Home2018-2019The smile that fueled identity politics

The smile that fueled identity politics

Jonny Louangrath,


Less than two weeks ago, a Native American activist named Nathan Phillips of the Omaha People went viral as he stood face-to-face with a Catholic high school student named Nick Sandmann. Videos and images from the event circulated widely online, launching a new year in politics in the United States. The incident was comprised of a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, students from Covington Catholic High School and Native American marchers at the Indigenous Peoples March. The moment revolved around one underlying thread in today’s social climate: identity politics.

Sandmann — who attends a private, all-boys school in Park Hills, KY — adorned a red Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat on his school’s annual trip to the pro-life March For Life rally in Washington, D.C. One Hebrew Israelite in the group of five was preaching while shouting inflammatory comments to the group of boys, calling them “a bunch of babies made out of incest,” “future school shooters” and homophobic slurs, among other provocative exclamations.

One student ripped off his shirt and led the group in a chant and dance in response to the comments from the Hebrew Israelites.

About one hour into the full-length video that rippled through the internet, Phillips — a Native American activist — entered the scene. Alongside another ceremonial drummer, Phillips walked into the crowd of boys, most of them wearing MAGA gear, and chanted the American Indian Movement (AIM) Song, an intertribal Native American song. For the next two minutes, Phillips and Sandmann stood less than a foot apart as others photographed and documented what represents the contentious cultural climate in the United States. Phillips’ chanting against the Kentucky teen’s facial expression led to the “smirk” that sparked social media virality, media coverage and political commentary throughout the country.

Sandmann and Phillips both sat down with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie a few days ago to respond and communicate their own accounts of the incident. On being accosted by the Black Hebrew Israelites, the high schooler said, “I definitely felt threatened.”

Sandmann stated that his teacher gave permission to the boys to begin their school chant, in an effort to “drown out” the Hebrew Israelites. Yet, when asked if anyone shouted insults back, he said, “We’re a Catholic school [and] they don’t tolerate racism. None of my classmates are racist people.”

Sandmann wishes that Phillips “would have walked away” but tried to avoid being “perceived as aggressive” by maintaining his composure. When asked why Sandmann himself did not walk away, he commented, “I didn’t want to be disrespectful to Mr. Phillips [or] bump into anyone or seem like I was doing something.”

Instead, Sandmann refers to his smile as saying, “This is the best you’re gonna get out of me [and] I’m willing to stand here as long as you’re willing to hit this drum in my face.”

Sandmann concluded the interview by expressing how he is appreciative of the President’s tweets on the matter. The President had posted that the boys were “treated unfairly” and “smeared by media.” Sandmann said he had “the utmost respect for Mr. Phillips” and thanked him for his military service to the country.

On the flip side, in his interview with Guthrie, Phillips immediately called the student’s response “coached” and “written up for him.” After having reflected on the incident in prayer, Phillips “woke up with this forgiving heart… so I forgive him,” despite the lack of apology in the teenager’s interview. On his drumming during the incident, Phillips recalled, “When I put myself in prayer… I asked Creator, God, to protect me, to stand with me, [and] to witness what was happening,” as the Covington boys surrounded him.

In response to criticisms that Phillips has not told the truth about his status as a Vietnam War veteran. While he did not serve in Vietnam, he was told, “Don’t wear your uniform. Don’t say you’re a veteran. People don’t like you out there,” as soon as he left the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Finally, Phillips’ ended the interview with a jab at the student’s “PR firm” before criticizing the lack of responsibility in Covington High School’s chaperone staff.

“…actions at the Indigenous Peoples March highlights a specific version of white privilege, where young boys are socialized by authority figures into hubris over humility and complicity over action.”

When the Hebrew Israelites instigated the MAGA high schoolers, it reflected the real and nationalized tensions between groups of people in this country’s current society. Although Sandmann asked for permission to perform the school chant, the staff is complicit with its racist implications. Julian Brave Noisecat, a Native American writer for The Guardian, wrote that there are videos of the incident that show the Tomahawk Chop gesture, which is a hand motion, popularized by the Atlanta Braves, simulating a chopping tomahawk that references the scalping of Native Americans. Also, Amanda Blackhorse, the founder of the group Arizona to Rally Against Native Mascots, said, “Native people have been calling for the end of the Tomahawk Chop for decades.”

Another photo surfaced of several white students at a Covington High School basketball game yelling at a black basketball player while dressed in blackface using body paint.

Still, Nick Sandmann’s smirk in that moment and his white classmates’ actions at the Indigenous Peoples March highlight a specific version of white privilege, where young boys are socialized by authority figures into hubris over humility and complicity over action.

The small-town Kentucky students can act as a set of youthful and unapologetic eyes for Covington’s “PR firm,” but the actions of the Catholic school teenagers exemplify a specific yet pervasive type of toxic masculinity and uninformed patriotism that, if left unchecked, may result in a nationwide redefinition of identity.


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