This isn’t what I planned to write about, but I remain distressed and disgusted by the actions of the Covington Catholic group, especially as directed at Nathan Phillips. I typically don’t write about Native issues, because I know enough to know that I don’t know enough. But I do know about Whiteness, and the Covington Catholic students gave us a full display of its ugly side…and maybe its only side.
I’ve seen the first video that went viral and viewed a good portion of the longer one that some are claiming (unbelievably, to me) is exculpatory. I’ve seen the argument being made that Mr. Phillips was the aggressor; that by virtue of being an adult, he was perceived as threatening and the smirk was really a smile, being used to “diffuse” the situation. I’ve read that yes, the boys were in the wrong, and they just need to spend some time with Native Americans; maybe a mission trip to a reservation could be arranged? I’ve seen comments that it’s really the adults who are to blame: the parents; the chaperones; the teachers; the priests; the school administrators. I’ve noticed some touting the viewpoint that it was just a moment in time, and we (adults) don’t want to do anything too harsh that may ruin his (Nicholas Sandmann’s) life forever.
And all I can say is, “Bullshit.”
Like so many, I know that smirk; I saw it when I was in high school, and I saw it when my daughter was in school. It’s the smirk that says, “What are you going to do about it?” because they know they are protected in some way, whether it’s by superior size and strength, by a position of power or proximity to power, or, in this case, by Whiteness. And when any of that is challenged, they resort to threats and lies and tears and cries of victimhood. I don’t for a second believe the Eddie Haskell-esque letter written by (or on behalf of) Nicholas Sandmann; I’m not June Cleaver and never will be.
Nor do I believe those students were too young to know better and merely got caught up in a moment. Exhibit A for my disbelief: the MAGA hats. These are young men who first attended a “March for Life,” and whether they brought them from home or bought them in DC, a large number decided this was their sartorial choice. This choice screams agreement with the idea that Mexicans are rapists; that women are mere objects to be grabbed at will; that America is only great when its direction and purpose are decided by white men (and an occasional woman, if she is subservient enough). The MAGA hat is the 21st century equivalent of the white hood, and it was worn with [White] pride.
I won’t believe these boys were too young to be responsible for their actions until Whiteness/White people extend the privilege of youth to the Trayvons or the Tamirs; until the practice of shipping students away to boarding school where they were stripped of their language, their heritage, their identity, their spiritual practices to force assimilation into the White man’s world is acknowledged, taught, and remembered as an act of genocide; until the hijab-wearing women who have made a choice that feels right for them and their religious expression can walk down a street without harassment; until immigrants can speak any language they please without being questioned, attacked, or detained.
— shifty paradigm (@heddacase) January 21, 2019
I’m angry, I’m upset, and I’m reminded that allyship is not and can never be a passive activity. I’m also aware that even as I wonder where the hell the chaperones were, I can’t say for certain that I would have acted with any personal courage. Short of full training in deescalation methods, the only way to come close to ensuring one would speak up and speak out is through ongoing visualization of situations and reactions; in other words, practice. Here are a few reminders to help with that practice (h/t this article What It’s Like to Be Harassed for Wearing a Hijab):
1. Don’t be a silent bystander. If you had been in the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial, can you imagine a way to support Nathan Phillips without escalating the situation? What if the chaperones (or anyone for that matter) had started circulating through the boys, saying things like, “Excuse me, I want to get to the front to hear the singing.” What if, once at the front, some adults had engaged in some old-fashioned shushing, with the same message. What if an adult had managed to sidle up next to Nicholas Sandmann and said, “Isn’t this amazing? We’re hearing a song that may well have been sung longer than Europeans have been here.” Would it have been 100% effective? Probably not; but allyship requires trying to do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.
2. Don’t betray yourself to make “them” comfortable. I have, far more than once in my life, been guilty of this betrayal. I would laugh uncomfortably, but not call out; I would ignore or deflect or act as if I hadn’t heard, rather than deal with a racist situation head-on. It’s the easiest thing to do. It’s the most “polite” way to react. But allyship doesn’t center one’s own needs; it centers the needs of those with whom one is claiming to be an ally. De-escalating a potentially explosive situation may necessarily be an initial strategy, but accountability must follow. Imagine yourself as a chaperone from Covington Catholic, finally back on the bus and headed home to Kentucky. Would the ride home be all 99-bottles-of-beer-on-the-wall (or whatever is the Good Catholic version), or would you speak up and express your dismay and shame at their disrespectful behavior? Would you have decided that it was up to the school to handle the situation, so it was time to just let the boys be boys? Or would you have attempted to have a few one-on-one conversations, either with students, other chaperones, or school officials? How does one work towards accountability?
3. Don’t allow yourself to be weaponized against your allies. This is a popular tactic for those who assume that Whiteness is the only alliance that matters. It’s a tactic that justifies: “Maybe the journalist shouldn’t have called the skee wee of the AKAs ‘screeching,’ but it’s ok because she just didn’t know,” rather than “The journalist exemplifies the drawbacks and dangers of the lack of diversity in reporting.” It’s a tactic that claims faux universality: “Well, who wouldn’t be more than a little intimidated with an Indian and his war drum right in your face?” rather than “More than 100 years of White misinformation has taught that drumming by Natives is synonymous with war, but it would be helpful to understand the role and place of drumming in Native traditions.” It’s a tactic that prioritizes religion/race over morality/humanity: “You can’t tell me that you don’t see a bearded, dark-skinned man in an airport and feel a little bit of fear,” rather than “I can’t imagine how difficult it must be travel to and in the United States when so much hatred is directed to people based only on their looks.” It’s the tactic that says, “Good grief, it’s only a silly tomahawk chop; people need to lighten up.” Rather than _______________________. I’ll let you respond to that. Consider it practice.