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The response of some of my fellow white people to the jeering mob of MAGA boys mocking a group of Native people (including Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, pictured above) after the so-called “March for Life” anti-choice rally in Washington DC on Friday, has been less than spectacular. I’ve had all I can take of “let’s not rush to judgment” and “let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions” and “the media is playing to extremist assumptions.”
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When you label people of color pointing out racism (or women pointing out sexism, or people with disabilities pointing out ableism, etc) a “knee-jerk reaction” or an “extremist mindset,” who does that serve?
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Let’s start with “let’s not rush to judgment.” We can all see in the video that their behavior is appalling, so what, precisely, is the white defense of the MAGA boys against people of color labeling their behavior “racism”?
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If you believe that the boys were “just standing there” or “just dancing” or “just” anything, you’re ignoring the entirety of the sociopolitical context, as if this incident happened outside of our culture and time; as if a white mob swarming a small group of people of color, MAGA hats, or chants of “build the wall” are minor details that have no cultural meaning or bearing on understanding this encounter.
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It’s Privilege 101 to excuse racism by scraping away the context and keeping focus on the actions of the moment, so that the person wielding their privilege is framed as just innocently doing X. “All he did was say she looked nice,” “All he did was stand there and smile,” “All he did was say that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” “All he did was use the OK sign.” It’s a well-worn trick to protect privilege.
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Perhaps even worse than “let’s not rush to judgment” is the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction” rather than a reasonable response. When we make the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction,” we’re insisting that people of color don’t know racism when they see it and are just reacting emotionally, without thought. We’re insisting that our “thoughtful” reaction that does not “rush to judgment” is superior, and should be deferred to. We’re insisting that there are ways in which people of color bring racism upon themselves, and that they are required to test all events thoroughly against white-created standards to satisfy us that they did not deserve the racism we gave them. We’re insisting that people of color require our consent to identify our actions as racist.
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“But we don’t have the whole story.” While white people have no business telling people of color what is and what is not racist, let’s set that obvious fact aside for the moment to entertain the possibilities around “the whole story.”
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“He drummed right in that boy’s face.”
“He walked over to them before they swarmed him.”
“There was a group of Black people there calling the boys racist and homophobic slurs.”
“That Native elder has a history of instigation.”
“One of the Natives told the boys to go back to Europe.”
“The Natives were just using the boys for a hateful political stunt.”
Even IF conservatives are correct and every one of those statements is true, none of it excuses the way the MAGA boys behaved, none of it erases the sociopolitical context that gives cultural meaning to a swarm of MAGA gear-wearing white boys surrounding a small group of Native elders and jeering at them.
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Speaking from personal experience, every woman knows what that smug smirk means. Every woman knows what it means when a privileged white boy blocks your path and stands inches from your face with a smug smirk. Even most white men know, if they’re honest, the face of the smug, taunting bully. We have all been victimized by that boy, watched as the adults excused it, watched as their mothers lied– as — to make us the aggressors.
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To quote Ruth Graham from the Slate article I linked in the first paragraph:
“Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
To the widespread knowledge of what entitled bullying looks like, add generations of racism and genocide against Native people. Add the daily grind of being a person of color in the US and having “TRUMP” shouted at you as a taunt as you’re just trying to go about your business, having “Trump is deporting all of you!” shouted as you as you’re walking down the street. Add generations of having to carefully scrutinize white behavior, learn its signs and symbols, merely as acts of self-preservation. White people, we have no evidence that people of color are “rushing to judgment” here, and plenty of reason to trust the judgment of people of color when they tell us that something is racist.
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Most importantly, no one is asking white people for a ruling on whether or not this is racism. That is not our role here. Our role is to ask ourselves what our level of complicity is in allowing this to happen and what we can actively do to ensure that it never happens again.
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