If we don't believe in white supremacy, take down the monuments to it

Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota State Capitol looks and feels a lot different to non-white people passing by.

Christopher Columbus outside the Minnesota State Capitol looks and feels a lot different to non-white people passing by. Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Here's what Donald Trump just tweeted.

Mr. President, no one learns the lessons of history from statues. Not a single person has ever looked at a statue of a Confederate general and said "Wow. Slavery was really not okay." They see a statue and see a person that society thought worthy of lifting up. Worthy of praise.

People learn the real history, the important stuff, from books. People learn from knowing people different than themselves. Lessons you must have missed.

What do statues do? They assert our grand narratives. Our big stories that hold up the idea of our country. A woman died for a statue this week.

That statue honors Robert E. Lee, a man that betrayed the country he was born into. Lee fought to destroy the United States so that people could keep their slaves. White supremacists rallied last weekend, arguing this statue was so critical to white America that they traveled from across the nation to defend it. For a piece of metal. There have been death threats, boycotts, violence across the nation as others cities moved to take down their Confederate monuments.

It's the same not only each time a statue comes down, but also when we honor an Indigenous place name or change a street sign. People, even Minnesotans, start talking about how we are erasing history. Each time my mind is boggled. I wonder what it is like to grow up with the perspective that your history is the only valid one.

We often forget that the history that we are teaching students shapes their entire worldview, not just their ideas on history. When we are taught white history, white science, white literature, and people of color and indigenous people get one week in our designated month, we are teaching white supremacy.

That's how we get here. That's why we've got young white men with torches in the street. We've taught them that they should be the center of the universe, and they are upset when they have to compromise even a small bit of that space. Like they say, when you are used to supremacy, equality feels like oppression.

These statues come down and white supremacists only see history being erased, because they don't know how the constant uplifting of their stories, and only their stories, impact the bodies, the bones, the DNA of the people who have been, and still are being oppressed in this society.

It's part of my job to go to the Minnesota State Capitol. And everytime that I do, I have to see the statue of Christopher Columbus on the front lawn. When non-indigenous people pass this statue, they probably never feel a thing. But I feel it. I feel centuries of Indigenous erasure sit on my chest and steal my breath. A reminder that my people have been less than for a long time. A reminder that we still don't have the power to control our own narrative.

So people still learn that Columbus "discovered America." That he was this grand adventurer. And maybe in college they will learn otherwise, that he valued gold over human lives. That he saw Indigenous people as less than human. That the Pope gave him permission, as a man of God, to kill any heathen that wouldn't convert. That's what this statue reminds me. That this time in our history still reverberates today when people in North Dakota called Standing Rock protestors animals or when Minneapolis police peed on drunk native men.

This reinforcement happens in big and small ways all the time. When Minnesota Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt fought to keep up the paintings that depicted native genocide in our state capitol, I wondered if he had ever considered what it might be like to be reminded of the ethnic cleansing of your people on the way to work. Probably not. White people are never forced to encounter their inherited trauma in the public square.

When white folks get upset about the removal of statues that have zero impact on their daily life, but are violent and impactful on others, they are saying that our pain and trauma do not matter. When you fight to keep a public statue honoring a general who wanted black person's ancestors enslaved, that is violence. It is real, visceral pain when you force people to see that they are not valued in our society as much as the fairy tales of white supremacy are.

Maybe so many people fail to recognize this violence as such because they can't feel that. They've never had to think about the deep pain that runs through their blood. They've never had to think about how their stories weren't written down because their ancestors were never thought to be worth teaching.

What would it cost you, White America? To take the statues down. To stop appropriating our cultures. To stop using us as mascots. To teach our history, too. Are these memorials to your place at the top worth the pain we feel? We have to pass those statues and remember that not too long ago, that even today, America is not a place where our stories or even our survival are welcome. 

Ashley Fairbanks lives in Minneapolis.