Why Some American Holidays Are Deemed Racist

Columbus Day and Thanksgiving make this list

Holidays such as Columbus Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving give most Americans little pause. But for members of racial minority groups, particularly Native Americans, such holidays result in resentment, anxiety and feelings of betrayal.

Take Columbus Day. While schoolchildren routinely observe the day by singing songs about Christopher Columbus’ adventures and memorizing the names of the ships he used to venture into the New World, a number of Native Americans regard Columbus as a mass murderer of indigenous peoples unworthy of celebration.

Depending on race, how one regards U.S. holidays varies wildly. Even a seemingly fun holiday such as Halloween can raise racial tensions given the number of individuals who fuel nasty stereotypes by  dressing up as someone of another race for the occasion.

With this roundup of controversial holidays, learn more about the racial controversies that surround certain American observances and how not to add to the tensions that surface on these days.

Columbus Day Parade
Columbus Day Parade. North End Waterfront/Flickr.com

Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has been honored with a U.S. federal holiday since 1937. For generations, he’s been branded the man who discovered America. But Native American activists argue that crediting Columbus with discovering the New World ignores the estimated 100 million indigenous people who inhabited the Americas upon his arrival. It also ignores how other explorers, such as Polynesians and the Vikings, are said to have traveled to the New World before Columbus did.

Native Americans also point out that Columbus is undeserving of a national observance because he and his crew colonized and enslaved the indigenous people they encountered and also introduced capitalism, torture, sexual exploitation and deadly diseases to the New World. Accordingly, the American Indian Movement has called for an end to Columbus Day. South Dakota, Hawaii and Berkeley, Calif., are among the places that honor Native people on Columbus Day instead of the explorer. More »

A woman in blackface. Flickr.com

In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for Halloween revelers to dress up as people of another race. Unfortunately, many observers of Halloween dress up as stereotypical figures such as Aunt Jemima or as no particular person but simply as a “Mexican dude” or an “Asian guy.” This shows an alarming lack of racial sensitivity.

If you’re going to dress up as a person of another race, choose someone specific such as Barack Obama or Michael Jackson. Never use blackface, which is largely considered offensive. Instead buy a mask of the person in question. You can also dress up as someone with recognizable enough attire, such as Will Smith in “Men in Black,” that others will be able to easily identify your costume. More »

Thanksgiving Reenactment
Thanksgiving Reenactment at Plimoth Plantation. Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism/Flickr.com

Thanksgiving raises many of the same concerns that Columbus Day does regarding Native Americans. The Pilgrims survived their first autumn in New England with the help of the Wampanoag people, a meeting of cultures often described to schoolchildren as a happy occasion. In reality, the European pursuit of land in the New World, practice of slavery and the deadly diseases they carried ravaged American Indian groups.

Because of this history, the United American Indians of New England mark Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. Views on Thanksgiving in indigenous communities vary, however. Some celebrate the holiday because the concept of “thanksgiving” lines up with long held tribal traditions. These Natives mark Thanksgiving as a time to express gratitude for blessings in their lives. More »

A Kwanzaa celebration. SoulChristmas/Flickr.com

An Afro-centric holiday established in the 1960s, Kwanzaa remains a source of confusion for the U.S. public. Many wonder if the holiday is just for black people and, therefore, racist.

While Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga established the holiday, based on seven principles rooted in East African traditions, as a way to unify black Americans, he’s pointed out that members of other races can participate.

In fact, New York Times writer Sewell Chan described partaking in a Kwanzaa celebration as an Asian American. While Kwanzaa was created with the African American community in mind, blacks have mixed feelings about the holiday. Some view it as a manufactured holiday that appropriates African culture. Reports show that observance of Kwanzaa has dropped markedly in recent years. More »