This Wednesday, September 19, is the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day. So it seems like a good time to rant about our culture’s infatuation with pirates. I’m about to ruin Pirate Santa Claus for white people.
Why do we romanticize pirates?
I was thinking about this recently, regarding a teacher education book called “Teach Like a PIRATE.” “Pirate” is in all caps because it’s a backronym; the method has six steps that feel clearly forced so that they’ll have those initial letters.
The author in the intro is quick to point out that he’s not referring to the “dictionary definition” but “everything to do with the spirit.” Author Dave Burgess (a white man; take that as you will) lays out the spirit:
“Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into UNCHARTED TERRITORIES with no guarantee of success” (caps mine here). “They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence. They are entrepreneurs who take risks and are willing to travel TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH for that which they value” (caps again mine; quotes from page xii).
I want to say that I’m not challenging the author’s approach to teaching. I’m using his characterization of “pirate,” which I think is a fair characterization of how we in White America see “pirates,” to reflect on why white people romanticize pirates.
From whose perspective?
Pirates are colonizers who don’t stay. We romanticize them because, as with making America “great” again, we long for a time when white people were allowed to go around the world, forcibly taking what we wanted from whomever happened to be there (including sex), pretending we discovered it, and slaying any resistance we find.
The only part of “pirate” that doesn’t really fit historical pirates is in Burgess’s second sentence. Pirates didn’t really care that much about creativity. They were in it for the money, the violence, and the anarchy.
Christopher Columbus was not a great discoverer. He was the worst kind of pirate. He was only interested in profit, and he slaughtered any resistance. He didn’t “discover” America, he “columbused” it.
When they do stand up authority, they do it in the way of white people fantasies: Take no prisoners. Take no responsibility. Burn, destroy, take for their own. Not to help others (as in the Robin Hood fantasy), but simply because WE PERSONALLY don’t want to suck up to the Man. Anarchy, not altruism: That’s the pirate spirit.
Meanwhile, though, we white folks still fear African pirates. Mention modern pirates, and our minds go directly to the Somali pirates, particularly the movie “Captain Phillips.”
Modern pirates: Black and scary.
Classic pirates: White and adventurous.
This mismatch is racist and perpetuates the romanticizing of our colonizer souls.