We recently marked the 83rd Columbus Day in the United States. The day became a federal holiday in 1937, and while this day may come and go without much thought for many people, where I come from, it’s one of the most divisive days of the year.
I live in northern New Jersey where an obvious majority of the population is of Italian descent. I grew up with friends whose parents invited me over for Sunday “gravy” (marinara) and meatballs. Words like “gabagool” and “super-sod” are just part of the vocabulary.
Unsurprisingly, the town I went to high school in holds a Columbus Day parade each year where people from the area come to boast their Italian heritage and march past the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands on the main street of town.
As a kid, I never thought twice about Columbus Day. In elementary school, we were told that he “discovered America” and that “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” My parents would explain that this wasn’t entirely true and was an oversimplification of history.
In high school, my teachers basically had to “debunk” the Christopher Columbus myth. They explained how he terrorized the indigenous people who really “discovered” America and explained how even the word “discovered” is inherently patronizing.
I’d always been aware of the resistance to Columbus Day. I read articles every year in protest of the holiday about cultural appropriation, the disregard for indigenous people and the perpetuation of white heroism, but the negative sentiments about Columbus Day really escalated in my area this past summer.
After George Floyd’s murder, protesters started to tear down statues of Christopher Columbus in various parts of the country to take a stand against white supremacy.
Many people from my high school took to social media in support of tearing the statue in our area down. This was a pretty shocking moment for our community. Since the Italian-American population is so overwhelming, students who don’t identify with that culture tend to silently dismiss the ignorance, knowing they’ll lose the battle anyway.
No one had ever been brave enough to point out that this Italian-American pride had become outright racism. Students at school wrote on ceiling tiles, “Diversity” and drew an Italian flag and an American flag. There was an instance of an Italian-American girl calling a black girl the “n” word during my time there. Over the summer, many students shared their stories of the discrimination they faced while attending my high school. Many Muslim girls shared ignorant remarks people made about their hijabs and students of the LGBTQ+ community mentioned how they were called faggots in middle school.
It had come to the point that even the thought of the Christopher Columbus statue left a sour taste in people’s mouths. Enough was enough. The protests that occurred after George Floyd’s death gave people the strength to point out what was wrong in their own communities and thankfully this dialogue was finally opened in mine.
Unfortunately, the statue in my neighboring town still stands. The scariest part is that there’s no shame or embarrassment coming from the supporters of keeping the Columbus statue. Knowing what they know about Christopher Columbus, many Italian-Americans still embrace him and the evils he represents because there’s power in claiming ownership of this country.
What concerns me the most about leaving that statue standing is that it encourages people to hide the truth to get ahead. The truth is marginalized groups have done so much to build this country that white men have laid claim to. People of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community have held themselves to the same standards of success as white men, even with the cards stacked against them.
I cannot ignore the hypocrisy that has been divulged from this dispute either. Where are their capitalist principles now? What happened to earning their way to the top? What happened to giving credit where credit is due?
It’s become obvious that the American dream simply excludes marginalized groups entirely. Values and rules that apply to white men suddenly change in the wake of the inevitable rise of the disadvantaged. By allowing this standard of hypocrisy, we’re preventing the majority from succeeding and contributing to the society we all pledge allegiance to.
The 2020 election will determine the future for these groups. It will determine whether or not we embrace the truth and whether or not justice will be served. It’s time to give credit where credit is due and hold people accountable for not only showing disrespect and hate for their fellow Americans, but for rejecting the principles of the country they claim: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.