It’s so easy to point fingers. And we shouldn’t be so quick to do so.
But in this case, despite what many media outlets are trying to tell us a week out from that Lincoln Memorial encounter, we should be pointing.
And yes, also at our own children.
It’s right to publicly repudiate that smirking, sneering White face under a red MAGA cap, planted inches from wisdom being manifest by and through Nathan Phillips. It’s right to denounce the mocking mimicry of Native dance being performed by White bodies surrounding Phillips and Nick Sandmann, and the sarcastic comments you can hear on any of the videos—“dude, what’s going on???”’ repeated not as a real question but as an invitation to more ridiculing laughter, and, yes, even the “tomahawk chop.”
So, yes, point fingers. But let’s also have a real conversation about our children’s mournful display of racist behavior.
Here’s a group of White youth clearly ignorant about the reality that Native peoples are living, breathing, diverse human beings who have inherent dignity. Here is a group of White boys walking around with an emboldened sense of being so untouchable that the thought of showing deference to an elder never seems to cross their minds. (Let us not pretend here. I don’t care who you are or how complex you think the larger context of the day’s events makes things—we all know those kids would have showed at least some deference if the man standing before them had been White.)
What’s been held up is a mirror, and what’s being reflected back is the terrifying state of our national present and plenty of good reasons to fear what this may portend. Mirrors can be haunting. The closer you peer into a mirror, the more you get drawn in to the never-ending spiral of images that fold and reflect back upon themselves, repeating over and over and over.
We White adults who bear the daunting responsibility of actually raising White youth in the United States would do well to recognize and acknowledge that those same behaviors that were on display for all the world to see were our own not so long ago.
And the White kid in the video? That’s, my kid, today. Guess what? He’s yours, too.
Those fingers we’re pointing should also be directed toward us.
Don’t miss me. I know there’s a whole ton, and more, of White caregivers who wouldn’t let their kids go anywhere near a so-called “March for Life.” I certainly wouldn’t. And I’m pretty sure a whole cadre of White kids coming up right now may as well get used to the idea they’re never going to be allowed out of the house in a red baseball hat again. Because I don’t care if it’s actually a National Honor Society logo. If there’s any chance my little blond child might be mistaken as endorsing the White nationalist agenda now ravaging this country, even from a distance or for a moment—well, it’s just not happening.
But I’m not talking about these obvious things.
Most of us responsible for raising White kids—not just White parents, but coaches, neighbors, uncles, retail clerks, grandmas, clergy people, teachers—don’t really know what we should be doing differently and, frankly, haven’t made it a priority to learn.
That’s so much scarier than what actually happened on the Mall that day. And the implications are far more devastating.
Let’s go back to the “tomahawk chop,” for one teeny, tiny example.
You’d never know it from the way some journalists are writing about White youth right now, but you know who actually can learn that the tomahawk chop is a racist, anti-Native White ritual?
Young White kids. Like, really young ones.
Kids are smart.
Meanwhile, even if yours don’t watch football, they’ve almost certainly been exposed to performances of the tomahawk chop. So, if you haven’t actively created opportunities to talk through with them what the tomahawk chop is and why it’s so racist… well, then, guess what? That’s your kid out there on the Mall.
Our children and youth (like us) are exposed to an infinite array of other images, rituals, cartoons, words, story lines that are also deeply anti-Native. These all nurture and sustain deformed public U.S. narratives about Native peoples. The narratives are so powerful and pervasive that lots of young non-Native U.S. children just assume Native peoples are mythical—more like “fairies” (at best)—instead of human beings who exist on this land base; many have active land rights struggles going on as we speak.
If I don’t, early and often (and over again), interrupt these narratives, if I don’t teach my White children to learn to notice the ways Native peoples are spoken of and about, if don’t show them that we who are not Native have to actively seek out different understanding, knowledge, and awareness because of the ways our collective colonial-supremacist histories continue to shape our lives in the present, if I don’t then model how to do that, then the person I should be pointing at is me.
It is time for us to point the finger at ourselves, accept the blame for this racist behavior, and stop making excuses for it.
Have we brainstormed and strategized with our White 15-year-olds about how they will intervene, not if, but when they find themselves in a group of youth who start to engage in racist “play”?
Have we brainstormed and strategized with our 5-year-olds about how they will intervene, not if, but when they’re with a group of kids and one of the White ones makes fun of the skin, hair or name of one of the Black or Latino/a ones?
White kids can be raised to be anti-racist and interrupt racism even if and as they, like we White adults, remain constantly enmeshed in racist systems that seek to benefit us to secure our complicity day after day.
So, if you—like me—have found yourself among the group of White adults pointing at those kids, then you—like me—need to decide just who it is you’re pointing at and what your next move is going to be.
Nothing about the more “complex” set of encounters in any way excuses or exonerates any of the very obvious (and common) racist group behaviors of the Covington High School youth.
Our White youth deserve us expecting and demanding better of them.
This article was originally published on Medium. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.