I recognized his smirk right away, because it's the smirk of a colonizer. It's a smirk that, I'm ashamed to say, I have worn myself more than once in my lifetime.
By now, most anyone with access to the internet has read something about the recent interaction between Nathan Phillips, an indigenous activist, and students from Covington Catholic School, including Nick Sandmann. The most iconic image from the interaction is one that includes Sandmann, a young white man wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, standing in front of Phillips, an Omaha Tribe elder, with what can only be described as a smirk. In the days since the interaction, there has been much debate and discussion about what exactly transpired in the time leading up to the photograph in question. However, as always, we are missing important context in discussing this interaction, and that context must extend substantially beyond the day these two individuals met in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It isn't a problem of missing minutes from videos or the need for more angles or points of view. It's a problem of lacking historical literacy.
The point of this essay is not to analyze the actions of the individuals involved in the incident at the Lincoln Memorial. The purpose of this essay is to offer deep contextualization about the broader historical forces at play in the incident, as well as the reactions reverberating through the press, cable news media, and social media. We are missing something quite important when we over-simplify the encounter of Phillips and Sandmann in terms of Trump and MAGA versus liberals. It's quite a bit more complicated than that, and analyzing it in historical context makes the event even harder to come to terms with.
I realize that the first sentence of this essay will immediately cause a visceral reaction from some conservatives, but I'm not certain how anyone could characterize Sandmann's look as anything but a smirk. While I cannot know for sure what went through Sandmann's head as he stood there inches from Phillips, I have seen that look over and over again in my study of history. Thanks to archived photographs, I have seen it on the faces of white lynch mobs as they executed Black men in the Southern United States. I have seen it on the faces of white European colonizers as they stood over enslaved African men and women. I have seen it on the faces of U. S. Army soldiers as they stood by piles of buffalo skulls in the American West and, worse, over piles of massacred indigenous peoples at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. I saw it on the face of Brett Kavanaugh after he was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year.
It is a look of absolute entitlement. A look that says "what are you going to do about it?" It is a look that indicates an assured understanding that nothing will happen to him no matter what he does or what he did. It's a look given by colonizers who know they have won, and who know that it will be almost impossible for those they have colonized to overcome them. It's self-assured, over-confident, and terrifying. It's the look I see on Donald Trump's face almost every day, and it is a look I see all too often on the faces of powerful white men everywhere from my own community to Congress to the United Nations. It's a look that says "just try me." It's a look that I recognize, as I said, because it is a look I have worn on my own face before.
Regardless of what exactly transpired in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day, we need to talk about this look, about the environment that caused it to appear on Nick Sandmann's face, and about what it means for our society. This won't be a pleasant conversation, but it is an extension of existing Civil Rights conversations that are far from over in the United States and in the world. It is Exhibit A in the case that the Civil Rights Movement does not belong in the past tense.
In long historical context, what the French might call the longue durée, it is worth considering the realities that resulted in Sandmann and Phillips being there that day, and what historical forces led Phillips to be an activist for indigenous rights and Sandmann to be a Trump-supporting student at a Catholic school visiting DC to protest abortion rights. In short, Europeans, many of them Catholic, sailed to the Americas to steal material wealth and spread a twisted version of the "Gospel" as a means of justifying said theft of material wealth. In the process, they massacred (through direct violence and through the power of diseases) tens of millions of indigenous peoples. Europeans systematically destroyed and disrupted indigenous communities and societies over decades of colonialism, and this work was continued by the white people who became Americans.
As they were becoming Americans, whites of European ancestry moved natives onto reservations after stealing their land. They forced native peoples into poverty by stealing all the valuable land and resources on this continent, and this poverty persists even today. They enforced this theft and forced migration through the power of the US military. These European colonizers fought especially hard to eradicate indigenous cultures and languages, and they were so successful at this sinful work that even today, well-meaning folks continue to talk about indigenous peoples in the past tense as if they no longer exist.
Fast-forward several generations, and the result is that Sandmann seemingly holds a position of power - white and affluent and privileged - while Phillips must work tirelessly to achieve for his people, the original inhabitants of this continent, what was taken by Sandmann's ancestors. Sandmann's smirk in the face of Phillips continuing to chant his sacred prayer is a shocking and disappointing exhibition of a deep-seated belief in his own superiority. This colonialism at work. This confrontation is, in unavoidable and uncomfortable ways, a direct result of this process, as played out over generations. Sandmann and many others like him have come to believe themselves to be superior to indigenous peoples and other people of color because their ancestors, through violence, worked hard to elevate their own peoples and cultures at the expense of those they viewed as lesser humans.
The smirk is a by-product of deeply-engrained thinking cultivated over generations. We shouldn't be surprised when we see it on the face of a privileged young white man who attends a private school. Most everything in his life has confirmed to him that he is indeed superior, and his smirk is simply a reflection of this. This isn't direct white supremacy of the type we encounter with the KKK and David Duke, but it is an ugly first cousin. Even many of those who would never believe themselves capable of racism no doubt harbor similar sentiments about the supremacy of those who look like them. It's just that we never call them out on it because we are often guilty of the same thing ourselves.
As the story of what happened on Friday unfolded on cable news and social media, many conservatives were quick to jump to Sandmann's defense. They argued that he was being unfairly criticized simply because he was wearing a MAGA hat. Later, more video emerged that complicated the story. Still, though, that smirk is unavoidable. In conversations about MAGA versus liberals, we have failed to see what's most important in the reactions to this interaction.
Analysis of the videos from that day seems to indicate that there's no clear storyline of what happened between Phillips's group, the Covington Catholic group, and the Black Isrealites group who was also present at the site. What is telling, however, are our reactions to the incident. Liberals were quick to criticize Sandmann, conservatives were quick to take up for him, and both sides were at times visceral in their statements about the incident. Pretty quickly, a narrative emerged from the political right. We should, they said, give Sandmann and the Covington Catholic group the benefit of the doubt regarding their behavior.
While I do not disagree with this sentiment and believe we need to know the full context before rushing to judgment, it is important to note that it is an exhibition of privilege to assert that these young white men from Covington Catholic School should be given the benefit of the doubt. At other times historically when white people have displayed that knowing smirk, it has been because they did not give people of color the same benefit of the doubt now being demanding for Sandmann and they knew there would be no repercussions for their denying their victims justice or due process.
Lynch mobs in the American South were the antithesis of benefit-of-the-doubt thinking. With no proof of actual crimes, hundreds black men were violently extracted from Southern jails and lynched without process. Historical detection has proven that a vast majority of those lynched were wrongly accused. That is, they were murdered. They certainly did not get the benefit of the doubt before they were killed by lynch mobs.
Similarly, very few indigenous peoples were ever given the benefit of the doubt as white European settlers colonized this continent. The Rutherford Expedition, an action by Western North Carolina militiamen in 1776, systematically murdered Cherokees and burned their villages and crops because some Cherokee people had fought expanded settlement by Europeans. These innocent men, women, and children were most assuredly never given the benefit of the doubt. Today, we forget about the Cherokee who were murdered while erecting monuments to the white men of the Rutherford Expedition. We continue to honor, through state sanction via historical roadside markers, what is undeniably an incident of genocide. When it comes up for debate here in Western NC, we give Rutherford the benefit of the doubt that he never gave the Cherokee people.
These are but two examples from our own history that reveal the ways we disparately treat the benefit of the doubt when applied to white men versus people of color. There are many other contemporary examples of the unequal application of benefit of the doubt. The hard truth with which we must grapple is that many are quick to demand delayed judgment for white men while they are silent when people of color are subjected to the same hasty conclusion-making processes. For some men of color, like those who have been unjustly killed by police officers, lack of receiving the benefit of the doubt has resulted in death. This is blatantly unjust and we cannot claim to be civilized when we allow it to continue happening.
When I watched the commentary unfold after Phillips and Sandmann met at the Lincoln Memorial, I couldn't help but think about all the times in US history when powerful whites have denied the benefit of the doubt to people of color. This is a direct result of colonial thinking. The same psychology of domination that empowered colonialism continues to persist in our national dialogue. Until we come to terms with the results of colonial thinking, we cannot hope to foster true social, political, or economic equality in the United States. Only when we decolonize all communities in the United States and admit to the sins of our colonial past can we properly interpret and understand incidents like the one we are currently debating.