No matter how toxic their behavior, boys like Nick Sandmann are defended, protected, and even encouraged to cultivate their privilege.
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The furor over the teenage boys who were filmed taunting Native American activist and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips at the January 18th March for Life has been as embarrassing as it is revealing. The actual content—students from a conservative Catholic school being obnoxious at a protest—surprised no one. Yet, in their rush to defend and assuage these boys, conservative pundits have inadvertently revealed the one right America truly does hold sacred: The right of teenage white boys to be utter pricks.
First: That video shows what it shows. The image most of us were familiar with—17-year-old Nick Sandmann, standing too close to Phillips, wearing a Make America Great Again hat and a smirk of contempt—is not significantly complicated by the other videos that supposedly provide “nuance.” Yes, some video shows Sandmann and his friends being yelled at by Black Israelites. But there is also video of Covington Catholic boys screaming at random female passersby, or yelling “it’s not rape if you enjoy it,” or being much more explicit and aggressive in their racism toward Phillips himself, including racist fake-Native chants and tomahawk-chop motions. In fact, the full video shows that Phillips was helping the boys, getting between them and the Black Israelites to defuse the confrontation. In return, they treated him like a joke. These boys weren’t assholes because they were heckled. They were heckled because they were assholes.
If that seems like strong language to apply to a boy as young as Nick Sandmann— a boy who, it is my grim duty to inform you, will be more than old enough to vote in the next election—then take it as a necessary corrective to the tide of sentiment that’s swelled up around him. Sandmann’s parents hired Runswitch PR, a firm with powerful connections to the Republican Party establishment and the media, to concoct a statement framing him as the victim. Phillips, he claimed, “should re-think his tactics of invading the personal space of others.” Not only is this literally the opposite of what took place—the videos show that the boys surrounded Phillips and boxed him in—it is mighty charged language to use about a Native American activist, whose “space” and land were literally invaded by white colonizers. Jake Tapper, who works with Runswitch’s Scott Jennings at CNN, tweeted out the entire PR statement. Journalist after journalist apologized to the boys. Before long, Sandmann had booked an interview on the Today show and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was clucking that “I’ve never seen people so happy to destroy a kid’s life.”
Yes, she has. And so have you. You have seen it every time Sarah Huckabee Sanders defends the Trump administration’s child separation or indefinite family detention policies, which have irreparably traumatized and even killed multiple children. You have seen it every time a cop kills a young Black man and walks free. Christine Blasey Ford saw it when two boys she trusted locked her in a room and pinned her to a bed, engraving on her brain the sound of their “uproarious laughter.” We destroy children’s lives all the time in this country. Usually, they don’t get to vindicate themselves on the Today show a week later. But we are not so interested in those children. What we are interested in is Nick Sandmann, and his presumably sacrosanct right to behave like an entitled little shit in a public space.
Racism and misogyny were inextricable here. The boys were there to support the anti-choice extremism of the March for Life, which is to say, they were there to subjugate women, and they harassed women in the process. They also joyfully harassed men of color. The common factor was their sense of dominion, the fun they found in humiliating people with less power. The reaction I saw most often, as the first images were disseminated, was not outrage. It was recognition.
Raise your hand if you have ever been gaslit by a dude who calmly said a bunch of awful abusive shit to you and then when you reacted said “Why are you being so crazy? I would NEVER say or do anything to hurt you” – with THIS fucking look on his face. https://t.co/fDpq7c6HE3
— Kimya Dawson (@mrskimyadawson) January 22, 2019
From elementary school through college I went to school with sheltered upper middle class white boys who could DEVASTATE with a smirk. A facial guesture that weaponized their privilege. Infuriatingly you can’t fight that fucking smirk with a punch or words.
— Alex Cranz (@alexhcranz) January 19, 2019
Marlon nails it. Don’t @ me. pic.twitter.com/VzBS80drmQ
— Niven Govinden (@niven_govinden) January 20, 2019
Everyone recognized those “hilarious” fake chants, the smirking, the utter glee on those boys’ faces as they screamed at women just for being there and threw rape jokes like bombs out into the crowd. It was the face of white male privilege, high on youth and in love with its own cruelty; the all-too-familiar vision of boys who had been told they would inherit the world, taking the American patriarchy out for a ride, like a drunk driver being given the keys to a tank. If you are not a white man yourself, then you have seen that tank rolling down your street, after a football game or outside a frat party or on an otherwise unexceptional day at work or school. You have lived your life dodging fire.
What we saw, and recognized, in those images, was the process by which ordinary white boys become bad white men—testing their power by hurting people, trying to see how much they can get away with. What we saw was whiteness realizing how easily it can demean its elders and betters; patriarchy hollering its approval of rape into the sky, knowing none of those words will be held against them if a girl gets hurt. It was not an accident that so many people immediately compared Nick Sandmann’s smirk to Brett Kavanaugh’s. You can see the same smile on Donald Trump at every rally he gives, reveling in the fact that he’s been hurting people for seven decades and he’s still getting away with it, his power only increasing over time. Those men are the endpoint for a boy like Nick Sandmann. They are the final stopping point on the trajectory he’s begun.
The truisms that spring up on these occasions—boys will be boys, kids can be cruel—inevitably cover up the power dynamics at hand. Black boys, who are shot for holding toy guns in public parks, cannot afford to roll through life making a show of their own aggression. White girls’ racism is vicious, but girls of all races live in terror of being near those boys on the night the “joke” goes too far. With Kavanaugh, with Sandmann, with “Stanford rapist” Brock Turner, we were told that youth is full of indiscretions, that everyone makes mistakes, that the people who object to these boys’ violence hold impossibly high standards. But we do not let any other children roam through life screaming at strangers and mocking their elders and raping people behind Dumpsters. It’s only white boys we hold to a standard that low.
Feminism is often presented as a sort of self-improvement program for women. But white feminists, in particular, cannot change anything if we cannot change the way we raise our sons. The boys on that tape weren’t born ugly. They were made that way. They went to a school where blackface was used to inspire team spirit. They were bussed out to an anti-abortion march to teach them they held dominion over the bodies of women and trans people. In one very visible case, they were raised by the kind of parents who would hire an expensive PR firm to vilify Nathan Phillips instead of making their son apologize to him. Those boys were taught, over and over, that they had a right to hurt people, and that it was wrong for the people they hurt to hold them accountable. And millions of boys this week have learned the same lesson, watching the Today show and the Trump administration do backflips to assuage the hurt feelings of one white teenager.
“It’s for the next generation,” Phillips told Rolling Stone, when explaining why he confronted the boys. “I mean, I was scared and I didn’t want to. I really, I really didn’t want to, but nobody else was… We’re indigenous. We’re different than that. When we see our youth going the wrong way, we will go up and say, ‘You are doing the wrong thing there nephew, or grandson. This is just the wrong way.’ I tell them, ‘This is the way you have to behave. This wrong, this is right.’”
This is wrong, this is right. If we do not hold Nick Sandmann to account, we are teaching other white boys that his behavior is something to be imitated. We are unleashing more entitled, cruel white men upon the world. Loving boys does not mean making excuses for them or hiring people to spin their mistakes. It means telling them when they are going the wrong way. It means teaching them that other people’s boundaries are inviolable, and that if you run head-first into a brick wall, you do get hurt. To do otherwise is to unleash a wave of hurt on the rest of the world. The vehemence with which white adults have resisted holding Sandmann responsible shows us just how important it is to do so. If we give up the presumption of white boys’ right to harm, everything about the world might change.
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