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I’ve been wondering lately about whiteness and the kind of background violence it encourages people to accept as part of their everyday lives.
As morbid as this is to say, much of my life and the lives of my disabled, QTBIPOC friends is defined by a level of normalized violence. Whether or not I am facing direct threats while out in the world, I can’t help but always feel the creeping sensation of violence present in my background considerations. And, in our present political climate, this violence feels particularly racialized, with far too many recent accounts of hate crimes.
Given this particular political climate, I find myself curious as to why I do not always feel comforted by claims from white friends and allies that they care about me or other disabled QTPOC in the world. To be clear, it is not so much that I don’t believe white allies or white people in general when they say they care about people of color. I’m sure they truly believe they care and I know plenty of white folks who have stuck their necks out for me in several situations. And yet, I still find it hard to believe white folks when they say they care about us disabled QTPOC.
A recent controversy surrounding a confrontation between Covington Catholic school youth sporting Make America Great Again (MAGA) paraphernalia and Native American activist Nathan Phillips has helped me understand why I have such doubts regarding white folks’ sincerity. Nick Sandmann, a private school student from Covington Catholic School of Kentucky, was recently caught in videos circulating around social media smirking towards Nathan Phillips while being surrounded by schoolmates chanting and cheering him on. Following the altercation being documented on social media, Sandmann’s family released a statement through PR firm Runswitch indicating that the videos being circulated did not paint him in a truthful light. More importantly, Sandmann believes he was mischaracterized, his smirk was misread as hostile, and that his behavior does not require an apology, and instead wishes to sit down and chat calmly and openly with Mr. Phillips about the situation. Ultimately, Sandmann goes so far as to say in a recent interview with The Today Show that he believes he was respecting Mr. Phillips by just standing there and he had every right to engage in the calm, peaceful manner he believes he acted in.
Now, it would be easy for me to sit here and tear apart any claims someone caught wearing a MAGA hat could make about simply standing somewhere and being peaceful. Many writers and journalists have artfully illustrated how blatantly racist the phrase “Make America Great Again” is, let alone the violence its supporters have wrought in the short time since the phrase has existed. Anyone who expresses a desire to return America to some golden age of prosperity either does not understand the history of racism, white supremacy, imperialism, and mass inequality propagated intentionally by the US or simply lives indifferent to any non-white existence. Trump and the racism endorsed by his supporters, both openly and subtly, are easy targets for critique and for once are not what I am concerned with.
Instead, I want to focus on the surrounding context, in which Sandmann’s treatment by the media operates, especially in terms of what it says about whiteness and white people overall. In the days since the initial video of the confrontation was circulated by social media, several news outlets tripped over themselves in their haste to offer Sandmann some form of public absolution. Whether it was right wing trolls harassing anyone who rightfully stated the video circulated was accurate in the racism it documented or other notable publications like The Atlantic attempting to offer a balanced, two sides approach to the story, media seemed quick to defend Sandmann. As far as anyone following media coverage was concerned, there was the direct story told by live footage on social media, and then there was the two sides approach, characterized by listening to both Sandmann and Phillips’ accounts equally, spread by mainstream media. The correct response, according to major news outlets,, was to not jump to conclusions about any hostility intended Sandmann and wait until the facts of the situation were in. Sandmann should be given the benefit of the doubt and should not, as many have been quick to do, be judged solely by one expression on his face.
It is at this point in the conversation where I must simply ask: how? How can we be at a point where we can see footage of a white youth, sporting a MAGA hat and surrounded by jeering white men, smirking at a person of Indigenous descent, and turn away from the racism involved?
I have been living under this administration with nothing but a sense of dread as to when I might be put against the wall. I have walked most neighborhoods where cops are present with an even higher sense of unease than I had before Trump came into power. I carry my passport every time I leave my home, for fear that even the most remotely coded “brown” thing I do will have me escorted off as an undocumented person. I have heard tale after tale of friends fearing outright violence from classmates because the current political climate has emboldened racists to be more vocal and violent. I have read article after article documenting the hate crimes high schoolers have had to deal with in schools since Trump’s election, least of which being chants of “Build the Wall” towards Latinx students. I would think we had all reached a point where discussing the racism behind everything Trump and his administration stand for was almost cliche at this point.
And yet, here is the situation we find ourselves in: crowds upon crowds of white people and their media supporters, arguing for the clemency of a white youth. Arguing for fairness to be provided to a teenager who enjoys the luxury of being considered a boy, and having media ask people not to look too deeply into his smirk because who hasn’t “done stupid, foolish, ignorant and downright horrible things that they surely regret as teenagers?”
I want to be angry about all this. I want to believe white people and white friends could understand what is so utterly fucked up about how this whole incident has been received by the general public. I want to believe that it can’t be this difficult to understand why that smirk, why that look of absolute condescension given by Sandmann is oh so familiar to those of us who have dealt with white supremacy.
But maybe that’s it. Perhaps I am now realizing why I have such a difficulty believing many white allies and white people in general when they say they care about our issues. Perhaps I am starting to understand why this kind of media indifference stings so severely and why seeing so many people, white folks in particular, clamor to give this white MAGA hat wearing youth the benefit of the doubt hurts so much.
It boils down to one simple question that I think a lot of white folks are not comfortable trying to answer: have you ever been looked at as subhuman?
I get the impression that many of the white folks reading this or any other work I or other disabled QTPOC writers have created have never had to answer this question. You have never had to wonder if that look someone gives you on the street is one of racialized, predatory violence. You have never had to think about if your whole life, your very existence, is predicated on being worth less than the most incompetent and selfish of white men. Yes, you read our articles, become well-versed in the “woke” literature, quote and go about trying to say the right things and being the kind of nice white person you think we are looking to deal with.
But do you understand our situation, really? Do you think reading articles and knowing all the right words to say is a substitute for truly grappling with how violent incidents like these are for QTBIPOC, what that smirk says regardless of what MAGA youth like Sandmann intend?
If the kind of media response which followed the initial video’s circulation says anything about how invested folks are in protecting whiteness’ false reality at the cost of POC’s lived experiences, maybe I’m right to feel suspicious of white people’s intentions.
But maybe I’m wrong.
Maybe I should wait to hear your side of the story, white allies. Maybe you do stand for more than just performing a hollow niceness in our presence as opposed to a kindness that demands action to right our unjust living conditions. Convince me, and maybe try not to smirk while doing so.