrating?

When a group of white men drive by me in a car, yelling the N-word, and then laughing as they continue to drive by, their actions aligning with the history of people who look like me being terrorized by people who look like them, what are they celebrating as they laugh at their actions?

When folks celebrate Columbus Day, immortalizing a man who succeeded in committing genocide against the island of “Hispaniola,” now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a man who very intentionally enslaved and tortured that population, what are they celebrating?

When students on this campus support things like a Qur’an burning, rejecting the building of an Islamic Community Center a block from Ground Zero, the notion that Islam is a false and terrorist religion, the notion that Palestinians are less deserving of human dignity than Israelis, the idea of women and girls with hijabs or burqas being somehow weaker than women without, and the idea of the dangerous and irrational Muslim Arab that we must, as the great and noble power that we are, civilize through wars and actions that many would not deem great, noble, or “civilized,” what are those students ultimately supporting?

I ask these questions because we are on this campus together. We live on a diverse, albeit predominantly white, campus, with diverse experiences, families, religions, histories and overall cultures. Yet, there are continued acts of overtly and subtly celebrated events, organizations, ideas, moments in history and so on, that have been moments of pain for many peoples. Instead of critically analyzing and engaging with these reciprocal and permanently interwoven differences, many times they are downplayed and ignored, with students of color (and the rare white student) being either tokenized, isolated or generally silenced for bringing these histories, contradictions or intersections up.

Overall, I feel this dominant culture to be one of misinformation. The idea that while people of color are continuously being harassed by various and continued forms of racism in job settings, educational settings, personal and professional lives, it somehow isn’t white folks perpetuating and encouraging this dynamic. The idea that racism only exists when people of color or outright and very loud racist folks are in the room. The idea that KKK costumes, blackface costumes, “Indian” costumes, Geisha costumes, holidays commemorating mass murderers and those racist jokes every now and again are not grounded in any kind of historical pattern or malice at all, but more so in a motiveless playfulness with these cultures or historical moments. That the everyday “forgetfulness” or “lack of experience” that white people feign as a reason for not talking about the very segregated and exclusionary realities that many of them live, says nothing about white people themselves and the essential nature of this campus’ predominantly white culture.

There’s very little talk about our differences in a way that does not minimize or ridicule the severity, richness or fullness of our respective histories and present realities.

James Baldwin wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” He also wrote, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

What if white culture was a nice way of saying mass erasure, mass dilution and mass denial rallied around the central cause of forgetting or playing down what was and is being done?

What would that look like? What, in that type of setting, would you be celebrating?

Will Syldor is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].