we see things not as they are but as we are

I wasn’t there and neither were you. We are both bringing ourselves to a discussion that is ostensibly about a high school kid and an Omaha elder, and a bunch of other people, too.

“We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

I look at Sandmann and I see a kid not unlike my own son - white, good-looking, able-bodied, educated. I see a son because I am a mother. (Be aware that you might see this kid as your kid. I did. I’m aware that I call him a kid even though he’s a young man. I’m aware of my choice to see him as pardonable by his age because I see him as a kid. If he were black would I call him a kid? If he were black, would CNN call him a student, a teen? Be aware of the unearned benefit of the doubt that you’re willing to offer him because he looks like someone you love.)

I look at Sandmann and I see a young man whose parents signed a permission slip to send him to a heated political event (DC March for Life) where he would march alongside other protestors, in support of the removal of personal liberties from people who are not like him. I see a son and a young anti-choice activist whose body will never be policed like mine. (Are you still seeing your own son? Are you telling me that he’s too young to really know what he was marching for that day? His own parents and teachers didn’t think so.)

I look at Sandmann and I see a young man who didn’t know what to do with his discomfort so he listened to his instincts that told him to save face no matter the cost. (I’m guessing, of course I don’t know. But I recognize that uncomfortable smirk, and it’s the outward expression of an internal fight between fear and posture.) I see a son and a young anti-choice activist, and a half-grown man who made the worst, most predictable choice when he met someone who was not like him. (Are you looking at Sandmann with compassion? There’s someone else’s son on the tape, too. Notice which person you protect, instinctively, because you can imagine his emotional state, and which person you assume is fine because his emotional state feels totally foreign to you. All people have all feelings. What was Phillips feeling in that crowd of young men, an elderly man armed with prayer and a drum? Open up your empathy.)

I look at Sandmann and I see a young man who, okay, sure, might benefit from learning more about Native culture and history, but who I honestly believe would have reacted that way to any ”othered” person who stood in power in front of him: a Latinx woman, an Asian person, a disabled person. While his education may be deficient, the solution to this situation is not just learning more about the Omaha people. If we say that the problem is ignorance of history, then we make the solution an intellectual one, and pardon ourselves from addressing the real cultural, personal, emotional issues here. The solution is not more book reports. The solution is systemic change that begins with internal inventory and emotional intelligence. And, yes, eventually, a dramatic reduction in the power and benefit of the doubt that we give white men who simply show up.

The problem isn’t underexposure to Native culture; the problem is overexposure to white culture.

I look at Sandmann and I see a person old enough to dress himself. He picked that red hat to go to an anti-choice political event. He expected a conflict and so did his friends.

(Question: is this paragraph veering dangerously close to, “He was asking for it, look what he was wearing?” I don’t think so. Power dynamics make that kind of equivalency fallacious; identity markers like race and sex influence the perception of this kid’s relative status and power. While white boys are of course not immune from the sexual assaults that might result in an “asking for it” type comment, and while his hat was designed to be provocative, the only way to paint this kid as a victim is if you believe that the people who wear MAGA hats as acts of self-empowerment don’t realize that they’re empowering themselves at the expense of others. His hat is a team jersey, not a low-cut shirt. A person in a low-cut shirt might telegraph self-love and empowerment. A person in a MAGA hat also telegraphs self-love and empowerment, but chooses to publicly root for a team that believes that the path to self-love and empowerment is paved with the dignity and safety of other people.)

Sandmann got the conflict he expected from the protestors who yelled at his school group. The school group knew how to respond: yell back. Textbook conflict.

Then he got something else. Nathan Phillips confounded him because he was actually conflict-free, when you look at it. Phillips did not invite violence. He didn’t insult the school group. He moved through them with his own nonviolent expression. He invited witnesses and listeners. That’s not a conflict Sandmann or his friends knew how to navigate, so they responded with mockery and ridicule. Because, yes, they’re young adults in heightened states, and because they belong to a community of red hats where schools pay for buses to send young people to march for the oppression of women. (Context matters here. How did all of these people arrive on the same spot at the same time? These students didn’t stumble into a heated situation; they woke up that morning with the heated situation written on their calendars, wore the clothes that would heat the situation, boarded a bus to the heated situation, and then claimed to be victims of third-degree burns. To quote CJ Cregg, “This kind of thing, there are no victims. Just volunteers.”)

So I’m bringing motherhood, feminism, and a white person’s attempt to support racial justice to my reaction to this event.

My motherhood tells me to believe the child is good.

My feminism tells me not to forget why this young man went to DC that day.

And what about the part of me that wants to yell from the rooftops that I’m on the right side, I’m a good mother, that I would never let me kid behave that way? That’s the part of me that’s an ally, right?

Nope. That’s the part of me that cares about what happened to Nathan Phillips, but cares more about preserving my self-perception as a good person.

My loud, familiar whiteness tells me to run screaming as fast as I can from these MAGA folks so everyone knows I’m not like them and my kids would never do such a thing.

My delicate racial justice foundation tells me that I have to sit right where I am and look, unflinching, at how close I really am to them, and see how easy it would be for my own son to behave just as badly.

It’s important to recognize that we see things not as they are, but as we are.

How do you see this event?

If you’re a white parent who wants to make sure your kid never behaves this way, a couple of things:

  1. You can’t actually do that, sorry. There are no insurance policies for parenting (although if someone figures out how to do that, put me down for a policy against raising a Proud Boy, a Brock Turner, a Brett Kavanaugh, or a guy who calls pigtails handlebars. Thanks.) As our kids get older, friends, pop culture, and other “role models” begin to have massive influence on them.

  2. That doesn’t mean you’re absolved of responsibility for your child’s behavior.

  3. That also doesn’t mean that your child’s behavior occurred in a vacuum.

  4. First and foremost, parents, start to work on your own attitudes about race, whiteness, colonization, white supremacy, and entitlement. There are so many amazing books out there - I personally recommend Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race for anyone who wants to learn more about how they can help affect change. What do you think you’re owed? How do you respond to stories about Black Lives Matter or cultural appropriation? Your kids are listening. Their behavior is a reflection of what my friend calls “the pickle jar,” the community in which they live. When you swim in brine, you get pickled. What’s in the brine? Well, in America it’s pretty tangy, not gonna lie - you got your misogyny, your fat-phobia, your disgust for the disabled, your rampant deeply-rooted racism… and we’re all pickles. Not because we’re “bad people,” but because we live in the pickle jar. Now that you know you’re pickled, what are you going to do about it? Until you know who YOU are, you can’t help your kids know who THEY are.

  5. Under no circumstances should we ever consider sending our children to the homes or communities of people they’ve harmed to “learn more about them.” Would you send a domestic abuser to volunteer at a battered women’s shelter? Good lord, people. No. If your kid has demonstrated disregard for the humanity of a group, your #1 priority is protecting that group from your child until your child has learned why it’s wrong to hurt people. You don’t get to stack up more people for your kid to “try not to hurt” because all you’re doing is helping your kid hurt more people.

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