Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Attack of the Glowing White Khaki Family

I once read that Gloria Steinem regularly writes feedback letters to companies and institutions, both of praise and of constructive criticism. Every day I see images and products that I believe deserve critical thought and community conversations – “Primitive” (a company started by two white women) naming lipstick almost exclusively after African, Latin American, and Asian nations or sacred sites, food branded as “ethnic” (as if all foods in the world aren’t ‘ethnic’) often made by people not from that background and commodifying culture in the process, at-risk plants used in the making of bugsprays and handwash, stock photos of glowing white, straight families used on the covers of books and magazines, etc. So this (Gregorian/Western/Christian) New Year, one of my resolutions is to start sharing my feedback with those who use images, ingredients, and terminology that I find problematic. After writing a few letters, I can use them as templates to use in the future, saving time and still getting my point across (hopefully).
I don’t know exactly why I’ve been so fixated on the Northeast Delta Dental (insurance) calendar, but it has been my inspiration for beginning a routine of letter-writing. Perhaps it’s because there are so many incredibly inspiring and informative calendars, such as Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calendar, that are daily reminders of what’s important to me and confirms my vision for social justice. It’s part calendar (with holidays and moon phases), part history lesson, and part wall-beautification, and I find its presence on my wall and in my life to be grounding and encouraging.

The Northeast Delta Dental calendar not so much.


Does your family look like this? (I know they're not wearing khaki, but you know what I mean, right...those glowing white families with khakis and pressed white button down shirts...)

I think it's important to be able to articulate why images that we're surrounded with are problematic, to be able to break down the theories and ideas around media, gender, racism, ableism, etc into simple terms. While it's completely legitimate to just feel on an emotional level, I want to pour my anger into words that can be received and will hopefully bring about positive changes, such as more inclusive images, expanded ideas of beauty and family, and less teeth-grinding from unspoken frustrations for me!
Here’s my letter:
Dear Delta Dental,
Greetings. I hope that this letter finds you well. I recently received your calendar and while I appreciate that your calendar is not full of corporate advertisement as most dentist offices are, I have concerns that I would like to share with you about the images you’ve used to represent your company and clientele.
While you can not necessarily tell one’s ancestry/ethnicity by their skin color and facial features, a quick look through your calendar shows that maybe 7 out of the 40 models are people of color. This country is made up of people from all over the world and contains the entire spectrum of skin colors, hair textures, abilities, family-makeup, shapes, sizes, etc. Your calendar does not reflect this and thus is not inclusive of your customers. While I myself am white with blond hair and blue eyes, I do not wish to adorn my walls with the small minority of people who look like me. I do not wish to be part of perpetuating the valuing of Eurocentric beauty over all others, inside or outside of my home.

The image used for the month of August particularly concerns me. Advertising often uses glowing white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class family units to portray what “normal” families look like. While I appreciate that this photo is intergenerational, it reinforces a very narrow definition of family. Yes, some families do look like this. They also look like: two daddies, a range of skin colors, a transgender daughter, grandparents with wrinkles, kids with physical disabilities, single parents, and so on.
The images in our daily lives in places such as television, film, advertisements, grocery stores, dentist offices, and calendars, reflect what is valued, what is considered beautiful, and shapes how we view ourselves and each other. Excluding large groups of people from these images contributes to their systematic exclusion and oppression in our unequal society. Using a few people of color as decoration to a overwhelmingly white calendar perpetuates tokenization, giving the appearance of diversity/inclusively without questioning why white is considered normal or beautiful. Portraying a very narrow visual representation of what a “normal” family looks like creates stress for the many children who never see their own families portrayed in a positive way.
I am not putting your calendar on my wall this year and hope that in your creation of next year’s calendar that you take my thoughts into consideration. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thank you for your time.
Dana L Woodruff

more to come...
P.S.  Their response was less than satisfying, implying that their calendar accurately portrays their customers.  Perhaps they believe that all their customers are white, straight, and able-bodied, etc?!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scapegoating Disguised as Sustainability

My recent letter to the editor:

I must admit that I was surprised to read that immigrants are to blame for the US’s supposed population problem in Mark Powell’s Nov 17-30, 2011 letter to The Bridge (Montpelier, VT's free independent local newspaper). I assume that when the author, representing the New England Coalition for Sustainable Population, declared that immigration is the cause of our problems, he was not talking about college-educated, white British people or English-speaking, middle-class Canadians. While less explosive than the dehumanizing and racialized terms like “illegal aliens,” use of “documented and undocumented” still conjures up images of people of color, specifically those crossing the militarized border between Mexico and the U.S. That the people who have been impoverished by U.S. policy and multinational corporations to the point that they are forced to leave their families and communities to work tirelessly to harvest our crops and keep our dairy farms alive is disgraceful. Europeans who colonized the Americas, including my own ancestors who came as Pilgrims without invitation, were undocumented, as it were. They proceeded to enslave the people indigenous to this land and later stole and enslaved people from Africa. Their descendants have benefited from such genocide and some seem to feel entitled to determine who belongs in this country and who doesn’t. We need to take a long look at our nation’s history, our personal ancestry, and the sustainability of our own lifestyles. This is not a time for pointing fingers, nor for perpetuating racism and classism by scapegoating groups of people. This is a time for solidarity. This is a time for identifying and unlearning narrow thinking that divides us, seeking creative solutions, and working together for justice.

This letter to the editor is in response to this:
"Uncontrolled Population Will Lead to Famine" Page 26, Nov 17-30, 2011

Trust Your Struggle graffiti art in Brooklyn, NYC.
Speak the Truth, Even
if your Voice Shakes.

New Year's (at least in the Gregorian/Western/Christian calender) Resolution:
Write more Letters to the Editor. 300 words or less?!

Click here to Take the Pledge!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Winter Immune Health: Tonic Not Toxic

In recent years there have been more and more fear-based reports, advertisements, and products pushing US Americans into anti-bacterializing our lives with sprays, wipes, and gels. This war-like mentality of needing to build our defenses and kill all invaders (bacteria) in order to protect ourselves not only shows a very limited view of the function of our immune systems, it actually harms our health. Using toxic products to “clean” our homes and bodies and attacking common infections with a barrage of antibiotics depletes our bodies in the long term. Our immune system is not meant to be a fortress around our bodies. Yes, its function is to protect our bodies, but it is also a means for us to interact with the world around us.

Taking tonic herbs and foods daily helps to maintain our health, and having remedies that help activate our immune systems during times of stress and depletion is far more effective than constantly exposing ourselves to toxic “cleaners” and “sanitizers.” Herbalism and other healing modalities that are much older and more holistic primarily focus not on killing pathogens, but on strengthening our bodies’ natural defenses through foods, herbs, and lifestyle. When we are overtired, stressed, and eating junk food, we are more susceptible to whatever virus is going around; whereas, if we were well rested and taking care of our bodies, being exposed to this same virus may have no affect on us at all. I do not mean to imply an individualist and ableist idea that if we get sick or if we’re not born healthy that it’s our own fault. Rather, I believe it’s empowering to remember that self-care and collective-care (getting enough rest, plenty of water, nourishing foods, movement, and other aspects of creating a culture that encourages this kind of care) is much more effective than trying to hose down our life with toxic chemicals in order to kill bacteria in our environment. We have evolved with bacteria and need them for good health, and fortunately mainstream US culture has shifted in the last few years to recognize/remember that probiotics and cultured foods (sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, injera, miso, yogurt, etc. – see Sandor Ellix Katz's books on fermentation) are tried and true ways to support the good bacteria in our bodies.

Practices to Help Stay (or Get) Healthy:

Drink plenty of liquids!
Fluids not only give our bodies necessary hydration, they make it more difficult for bacteria and viruses to cling to our mucous membranes (i.e., nose, throat) and cause trouble. So drink plenty of water and tea to prevent getting sick and to heal quicker once you already are sick. Soda, coffee, and other such drinks don’t count as nourishing, immune-supporting fluids (sorry!).

Get rest! Winter is the time for hibernation, to store energy that will fuel that sprouting green spring energy and feisty summer energy. If we rush and take on too much during the resting time of the year, we deplete our bodies. When a full 8-hour night sleep isn’t possible and you need to cram, remember to eat, breathe, and get as much rest as you can. However, try to remember once deadlines are met to take the time to both rest and sleep.  I know, not always do-able, especially for caregivers.  But important to integrate into our lives if and when possible.

Stay warm! Hats, warm socks, mittens, and scarves help us maintain our body’s heat in the colder months. You can also wear a scarf or tube-top around your waist to keep your kidneys warm, a practice that is common in Japan, where the cloth is called a haramaki. In many different traditions wind is an external influence that can enter your body and bring with it sickness, particularly at the nape of your neck and your kidneys (lower back), and especially if you have recently taken a hot bath or received a massage, which opens your body up. If you’re feeling chilled, you can also take a hot bath, foot bath, or wrap around you or lay upon a hot water bottle or microwave-heated rice pack.

Steam! Steams cleanse, hydrate, and improve circulation, while also warming and moistening dry air passages and clearing congestion when we’re not feeling well. In a large glass or metal bowl, pour a kettleful of boiling water over a handful of dried herbs, two handfuls of fresh herbs, or drop 1-3 drops of essential oils into the water. Drape a towel over your head to create a tent over the bowl of steaming herb water, breathe, and relax. Steam for approximately 10-15 minutes. If you get too hot, emerge from the tent to cool down, and then go back in. Aromatic herbs such as Peppermint and Thyme help clear congestion. You can create a mini-steam with a serving bowl or a mug of tea.

Move your body! Unlike our cardiovascular system, our lymph system doesn’t have a heart-muscle to pump and create circulation in our bodies. It’s up to us to get our lymph systems moving, which we can do through movement that we enjoy – walking, dancing, etc. Lack of movement in our lymph systems causes stagnation and can make it difficult to clear infections from our bodies. When we’re feeling under the weather and don’t have the energy to exercise, we can practice self-massage, receive massage from someone else, and/or take lymph-moving herbs such as Calendula, Cleavers, Red Clover, and Spilanthes.

Limit/Avoid Sugar and Dairy! Sugar depresses the immune system and makes you more vulnerable to getting sick. Sweet things like refined sugar, maple syrup, and honey are very concentrated and are a special treat. It's a good practice to limit your intake of refined sugar especially, and during times of stress or when sick, avoid it all together if you can. Honey is nourishing and soothes the mucus membranes and can be added to teas, both when healthy and under the weather. Dairy products create more mucus. Some say this is not true, but it is true for many people, so see how your body reacts to dairy. If you feel more phlegmy after having dairy, you may want to avoid it.

Herbs for Immune Health

Astragalus in flower, Dried Astragalus root, and ripe Elderberries

The herbs below can all be grown in the bioregion of the Northeast US. There are different types of immune herbs – immune tonics to help build immune strength and promote healthy immune response, and immune stimulants to help activate the immune system once you are sick or starting to come down with something. There are also immunomodulating herbs, which can both quiet an overactive immune system (lots of environmental/food allergies) or to build up a depleted one (after a long illness). This is a quick list for your reference. Please keep in mind that each herb has its own traditional use and energetic (i.e. warming/cooling), so research ones that you’re interested in to learn more!

Astragalus - Astragalus membranaceus tonic/immunomodulating - The root is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine and the prepared root looks like a tongue depressor. It is an immune tonic, meaning that you can use it often and over long periods of time to build strength and maintain health. You can take it to prevent getting sick or during recovery from an illness. I have heard that you don’t want to take it while you’re sick because it can potentially make you worse, but there are immune stimulants we can use at this time. To prepare Astragalus tea, like most other roots: simmer, covered for 10—20 minutes in water. If I have time, I like to soak the root in water for a few hours or overnight before and/or after simmering it. You can simmer the root in immune-nourishing bone broths, chicken soup, and other soups; just remember to remove it before serving, or just let people know there are lil pieces of woody herbs in their soup! Astragalus powder can also be used to make Adaptogen Herb Balls - see recipe below.

Medicinal Mushrooms – such as Reishi and Chaga mushrooms tonic/ immunomodulating – Medicinal mushrooms help support the immune system and liver, and Reishi in particular has an affinity with the lungs. Please seek out an experienced mushroomer to learn more about and correctly identify particular mushrooms. Medicinal mushrooms can be taken as soups or decoctions (ideally simmered for many hours), syrups, and tinctures. A simple and alcohol-free way to take medicinal mushrooms daily is to pour the decoction in ice cube trays, freeze, and melt one daily and drink as tea or add to your food. 

Elderberry Sambucus nigra tonic/stimulant - Black elderberries have a long history of use for colds, flu, upper respiratory infections, and is also a preventative. They are anti-viral and can be taken as syrup, jam, juice, or tea (not to be eaten fresh, so blanch or cook them). Elder is also a very magical plant - it protects the other plants in the garden and is said to be home of the faeries. Be sure not to use red elderberries – as this is a different and toxic plant! In Northern New England the black elder’s flowers bloom in June and the berries ripen in late August/early September. (The red elderberries ripen in June, so this is a way to tell the difference between the red and black elderberry bushes.) The flowers also have traditionally been used for colds and flus, and drying up mucus. If you'd like to make your own Elderberry syrup, please see my Elderberry (and Other) Syrup Recipes post.

Echinacea Echinacea purperea stimulant/lymphatic - the roots, leaves, flowers, and seeds are all medicinal, though the third year roots are most commonly used. Echinacea is anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and stimulates your immune system. This plant is not meant to be taken as immune support over long periods of time. It’s recommended to take this herb when others around you are sick, you feel yourself beginning to come down with something, or you are already sick. To make an Echinacea tea of the roots, follow above instructions for making Astragalus root tea. To make a tea with the other parts of the plant, add them when you remove the Echinacea roots from heat and let them sit and steep for 10 minutes or longer. For a tea with just the leaves, flowers, and/or seeds, pour boiling hot water over them and let them steep 10+ minutes before straining. In general when you are sick, you take smaller and more frequent doses than with tonic herbs.

Spilanthes Spilanthes acmella stimulant/lymphatic – The leaves and gum-drop looking blossoms of this plant can be taken as a tincture or a tea, and is also used in mouthwashes and toothpowders. This is a fun plant to grow and you can make medicine from it in its first year (rather than three years, like with the fellow immune-stimulating Echinacea [root]). It’s nicknamed ‘the toothache plant’ because it numbs and relieves pain in the mouth, giving a tingly post-Novocain feeling. It is also numbing and pain-relieving in the throat, so you can use it to ease a sore throat as well. Please let others know about the tingling sensation before sharing Spilanthes – it can sometimes feel like your throat is closing up. Some people are sensitive to Echinacea and Spilanthes can be a great alternative.

Thyme , Sage, and other Culinary Herbs - Thymus vulgaris, Salvia officinalis, and others – Culinary herbs have been used for many generations around the world to help maintain health, both in our foods and as teas or other remedies. Thyme and Sage, like other culinary herbs, relieve congestion, help break up mucus in the lungs, and can be added to soups and taken as a tea or a steam. Thyme is specific for supporting respiratory health and makes a powerful respiratory steam. Sage is soothing to a sore throat as a tea or you can put the dried herb into honey and take it by the spoonful.  And Rosemary, and Mint, and Basil, and on and on...

There are also versatile plants that you may not think of primarily as immune-supporting herbs, but may be a great match for what ails you. Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabsupports the adrenals, soothes mucus membranes, and is calming and anti-viral. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalisleaf and flower is also anti-viral, calming to the nerves and digestion, and is said to gladden the heart. Tulsi (aka Holy Basil/Sacred Basil - Ocimum sanctum) leaf and flower is an adaptogen (helps your body adapt to stress) and has a particular affinity with the lungs, as well as the heart.

Also, please see my Ideas and Remedies for When You’re Home Sick… for more herbal info and suggestions for when you're feeling under the weather.

Echinacea in bloom, Lemon Balm before flowering, and Spilanthes leaf and bud

Recipes for Immune Health

Immune Soup and Spread
Using Miso paste and herbs, you can create a soup base that can be stored in the fridge long term. This is especially nice when you aren’t feeling well and you don’t have tons of energy to put into cooking.

½ cup Miso
1 tblsp fresh Ginger, grated or chopped   
3 cloves fresh Garlic, crushed and chopped
1 tblsp fresh Turmeric, grated or chopped 
   finely (optional)
pinch of Cayenne

Crush the garlic and leave it to sit for a few 
minutes before chopping, in order to make the most of its medicine, as this releases its allicin. Mix together the other ingredients. To make a simple soup, just put a spoonful of the paste into a bowl, cover with hot water, and stir. (Remember that the good living organisms in miso will be killed if you boil them.) If you want, you can add sliced scallions to the soup. You can also add the paste to a soup of sautéed and simmered onions, garlic, mushrooms, greens, chicken soup, bone broth, etc.

To make a spread for crackers and bread, you can just add Tahini (sesame paste) and/or local Honey to the miso herb paste.  The photo to the left on the bottom is of immune paste with Tahini.

Hot Ginger Lemonade
1-2 inch piece of fresh Ginger root, grated
1 quart of water
Juice of 1 Lemon, freshly squeezed
Honey to taste
Pinch of Cayenne powder

Grate fresh Ginger root and steep in hot water for 10-20 minutes. Strain and add freshly squeezed Lemon juice, Honey, and a pinch of Cayenne. This concoction is warming (Ginger & Cayenne), contains vitamin C (fresh Lemon juice), and is soothing to a sore throat (Honey & Ginger). The Ginger root can be used more than once, and depending on where you live you may be able to find it locally-grown, even in colder climates.  ie Snakeroot Farm in Central Maine, Friends and Neighbors Farm in Marshfield, VT, and Massachusetts-grown Old Friends Farm Ginger root can be found at various farmers markets/Coops.

Adaptogen Herb Balls
Adaptogens are herbs that help our bodies adapt to stress. Coffee and other stimulants that give us rushes of “fake” energy trick us into thinking we have energy while it depletes our energy reserves over time. But these herbs are nourishing.

2 cups of Tahini (sesame paste)
1 cup of local Honey
½ tblsp Cardamom and Nutmeg each
½ cup Sunflower seeds
½ cup Sesame seeds
¾ cup dried Coconut flakes (optional)
1 tblsp Spirulina (fresh water blue-green algae, with tons of protein & B vitamins)
Powdered tonic herbs such as:
Astragalus root, Ashwaghanda root, Hawthorn berries, Licorice root (start with a few tablespoons of one or many herbs, experiment with the taste)
Extra sesame seeds, coconut flakes, and/or cocoa/carob powder

Mix the Tahini and Honey together so that they are smooth. Stir in the herb powders, and then the nuts. If needed, add more herbs, or Coconut flakes, until you can form balls that hold their shape. Roll into balls, and coat with Sesame seeds and Coconut flakes if you like. These will keep for many weeks stored in the fridge. Feel free to experiment with other nuts, dried fruit, and to adjust the amounts.

Demons Begone! Fire Cider
Fire Cider is a spicy concoction that boosts the immune system and relieves sinus congestion. You can take a daily shot of fire cider to keep you well through the winter months, or take as needed when you're feeling under the weather. Fire cider can also be used topically as a liniment by rubbing it into sore muscles and aching joints or as a compress by soaking a clean cloth in the fire cider (either room temperature or warmed) and then placing onto a congested chest.  For the record: I haven't used Fire Cider topically before, I've just heard of it being used and like knowing multiple uses for the same herb/remedy

¼ -½ cup Horseradish root, grated
1 head of Garlic, chopped
1 Onion, chopped
¼ - ½ cup of Ginger, grated
1 tsp Cayenne pepper
1 quart organic Apple Cider Vinegar, preferably local and raw

Place herbs in a quart jar and cover with apple cider vinegar. Cover tightly with a non-metal lid (or put a piece of plastic or waxed paper between the jar and metal lid) as vinegar makes metal rust. Infuse for a month, shaking daily or at least often. After a month, strain and rebottle into a glass jar with a plastic lid. You can add honey to taste, if you wish. You can also eat the spicy strained herbs!

Note:  There is an active boycott of Shire City Herbals, as they have trademarked this traditional remedy and are suing fellow herbalists.  You can take action by spreading the word in your community/ies, contacting your local health food store to encourage them to support small local businesses that offer Fire Cider (instead of Shire City Herbals who is sending those small business cease and desist letters), and signing the petition.  You can learn more about the situation and find recipes and more on the Free Fire Cider website and the Tradition Not Trademark  Facebook page.

Medicinal Mushroom Extract
To create an extract that combines both tinctured and decocted (simmered tea) mushroom, divide your mushroom into two halves. Set aside half - if it’s fresh, allow it to dry whole or sliced. Chop the other half (fresh or dried) and weigh it. Make a tincture using approximately a 1:5 ratio - 1 part weight of mushroom to 5 parts volume of menstrum (liquid that you’re using to extract the mushroom), i.e. 2 ounces of dried mushrooms to 10 ounces of menstrum. Cover the chopped mushroom with a menstrum made of: 70% alcohol, 20% vegetable glycerin, and 10% water. (Glycerin is added to help the blend emulsify – otherwise it supposedly gets goopy.) Let the tincture infuse for a month, and then strain. Measure and put aside the liquid. Put the mushroom that you just strained and the dried mushroom you saved earlier together in a pot. Cover the mushrooms with twice the amount of water as tincture, and simmer for one hour to two days. The longer you simmer the mushroom, the more medicinal properties that are drawn out. When you are finished with the decocting, strain out the mushroom and measure the liquid. Return the liquid back to the pot and let it continue to simmer until it is reduced to the same amount as the tincture. Once this is achieved, remove the pot from heat and allow the liquid to cool. Once the liquid is at room temperature, combine with the tincture, using a whisk to blend the mixture together.

Some medicine-makers, after dividing the mushrooms in two, compost the mushrooms used to make the tincture, and then decoct only the other half that they’d put aside earlier. Others don’t divide the mushroom at all, and both tincture and decoct the same mushroom. When I’ve made mushroom extracts in the past, I try to add at least some untinctured mushroom to the decoction. Once after I completed an extract, I felt like the mushroom still contained a lot of medicine, so I added fresh water to the tinctured and decocted mushroom and continued the decoction process. I let it simmer a long while and then let it cool. I poured the liquid into ice cube trays and once frozen, I stored them in freezer bags that I labeled well. This way, I had a deep immune tonic that was ready to use whenever I needed it, to thaw as a tea or soup. You can also add other immune-enhancing medicines like Astragalus and Garlic to your decoctions, or freeze soup/bone-broths that contain medicinal mushrooms and herbs.

Rosemary, Thyme, and Sage, Reishi mushroom, Tulsi/Holy Basil/Sacred Basil

Please feel free to post additional recipes and ideas in the comment space below. If you don't have these remedies in your home apothecary and you'd like to support the community herbalism/organizing work that I do by placing an order, please see my online shop: Dandelioness Herbals Etsy Shop. Thanks so much!

*Ideas and Remedies for When You're Home Sick...
*Ginger Lovers Unite!: Medicinal and Culinary Uses of Ginger

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween, Offensive Costumes & Honoring our Ancestors

As the end of October draws near and we move into November and the colder, darker months of the year (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), death is all around us.  Where I live the leaves turn fiery shades of red, orange, and yellow and fall to the ground. The killing frost turns our gardens from vibrant green to shades of brown and black. Kitchens are (hopefully) abundant with apples and winter squash. Canadian geese depart, flying south for the winter. Even if our cupboards are full with food to last us through the snowstorms and other uncertainties of winter, in our bones we remember a sense of scarcity, the threat of not making it through the barren months of the year. It's the season of grief and of letting go. And in this time of death, two cultures separated by an ocean and a sea celebrate the ancestors.

In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated only a day or two after Ireland's Samhain (pronounced sow-en), the pagan roots of the modern day Halloween. Personally I was not raised with these traditions. I dressed up as monsters and genies for Halloween, carved pumpkins, and went to my old babysitter's for popcorn balls and my neighbor's for candied apples. I was unaware that these festivities, though they changed over time, were derived from traditions from my own ancestry.

Beginning to attend Samhain gatherings and seeing the connections between the autumn season of loss and letting go, honoring my ancestors at this time just felt right. Once my grandmother and then my grandfather, and most recently my herbal teacher, passed through to the other side, honoring my ancestors became much more tangible for me. Rather than lighting candles for those whom I had never met, I now created altars with their photos, surrounded by objects of theirs that were left to me or that I knew that they would like. Since both Grammy and Pop-pop had a sweet tooth, I leave them chocolates and candies. During Samhain, it's said that the veil between the living and the dead is the thinnest than all other times of the year and it's common for our ancestors to visit us in dreams. This is a time of remembrance, grief, and celebration. In a culture that fears death and most often avoids it altogether, creating space to honor our beloved dead feels healing, grounding, and timeless to me. Though Dia de los Muertos celebrations are new to me, it seems that there are strong similarities between these celebrations and Samhain. From what I've been told and shown, people in Mexico (and other countries as well, but most of my friends who celebrate Dia de los Muertos are from Mexico) create gorgeous altars filled with cempasúchil (Tagetes marigolds, also known as 'Flor de Muerto' or Flower of Death) and other flowers, sugar skulls, photos, candles, and other objects to remember and honor loved ones who have died. Like Samhain, this is a time of both reverence and celebration.

Dia de los Muertos altars.

Now, these practices are in stark contrast to mainstream U.S. Halloween culture. At a time where many people honor those who have gone before us and shaped who we are today - both those directly in our lives and those who lived many generations ago long before we arrived - common sights that directly disrespect the cultures and peoples that many of us descend from can cut particularly deep. Ridiculous Halloween decorations such as this:

Decoration of a witch who's
flown into a telephone pole.

may provide entertainment for some, for me it reminds me of witch burnings. It reminds me that there is much of my heritage that I did not receive - that's been lost forever - as it was burned up with those who were systematically targeted, tortured, and executed by the many-thousands or millions, depending on the source. (See Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Text here. This is just one time period in one place on the planet, witch-hunts have happened in many times and places.)  Though witches historically have been, and continue to be, healers/herbalists in their communities, in stories, films, and Halloween costumes, they are portrayed as ugly, mean and sometimes green-faced old women.  Problematic representation for many reasons - ie anti-woman, ageist, anti-pagan.

Last year during Halloween-Samhain-Dia de los Muertos-time I saw Colorlines' "Seven Racist Costumes to Avoid This Halloween" post, which validating my gut-reactions to costumes such as "Afro" wigs, dressing as "a Mexican" or "Redneck," not to mention Blackface.  These are a few examples of the costumes that perpetuate racist and classist ideas - "exoticizing" entire groups of people, reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes, and making light of the very real and ugly realities of racism and classism in this country. Just glancing briefly over those seven examples fills my mind with stories and images - Eurocentric ideals of beauty, Black women forced to straighten their hair to keep a job and/or be taken seriously while non-Black folks try on Afro wigs just for fun, "White trash" parties at my college where rich white kids would act out what they thought poor white folks did/ate/talked like, Life-threatening border crossing through lands that used to all be part of Mexico and indigenous long before that, Indigenous groups denied sovereignty and the right to practice their spiritual traditions (check out Native Appropriations: But Why Can't I Wear a Hipster Headdress?), The history of blackface and lynching in the U.S., I could go on and on...

That this season is a time for honoring the lives of our ancestors and their struggles, makes these costumes even more offensive. That this country has done little to remedy in any way the legacy of colonization, slavery, stolen land, and genocide that it was founded upon, how can anyone possibly dismiss these concerns, telling others to "lighten up" and "stop making a big deal out of nothing." These costumes are just one visual manifestation of the poison of racism (and classism, xenophobia, sexism, etc.), and the discussions around them can veer off into a debate on so-called free speech that lacks any sense of history and accountability, or they can help to raise difficult, painful, and potentially liberating conversations around power, privilege, representation, culture, history, and ancestry. (To read some dialogue, see Can Your Halloween Costume Be Racist, Even If You Aren’t?)

In response to Blackface, Geisha, Indian/Native American, Middle Easterners-as-terrorists, and other offensive costumes that perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation, a student group at Ohio University, Students Teaching About Racism in Society (S.T.A.R.S.) launched a We are a Culture, Not a Costume campaign:

When exploring difficult topics, it's often easy to get lost in words, where personal stories get drowned out or twisted by media misrepresentation and misinformation, and statistics and studies are used to justify and uphold unexamined and racist perspectives. These images from the campaign get straight to the heart of what is so offensive about racist costumes and the entitlement/defensiveness that is often part of the reaction to these issues being raised. In a culture where a disproportionate number of people of color are targeted by law enforcement/the school-to-prison pipeline/the prison industrial complex, where the mainstream media usually tokenizes people of color (the foreign Asian student, the Arab terrorist, the dangerous Black man, the submissive Asian woman, etc.) or excludes them altogether, and where white people/corporations profit off of the culture of communities of colors, racism is an explosive topic.

As a white person, I can only speak to other white folks on this matter. There's no right thing to say about all this and there's no way to fix it all overnight. What I've found the most helpful is to, first, listen. When someone's upset about something that you've said or done, especially if that person is part of an oppressed group (someone who is a person of color, has a disability, or is working-class, queer, transgender, etc.) and you're part of a privileged group (white, straight, cis-gender (non-transgender), (temporarily) able-bodied, middle/upper-class, etc.), just start by listening. It's common to become reactive and want to explain what you did. There's this cultural belief that if you didn't intend to cause harm that you're somehow automatically absolved from taking responsibility for the harm your words or actions may cause. This is not the case. Freedom of speech does not mean being able to do or say what you want without any kind of accountability. It's easy to get defensive and write someone off as being over-sensitive or angry.  However, in a culture that encourages and values the voices of certain people (the privileged groups listed above) while excluding and silencing others (the oppressed groups above), we've got some serious self-reflection and re-education to do.  And sometimes it can feel endless and overwhelming.  However, though we may not be commonly taught about it and it may sometimes be difficult to remember, there's a long legacy of resistance of people from all ethnicities/ancestries. For me, part of honoring my ancestors includes actively joining the many who are working for racial justice, a movement that stretches back through time and forward into the future.


For those who are interested in listening, learning, and digging deeper, I suggest these two books that I've learned a lot from and am re-reading:  "Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum and  Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel.

Unsure if your Halloween costume idea might be offensive?  Check out this poster from Hampshire (College) Halloween:

Have you been called-out for wearing an offensive/racist costume?!  Here' s a great video by Chescaleigh on how to apologize. 

Day of The Dead Pilgrimage/Peregrinación del Día de Los Muertos ~Remembering the Dead, a project of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.  "Each year on the Day of the Dead we host a pilgrimage to commemorate the migrant lives lost in the desert. We want to ensure we honor the unidentified, to say the names of those who have been named, and, to not forget. We will walk with crosses, each of which represents the number of remains found in the Arizona desert and recorded by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office."   2017 event info here.

Photo by Brenda Norrell

"Is Your Halloween Costume Racist?" Flowchart by College Humor. 
Click on this link to see a larger version.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Challenging Columbus Day

I probably shouldn't be surprised that Columbus Day is still celebrated. I think it's important that he be remembered. What completely shocks and appalls me is that he is still celebrated as a hero, that internet searches turn up biographies that are straight out of 3rd grade book reports that are regurgitated from history books written solely from the colonizer's perspective, describing this "explorer" as the forward-thinking man who proved that the world was not flat (while people had known the earth was round for centuries). The cycle of misinformation continues and continues, warping our perceptions of the foundations of the United States. If any of the very words of Columbus and his crew are even included in textbooks and history classes, they're cherry picked for condescending, dominating, assumptive descriptions of the land and people that he supposedly "discovered." The tales of rape and enslavement of the indigenous people of the lands he invaded are not mentioned. The mass genocide and torture don't make it into the book reports.

Being in grade school in 1992, bombarded by "500 years of Discovery!" in class and the "500 years of Catholicism" Boy/Girl scout retreat, there was no acknowledgment of the of what these five centuries have meant for the many indigenous nations that were in the Americas and Caribbean long before European invasions. I happened to be in eighth grade that year, the year when an entire quarter of the school year was devoted to Christopher Columbus. My classmates studied and presented on the music and fashion of that time. My friend (who has indigenous ancestry on her mother's side) and I (who's Pilgrim ancestors enslaved indigenous peoples) collaborated to paint another perspective. We created a mural and painted it at the front of our history class, where all the students could see. Rather than the common Eurocentric view - from the boat's vantage point, perceiving the exoticized lands and peoples that they encountered, we showed an indigenous person with the boats arriving behind them, and lined either side of the mural with bloody handprints. Somehow, despite what we were learning in school, we knew that what we were being taught was not the truth. Somehow, we not only designed the mural, we were allowed to paint it and I believed it stayed up for a few years, too.

This mural's image (and its message - that there are other perspectives, more stories than what we're commonly taught) that my friend and I created should not be a tiny current against the glossed- over miseducation we receive in our culture and its schools. While I'm glad that we offered another, more accurate perspective to what we were surrounded by, this pro-conquistador misinformation is unfortunately what is still being taught and celebrated twenty years later. While it's important that the teachers, parents, mentors, and other adults in childrens' lives who are concerned with truthful history and challenging racism speak up about the truth about Columbus, it's not only youth that need to be schooled.

The mainstream history taught in schools and the media glorifies and justifies (both through its lessons and its omissions) racism, imperialism, genocide, rape culture, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. Unless we consciously and collectively re-educate ourselves, listen to our elders and learn history from those who lived it, seek out the voices of those who are systematically silenced, and share truthful, inclusive information with each other, we will continue to hold, and be held-down by, misinformation that seeks to divide us.

Below I've included some of my favorite truth-about-Columbus resoures - an article, video, and many images. Please share these resources with teachers, students, neighbors, classmates, parents/guardians, children, youth, co-workers, and others in your life. Please also leave comments with other resources that you've drawn upon and would like others to know about and share.

Columbus Day Celebration? Think Again article 

Reconsider Columbus Day!

In these time of racist anti-immigrant laws running rampant through our country and creating inSecure Communities, asking questions about who "belongs" here, whose land this is, the history that we're taught about the past and the present, becomes more and more important. Where are your ancestors from? If they are not indigenous to this land then how did they get here? Why did they come? How were they received? What laws discriminated against them or benefited them? What laws discriminate against you and your family and friends or benefit you and your loved ones? How many generations have you been on this land? How does the history of colonization in the US affect you? How do militarized borders affect you? What peoples in your communities are silenced due to racism, colonization, and militarized borders?

Please see previous Dandelioness Herbals blog post:
*(Im)migration and Lip Balms for Social Justice?!

Invaders Weekend/ Day of Indigenous Resistance additions:

Transform Columbus Day Alliance site.
Unitarian Universalist Associations' Indigenous Peoples Day site.
A Guide to Celebrating Indigenous Peoples Day by Taylor Payer

Mural by: MEChA, University of Wyoming, from Frank's wall, depicting the effects of the invasion of Mexico by Spaniard Hernan Cortes. Effects which continue today across not only Mexico, but all of the Americas.

Venezuelans in Caracas tear down the statue of Christopher Columbus on Columbus Day and rename it the Day of Indigenous Resistance.


English-Only what?! Check out this map of the major linguistic groups in what is now known as North America (Canada, US, and Mexico) and the Caribbean.  (See 'So You Want to Learn Spanish?! Hooray! English-only, No Way!' post)

Additional Images and links posted Oct 2012 and 2015