Self-care. Triggered. Gaslit. Like a lot of people out there—especially fellow Gen Xers—I’ve become semi-desensitized to a lot of the buzzwords of the moment that I might, even philosophically, agree with. Given their ubiquity on the internet, in application to such a wild range of circumstances (people, film plots, books, Instagram posts, even this newsletter have all been called triggering, for instance), I find that these terms have lost a lot of the potency they held when they first came to dominate the popular vernacular. There is for me, however, one exception: erasure. It stings more painfully now than ever.
The term refers to the occasions in which a dominant culture and economic system forces a minority culture to adopt the prevailing customs and practices at the expense of their own. A very commonly cited and clear-cut historical example is the forcible removal of Native American children from their tribal communities. In a period that began in 1819 and ended in 1969, Native children in the U.S. were sent to federal boarding schools where they were compelled to change their names and manner of dress, and to abandon their languages. (They were also beaten and made to perform manual labor.) The aim was, to quote Captain Richard Henry Pratt, to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Or, put in 2023 terms, the erasure of Indigenous identity was in service of an “American” one.
I’m sure that erasure existed in academic circles before it began to make its way around the internet sometime in the last decade. The Social Justice Wiki updated its page for the term in 2014; it was entered into Urban Dictionary in the summer of 2020. But what it represents has been on my mind for much longer than that: A nagging feeling was planted way back in 1999, when I moved back to Brooklyn from college to find that Williamsburg had been “discovered” by “creatives,” and has grown into a more recent stomachache-inducing recognition that, yes, my home as I’d known it was actively and aggressively being dismantled.
Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, runs through an area that was historically home to one of the oldest and largest Puerto Rican communities in New York. In 1982, in recognition of this history, one stretch of the avenue running from Grand Street to Broadway was rechristened Avenue of Puerto Rico. It’s a famous street with tremendous meaning in the Nuyorican community, especially in Brooklyn. (I have a T-shirt with an image of the street sign on it.)