Where Logic Meets Love

How Privilege Sees Thanksgiving

Friday, November 23, 2012

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How Privilege Sees Thanksgiving | Faith Permeating Life

This year for Thanksgiving we did something neither of us had ever done, which was to go to Mass. Living on a Catholic campus as we do now, we didn't have much excuse for not walking the five minutes to church yesterday morning and joining the assortment of priests, other hall directors, and students still on campus. Celebrating Mass with that small community was a very cool feeling.

What was less cool was the homily. When Mike and I discussed it later, he said that this particular priest tends to be social justice-minded, so the things he said -- or rather, didn't say -- in his homily were somewhat surprising. But I think it also goes to show how easy it is to slip back into a privileged mindset if you're not paying attention.

The homily started out well, talking about how since the time of Abraham Lincoln, Americans have set aside this day to be thankful for the blessings in our life. That in many ways, Catholics get to celebrate "thanksgiving" every week, coming together to give thanks to God and share a "feast" together.

It gave me a new perspective on the holiday, that even if the origins of the holiday hearken back to a rather ugly time in our nation's history, the remaking of the holiday into a day of gratitude is a nice end result. Other holidays, like Christmas and Easter, have religious (and pagan) origins that have been transformed to be more commercialized, while Thanksgiving has actually managed to continue to represent mainly good things -- gratitude, family, and (maybe a little too much) good food. If you don't see it as a continuation of "the feast of the pilgrims and Indians" and instead see it simply as a national day of gratitude, it's a pretty cool thing for a nation to have.

Unfortunately, this is where things started to go south.

First was the claim that "all 300 million-plus Americans take the time off today to celebrate this day of gratitude." This started my statistical mind immediately thinking about exceptions. Do all Americans celebrate Thanksgiving? What about Native Americans? What about people who have to work, who aren't given the option to take the day off or can't afford to? Sure, it's a nice image to think that the entire country stops what they're doing to celebrate a holiday as one people, but it's completely unrealistic and untrue.

Then he went on to talk about how everyone would be gathering around big tables to have a feast with their loved ones. I thought this rather brazenly glossed over the fact that not everyone has enough to eat on a daily basis, let alone enough to have a huge feast on Thanksgiving. Not everyone has a home to sleep in, let alone a big table at which to eat a feast. And even among people who can get enough to eat, not everyone has a group of loved ones to eat with.

I thought he was going to acknowledge this when he said in a solemn tone, "Some people..." but then he finished it with, "will take time today to serve at a soup kitchen." Yeah, and some people will take time today to eat at a soup kitchen, I thought. Why no mention of them?

Instead he went on to talk about how not only will we "all" have a feeling of internal gratitude for Thanksgiving, but some people would be moved to have an outpouring of gratitude toward others, taking time out of their holiday to serve "...the poor." That's the only mention they get, a mumbled couple of words at the end of a sentence.

As the priest talked more about this wonderful feeling of gratitude and blessedness that every single American apparently feels during Thanksgiving, I thought about all the stories I'd read recently of people facing horrible life situations this Thanksgiving, feeling anything but grateful for the state of their lives. Where was the reassurance for those who were struggling to feeling blessed this holiday season?

It made me think about the way that many people talk about the 1950s, about when everybody felt safe, everybody knew their neighbors by name, and women all stayed home and tended to the house and children. Of course, this glosses over things like, oh, families who were too poor to have either parent stay home or even for their oldest children to go to school, single mothers who didn't have a male breadwinner they could stay home and cook for, and the millions of people who had to worry about being the victim of a hate crime or being carted off to jail for no reason other than their skin color. Sure, the 1950s sound pretty good... if your little corner of the world was great, and you just assume everyone else's was too.

The kicker of this homily was the part about family harmony. According to this priest, this is the one day of the year when kids give their parents a break by behaving perfectly, and everyone in the family puts aside their differences and arguments to be perfect and loving to each other all day. Because that's what happened in his family when he was a kid, so obviously that's how everyone's Thanksgivings are.

At this point I nearly started crying because one of the worst family experiences we ever had happened on Thanksgiving and will forever be linked to that holiday for me and Mike now. And I know so many people who dread any holiday they have to spend with their family because they have to face a barrage of criticism about their weight or their job or who they're dating or that they're not dating anyone or that they're gay or liberal or Christian or whatever. Humans are imperfect beings, and we need someone to help us find love and forgiveness and gratitude despite the fact that our loved ones may hurt us -- not lies about how everyone's families behave perfectly because it's Thanksgiving.

The homily really bothered me for two reasons: 1) it betrayed a massively privileged view of the world, and 2) it had no point. There was no point in getting up and saying, "Isn't it awesome how every single person in our entire country celebrates this holiday in exactly the same way and eats delicious food and feel loved and grateful and spends a perfectly loving and civil time with their family?" Perhaps if that were actually true, it would be something to be in awe of. But it's the equivalent of getting up and saying, "Isn't it great how there's no unemployment and no poverty and no hunger and no pain and no fighting in our country?" Not only is it patently false, but it also just magnifies the isolation felt by those who are struggling because you've just told them that every single other person has no problems.

If there's one message I try to hammer home on this blog, it's this: Everyone else is not just like you. Whether we're talking about sex or marriage or abilities or faith, we are a diverse people in this world and there is no one-size-fits-all lifestyle for us. If we want to truly see others and understand them and love them as they need to be loved, we must start by acknowledging that our own story is not the only story.

To my American readers, I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving holiday this year. I hope you didn't have to work if you didn't want to, that you were able to spend the day with someone(s) you love, that you got to eat delicious food, and that you got to spend time doing things you enjoy doing.

But if you didn't -- if you had a lonely Thanksgiving, or you ended up in a big family argument, or you were somewhere you felt awkward or unwelcome, or the day just wasn't what you hoped it would be for one reason or another -- I hope you know that it's OK. There is no rule that says you have to feel flooded with gratitude and love and peace on Thanksgiving. Nothing guarantees that a holiday is going to be any different or better than any other day. And there are plenty of other people out there who had crappy Thanksgivings. The sun still rose today, and God is still there for you, and you can keep on being your awesome self even if you can't control how anyone else feels or acts. (You might also appreciate this beautiful prayer for thanksgiving from John Shore.)

We are all different, but we can still learn from each other. Rather than glossing over the difficulties of the holidays, let's encourage each other through them. What are some ways you get through the holidays when you're not feeling particularly grateful or peaceful?


  1. Well-said. I'm going to link to this post from my blog. :) It's so easy to think everyone else's life is the same as mine, and to not even realize that I'm thinking that, and how completely incorrect it is. And that's basically why I'm going to move to China- otherwise I'll think I know everything.

    1. I think one of the best ways to counteract the view of privilege is to get to know people very different from yourself. The link I shared in the body of the post and on Facebook, Let Us See, Lord, talks about this very well. Assumptions and stereotyping become more difficult when you have real faces, names, and stories populating your mind.

  2. It's funny how my pastor seemed to take the opposite route. He talked about how there are so many basic "first article" gifts that we are given no matter our position or situation in life. We all have air, we all have lungs, our breaths are given to us. And while I suppose that isn't universally true, it resonated with me, and several of my friends, who are all feeling a loss or a sense of loneliness this year. That even when we don't have family or friends or a home or enough to eat, there are little reminders of God's love for us, and something to be thankful for.

    1. That's a wonderful Thanksgiving message! I'm glad it was encouraging for you and your friends. I think you might also like the prayer I linked at the bottom, which thanks God for the spark deep in each of us that helps us keep going no matter the difficult circumstances we're in.

  3. Great post! That kind of pointless sermon really bugs me, too.

    Most Thanksgivings we go to a large family gathering, so we stay in a hotel and have breakfast in a diner to reduce strain on our host. I always thank every staff person I interact with in the diner or hotel on Thanksgiving for working on the holiday. This year and last, the diner cashier said, "I remember you! You're the one that always tells me thanks for working Thanksgiving!" It made me feel good but also sad that it's apparently unusual to express thanks for that.

    1. As someone whose husband had to work holidays as a restaurant manager, thank you for taking the time to thank people working! I've actually seen stories on notalwaysright.com where people get yelled at by the customers they're serving for working on a holiday. ??? So yes, unfortunately I think it's rare for people to acknowledge and thank those who are spending time away from their family on Thanksgiving so that a restaurant, hotel, store, etc., can be open for those who need it that day.

  4. I don't have any deep insightful comments, but this was a beautiful and well-written post. I would have been seething with you during that homily. I hope this Thanksgiving had no other strife for you!

    1. Thanks! And yes, we had a very nice Thanksgiving with some of Mike's relatives. Watched some football, ate some good food, played some board games -- about all I could ask for!


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