We’ve all seen the video by now. We watched in disgust as white, male high school students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats surrounded a Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington last Friday.
We cringed as they chanted and laughed. We felt the bile surge at the sight of that smug smile on the face of an overprivileged teenager as he stared down a Native-American elder. We admired the strength and dignity of that elder, Nathan Phillips, as he proudly beat his drum and prayed in the face of intimidation.
Then, we flocked to social media to hastily broadcast our anger. All weekend long, we tweeted, retweeted and shared our outrage as it was amplified inside our echo chambers.
However, as a fuller picture of the incident emerged Monday, we were reminded that reality is rarely as cut and dry as a four-minute YouTube video would have us believe. Further reporting revealed a more complicated story that compelled us to re-examine our initial response.
Once again, we failed the viral news test. We got swept up in the online mob without knowing the full story or even taking a moment to consider that there may be a fuller story to tell. Responses ranged from celebrity condemnations to online harassment of anyone affiliated with the school and even threats of violence against students, families and staff.
Even if what we’ve learned since the video went viral doesn’t fully exonerate the teens, there was never any justification for that kind of harassment. Such unfocused, reckless and vicious behavior is unproductive. Rather than maintain the moral high ground, some have chosen to answer bullying with bullying.
But why did people have such a visceral reaction to the video in the first place? What made this specific incident such a lightning rod?
As writer Julie Irwin Zimmerman points out in an analysis on The Atlantic’s website, the video is a Rorschach test for our personal political worldview: “… tell me how you first reacted, and I can probably tell where you live, who you voted for in 2016 and your general take on a list of other issues.”
But the notion that we’re all seeing only what we choose to see doesn’t ask why we’re seeing what we’re seeing, and why it might be so upsetting to so many. In our current political climate, the video was an instant trigger for those who have become accustomed to seeing brazen displays of white supremacy with alarming regularity.
In the wake of the deadly Charlottesville riots in 2017 and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in October, and with the FBI reporting that hate crimes have been steadily on the rise, seeing a large group of rowdy, young, white men dressed in red MAGA hats while encircling a Native American man was a threatening image.
For many Americans, especially those in minority populations, it is impossible to separate President Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan from his racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric. Like it or not, the MAGA hat has become a signifier of intolerance and bigotry, and wearing one is perceived by some as a provocative, intimidating act.
Likewise, the smirking image of Nick Sandmann — the MAGA-hatted teen from the video — has been read as a signifier of white entitlement, even if he claims otherwise. Writing in Slate, Ruth Graham unpacked the menace — intended or perceived — behind Sandmann’s smile, calling it a, “… 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.”
It’s impossible to know if Sandmann’s subsequent statement is sincere; however, his attempt to paint himself as a victim who was avoiding confrontation smacks of disingenuousness. Implicit in it is the expectation that he should be believed. It’s an expectation rooted in a lifetime of privilege, of never having to face consequences for his actions. Few nonwhites in similar circumstances are fortunate enough to be afforded such public goodwill. Would people have been as quick to sympathize with Sandmann if he were black?
Sandmann may not be the villain many want him to be, but his smile remains infuriating to so many because it is familiar. Behind it is the bravado of a white man innately aware of his power and how to wield it. It’s Donald Trump stalking Hillary Clinton around the stage during a debate. It’s Brett Kavanaugh’s petulant Senate testimony. It’s gaslighting, plain and simple, daring us to react then telling us we are mistaken.
While the fallout from this incident reminds us of the importance of getting the full story before we rush to judgment, it’s impossible to deny the powerful feelings the images in the initial video evoked. Even if those feelings were an act of projection, they nonetheless speak to the very real anxiety many Americans have right now about white supremacist ideology seething just below the surface of our country.