Nothing But The Truth: A Word to White America After the “Recent Unpleasantness” in Washington, D.C.
When I was a Junior in High School in Danville, KY, my U.S. History teacher burst into the room shouting and loudly dropped an object on the floor. A few people in the room (who had been prompted by him) shouted back and began running out of the room. The whole class erupted in chaos for the following several seconds and then the teacher said, “What just happened? Write down what just happened.”
We quickly figured out that we all remembered things differently. There was a lot of disagreement on what happened in those chaotic seconds in our classroom. “That’s what the Boston Tea Party was like,” my teacher said, “and yet, the history books make it sound like a settled set of facts. History is determined by who gets to tell it.”
So, about what happened over the weekend in Washington, D.C. near the Lincoln Memorial where a lot of different people had come to make a statement about what they believe. There were those at the Memorial for the Indigenous Peoples March (a march to raise awareness about the oppression of Indigenous people from all over the world). There were those gathered for the March For Life (a yearly anti-abortion march in Washington, D.C. since 1974). There was a group of five men who identified themselves as Black Hebrew Israelites (a religious group rooted in Black Judaism who teach self-empowerment and Black nationalism) who were doing some street teaching/preaching there.
You can watch the videos and read the statements and come to your own conclusions about what happened. It is not my job to tell you what happened. I was not there. But as a person who moves around this world in white skin and as a person who is an ordained minister in a Christian denomination (PCUSA), it is my job to speak a word to my people, white Christian people. So just a few friendly reminders to my white-skinned, Christian siblings as we process what happened on Friday in Washington, DC:
- KNOW THE HISTORY YOU CARRY AND THE WAY YOUR HISTORY HAS IMPACTED OTHERS.
Because white culture has had the power to define what is normal, the power to write history, the power to silence dissenting voices, and the power to be oblivious to the impact of our culture, we have to work extra hard to see ourselves in the story of our country. The most striking parts of the statement Nicholas Sandmann put out is how many times he says things like:
- “I didn’t understand what they were doing.”
- “I had no idea” about what the words of others meant.
- “I am not sure why I was singled out for confrontation.”
- “I never understood why either of the two groups of protesters were engaging with us.”
- “This the first time in my life I have ever encountered any kind of public protest.”
These statements all indicate a disturbing lack of awareness about the history of our country and our country’s present cultural moment. White people have a moral obligation to understand how we carry the violent history and heritage of the genocide of Native Americans and the profound trauma of chattel slavery in us. If you resonate with any of Nicholas’ questions, my prayer is that you will take initiative to learn and to expand your perspective on things like the Doctrine of Discovery, treaties broken by the US government, the wealth generated by the labor of enslaved people, and enslaved people being capital.
- SEEK OUT INFORMATION AND KNOWLEDGE ABOUT YOUR FAITH TRADITION THAT IS CRITICAL—THAT IS HOW YOUR FAITH IS STRENGTHENED AND WE PROTECT AGAINST MISTAKING THE CHURCH FOR GOD.
Nicholas and his classmates didn’t seem to realize the layers of history that exist between Catholics and Native Americans. When Nicholas criticizes Mr. Phillips for invading his “personal space” it adds insult to injury. Catholics and Presbyterians and many of Christian institutions felt so entitled to the “personal space” of Native people that they took their children, cut their hair, forbid them to speak their language or dance their ceremonial dances, and destroyed their culture. Being aware of how Christians felt entitled to not just space, but spirits, cultures, bodies, families, and homes is a must for white-skinned Americans. Such awareness would prevent us from making such flat-footed claims about our personal space being encroached upon when a Native Elder approaches us with a sacred gesture.
- LEARN HOW TO LISTEN TO DIFFICULT FEELINGS THAT ARE UNCOMFORTABLE FOR YOU WITHOUT TRYING TO BE LOUDER AND PROUDER.America is a place where different ideas are expressed, including ideas that say white people are the problem or even the devil. Even a cursory reading of American religious history should acquaint you these ideas.Hearing them shouldn’t be a shock.Not understanding why it would appear menacing to be chanting your school’s fight songs loudly with “Make America Great” hats on while encircling five black street preachers should not be possible for young people who are receiving an expensive education from a respected high school. If a school is going to take young people into a public space where contested narratives will be in play, they must be prepared to engage respectfully.
Were the MAGA hats issued by the school or were they something the kids decided to wear on their own? Did any teachers talk to them about how that could be perceived by marginalized groups who would be in Washington, DC for the various marches that weekend? At least let the young men make an informed decision about how they want to identify themselves with full knowledge of the possible reactions that messaging could elicit.
When white people walk into a space where black bodied people and Indigenous people are voicing their pain, their perspectives, we carry with us a violent heritage, whether we know it or not. People just like Omaha Elder Nathan Phillips and Shar Yaqataz Banyamyan have been killed for speaking up or speaking out. They carry with them the generational scars of that violence at the hands of white people. They carry with them the shards of broken trust from their land being stolen and from chattel slavery. That pain is real whether white-skinned people believe it is not.
- WHITE FRAGILITY IS REAL.
White people are famous for our fragility, for our need to be right, for our discomfort with criticism, for our inability to listen and honor perspectives other than our own. And we are famous for trying to normalize our violent ways of dealing with problems. (How else would the bloodiest war in our nation’s history, the Civil War, have been called “the recent unpleasantness” with a straight face in the American South?)
I have noticed how ready people are to take the statement written by Nicholas (with the help of a PR firm) as the true version of what happened and that his statement must mean others are lying. This has been a historical habit in America—white people get to say what the objective facts are, with little or no acknowledgment that other perspectives and experiences have validity. This bias toward the white perspective frames many of our systems of authorization and validation (e.g. our justice system, our education system, etc). Nicholas’ experience is one perspective, and one limited in some troubling ways at that. The full story includes a complex set of power dynamics that must be attended to for us to learn anything from what happened in Washington, D.C. near the Lincoln Memorial on Friday, January 18.
5. BEING A “GOOD PERSON” WHO FINDS OUT YOUR VERY PRESENCE IS A TRIGGER TO SOME PEOPLE DOES NOT MAKE YOU A VICTIM. OPPRESSION IS NOT AN OLYMPIC SPORT.
White people are pretty predictable. We find out we’ve offended someone or done harm, we get defensive, and within 48 hours we have assumed the role of victim in the exchange. It is hard to receive death threats (I have received them before). It is hard to feel unsafe in your neighborhood, your school, and your country (I have felt unsafe in all those spaces). It is hard to be the object of people’s hostility and to feel misunderstood (I have felt the weight of both). So I get why Nicholas and his family are feeling the sting of all of those things. But none of these experiences make Nicholas the victim in what happened on Friday. And none of these experiences make white Christians the victims of American history. While we are all both victim and perpetrator in different gradations in this world, there are some who carry the weight of violence and abuse more acutely than others. Being able to acknowledge that we have not, as white Christians, been the ones to carry the heaviest load of oppression in America is an important practice for our nation’s healing to go deeper.
We all need things to change in America right now. Our freedom is a tangled up, not-yet-realized promise. I am praying that people like me, white-skinned Christians, can channel the moral courage of the one who saves us from ourselves, Jesus the Christ. He can deliver us from our delusions and defensiveness. He can create in us the strength to see ourselves more clearly in the chaos.