Monday, October 14, was a day of significance to many different groups, for reasons that at once intersect and diverge depending on the audience. We at Ultimate Medical Academy, through the Diversity and Inclusion Council, recognized that polemic. As with so many opportunities that arise in our day-to-day, we called for civil, educated dialog among our colleagues as a first step towards better understanding and empathy.
First, the facts.
In the United States, the second Monday of October is celebrated as Columbus Day, in commemoration of the Genovese (Italian) explorer Christopher Columbus. Sailing in the name of the Spanish Crown in beginning in 1492, and returning three more times, Columbus laid claims to lands that today comprise islands in the Caribbean, including that of Hispaniola (today, the Dominican Republic and Haiti).
Since the 1940s, this date has been a US federal government holiday, and depending on where you live in the country, some schools, offices, and stores may or may not be closed. Even today, the date continues to hold significance for many Americans, and particularly those of Italian heritage who celebrated Columbus’s intrepidness and his role in linking the Americas with Europe. Further, for a country like Spain, whose trajectory was forever shaped by the explorers sailing in its name, this date is commemorated as a national holiday.
At the same time, more and more Americans are viewing this date with mixed feelings, even preferring to see it as some US local governments do, as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
In fact, in most of Latin America, the date is commemorated as “Día de la Raza,” where “raza” (Spanish for “race”) takes a much broader view of the many peoples who should be celebrated beyond just those of European descent. If you have traveled throughout that region, then this immediately makes sense. The national origins and identifies of citizens of countries such as México and Perú, just to name two, are inextricably linked to the peoples who this day still maintain their languages and traditions.
The Native Americans that Columbus “discovered” had, in fact, been living in the Western Hemisphere for millennia. Civilizations like the Maya and the Inca had their own highly-sophisticated, scientifically- and mathematically-advanced societies. Tragically, populations throughout the Americas were decimated both because of the introduction of highly-fatal diseases such as smallpox and the hardships imposed on their means of living through European colonial practices of the time.
As a result, this date can be challenging to talk about even among friends and family, let alone work colleagues. Since this commemoration doesn’t fall neatly into an “either/or” box, though, we should leverage that fact to create space for discussion. There is real merit, as D&I practitioners and leaders in our field, in allowing for your own vulnerability in collecting different viewpoints. For next year, then, are some suggested approaches:
- Know your history. The above set of historical facts merely scratch the surface. For two vivid, and diametrically-opposed perspectives, each from that time period, let me recommend the two following reads: The Four Voyages (Columbus’s own account from his logbooks) and A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (Bartolomé de las Casas)
- Appreciate and call out the incredible diversity among the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere. From Canada’s First Nations to the Diné of the US Southwest and continuing all the way southward to the Aymara-speaking Urus of Lake Titicaca, there is incredible richness within this term we tend to use monolithically. A great sign of respect for these cultures is to recognize their unique histories, original encounters with Europeans, and their indelible contributions to their respective societies.
- Start embracing Native American Heritage Month (November) with the same fervor you do February, March, June, and September, among other important month-long commemorations in our communities.
About the Author
Brian J. Fitzpatrick
Brian J. Fitzpatrick is the Head of Diversity and Inclusion at the Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA). Fitzpatrick founded UMA’s Diversity and Inclusion Council, managing the efforts of a team of 20+ employees representing every department and location. He pushes organizations outside their comfort zones through end-to-end organizational development. Fitzpatrick’s expertise is rooted in international project work in more than 15 countries, encompassing both developed and emerging markets. He also serves as a board member for the Florida Diversity Council.
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