I’m thankful for the “ungrateful” protesters

I’m thankful for the “ungrateful” protesters November 25, 2015

Tulane Black Student Union protest, my photo
Tulane Black Student Union protest, my photo

The last time I heard my grandpa say the N-word was at a Thanksgiving dinner about 20 years ago. My sister got up and left the table. She refused to rejoin the family unless my grandpa promised never to say that word again. I remember thinking that she was being rude and melodramatic. Because you’re not supposed to make a scene at Thanksgiving dinner. You’re supposed to chuckle nervously and ignore the crazy, racist things your relatives say. Or in this day in age, you just bust out that Adele song. I’m a very different person than I was 20 years ago. And this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for all the protesters who have taken to the streets in the past year, all the “rude” and “melodramatic” people who have refused to play along with racism.

Thanksgiving is a very interesting holiday. It’s based on an idyllic myth about a great feast shared between English colonists and native Americans that never historically happened which basically white-washes the history of the colonists’ land theft and genocide against native peoples. Every white preschool in America celebrates Thanksgiving every year with half the preschoolers dressing up as “Indians” and the other half dressing up as “Pilgrims.” It’s cute. It makes American history cute. Everyone got along fine; nothing bad ever happened. Something essential about the white American ethos is captured in this cuteness.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day about being grateful. We’re supposed to go around the table and name things that we’re thankful for. I definitely think that gratitude is an important virtue to have, but it’s also something that’s easy for me to leverage into self-validation as a privileged person. If I’m appropriately thankful for my blessings, then my gratitude confers legitimacy onto all my blessings.

I can deploy my “gratitude” to establish my moral superiority over people who are “ungrateful.” You know, those people who don’t understand that we live in the most wonderful country on the planet. People who have the audacity to protest micro-aggressions. People who think that fast food workers should get paid $15 an hour when they sure wouldn’t get paid that in any country in Africa or Latin America. People who whine and complain about climate change instead of trusting that God has everything under control. Thanksgiving is the day for ungrateful whiners to shut up and admit that they have nothing to complain about because God has been so good to us (which is the way I narrate my fortune into an expression of God’s will).

Can you see how “gratitude” is not always as innocent as it might seem? I come from south Texas, where politeness is sophisticated and weaponized enough to be a martial art form. And I’m thankful for the people who are rude and melodramatic enough to cut through the bullshit. I’m thankful for the people who refuse to be silenced by the ruse of gratitude. I’m thankful for the ungrateful whiners and complainers who have awakened me to the realities of injustice in the world. I’m thankful for the student activists who never stop teaching me. I’m thankful for all who are dissatisfied because they “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6).

The way you can tell whether people are genuinely grateful for their blessings is how it impacts their ability to listen without judgment to others’ misfortunes. Gratitude never produces scorn against other people. The “gratitude” that causes us to belittle the “whining” and “complaining” of others is all posturing and self-justification. It hasn’t actually impacted our hearts. Truly grateful people are humble and patient. They don’t spit out rapid fire platitudes in response to other peoples’ grief. They understand their privilege as the basis for their availability to the less fortunate. They long for the opportunity to show compassion and empathy.

So be grateful this Thanksgiving, but be grateful enough to be dissatisfied with the misfortune of others. Be grateful enough to speak unpleasant truths. Don’t let your gratitude be a code word for the white-washing of the truth.

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