On Smirking. (Thoughts by a Native Woman)
There has been much back and forth in the last few days, about what exactly happened when a crowd of kids from an all-boys Catholic High School in Kentucky and a Native Elder found themselves in a photographed and filmed confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Some of the facts have been un-refuted: the identity of the group of boys and the fact that they had been bussed to DC to participate in the March for Life, the identity of the Elder (Nathan Phillips) and the fact that he was there for the Indigenous People's Movement march, and the fact that at some point this Elder and these Children found themselves within inches of one another, in a moment which lent itself to scores of dramatic photos and videos.
From there, the debate begins. Did the boys intentionally intercept the Elder and block his free-movement in an effort to intimidate him? (Unlikely.) Did the Elder approach the boys? (Likely.) Was he stepping in to diffuse a situation occurring between the boys and some Black protestors? (Possibly.) If so, was this protection or confrontation? (?) Was he just trying to access the Lincoln Memorial, through the crowd? (?) Were the boys harrassing the Black protestors? (?) Were the Black protestors harrassing the boys? (One video shows this hapenning after the confrontation with the Elder, yes.) Were the boys mocking the Elder? (?) Was the Elder trying to calm the boys? (?) Was someone chanting "Build that Wall?" (I don't know, but in the context of the hats, that seems likely.) What was going through the boy's mind as he stood, inches from the drum, smiling? What were the boys in the background thinking as they smiled and laughed and stomped? We really don't know.
What followed the incident was predictible: A variety of people took the images and videos and reacted to them according to their pre-existing beliefs and personalities. The boys were demonized, the boys were defended. The boys were threatened, and used as an example of the dismal state of the world. The Elder was revered, the Elder was accused of staging the confrontation so it could be spun into untruth. Apologies were called for, angry letters were written. Conservatives were accused of being heartless racists, Liberals were accused of being sissies who can be hurt by a look. Memes and tweets were shared, and re-shared, and re-shared until the story had taken on a life of its own and untruths abounded (probably on both sides). And the confrontation rippled out and out and out and was copied and enhanced and re-cloned and people who are kind and loving to those in their daily circle were cruel and hateful to each other online.
As a woman, as a former conservative, as a follower of Christ as I understand him, as a descendent of colonizers, as a descendent of Indigenous Peoples, as a person who has twice attended the March for Life but would not do so again, as a descendent of Catholics and Baptists and multiple people groups whose language and culture have been attacked and intentionally eradicated, I can only react to these events through my own combination of lenses. I enter the conversation with that knowledge, but also with the knowledge that I must speak.
Much has been made of the idea that these boys were just being where they were, doing what they were doing, and did not initiate confrontation. They were just waiting for their busses, chanting school slogans. Except, that's not true to my experience. If you're struggling to understand how these boys were being confrontational, here's the thing that I want you to know. People like me experience people like these boys wearing a MAGA hat as a confrontation. Our experience, over the last 3 years, is that a "Great America" has been defined again and again as one which prioritizes the needs and preferences of white Christian Americans over those of anyone else. Additionally, it prioritizes men's preferences and desires over women's and able-bodied, cis-gendered, straight persons over differently abled or LGBTQ Americans.
I understand that this is a debatable point, and I'm not here for the argument about whether or not that's objectively "true". I am telling you my experience, which has not been mitigated by any conversation I've had with any MAGA supporting stranger, friend or family member yet. A MAGA hat announces, as brightly and directly as possible, that the wearer is in support of a whole list of policies, statements, beliefs and actions that I find horrifying, grief-inducing, dangerous, compassion-less, threatening, disrespectful, and devastating to the safety and well-being of myself and people I love. Because of the actions of our president and the throngs of people who attend MAGA ralleys, the wearing of a MAGA hat also tells me that the wearer is un-interested in approaching any conversation with someone they view as being "on the other side" with anything short of absolute confidence at the justice of their position and the goal of verbally humiliating or insulting of their opponent.
So, did the boy in the video disrespect the Native Elder? Or did he just "stand there quietly"? (For simplicity sake, let's just talk about the boy in the center. There's a much longer conversation we could have about the experience of oppressed people when confronted by a large crowd of white males, but I don't have space in my spirit to start that conversation today.) In order to answer this question, I have to go back to another event which flashed the oil in the social-media pan: the groping of Ariana Grande on international television at the funeral of Aretha Franklin. Another much-debated situation (did the Bishop just accidentally touch her? Was he just trying to give her a friendly hug? Was he taking advantage of her and groping her? How do we determine what is, and is not, sexual assault anyway??), I found that the "sides" in the debate generally fell into two categories. Either you were a person who had experienced a touch that made your body withdraw and your face fill with the panic of being trapped in a situation you couldn't escape and you recognized that feeling in Ariana Grande's body in that moment, or you had no idea what we meant when we said "that look on her face". (To be fair, there is a sub-category of persons who have a powerful empathic sympathy and could read her body even though they hadn't experienced the situation themselves. Most of those people are close to someone who has experienced some form of unwanted touch or sexual assault.) We could talk round and round the situation all we wanted, but it ultimately came back to that dichotomy: either you got it when you looked at her, or you didn't.
The situation this week at the Capital is the same. We can go round and round until we're blue in the face, arguing whether the boy was being respectful or not, who started it, what was said, what was chanted, who stepped where first. But the truth is, if you've never been faced by the look of certainty, confidence, superiority and power that is unique to a person who fully believes they have the strength of their entire country behind them, you don't understand. You might have seen this look on the face of the pastor's son at a youth group snow-day, when he threw a specially-made icy snow-ball in your face, and then stepped up to dare you to do something about it. You might have seen it on your father's face after you tried to stand up for yourself, when he told you to never challenge his authority, because you don't wear the pants of this family, he does. You might have seen it in the face of a bully at school, an older sibling, a kid from the rich side of town, or a police officer who's pulled you over for no reason. There are a million places you might have experienced this look and you know it, deep in your bones. You know the way it's designed to make you feel small, and powerless, and inferior and out of place and just less. And when you saw this picture--of this boy and this Elder--you saw that look, topped with a MAGA hat. You felt it in the pit of your stomach, and you knew. Whatever else anyone else has to say about why and how and who and "what actually happened", you knew. The confidence of a white boy with the sense of having his entire country behind him, doing his best to stand-down the wrinkled Native Elder singing in the language of his Ancestors--this is it. This is America. This is America, today.