As the debate rages about what went down at the nation’s capital this past weekend between Nathan Phillips and his Native American activist group and the MAGA-hatted white boys, I have noticed one thing all people of color in America understand that most white Americans do not. We’ve all seen virulent white men in our faces before. Many times. And it’s always terrifying. School pride has replaced white pride with white boys feeling the need to rally and face down perceived threats to their identity. Whatever it is called, those on the receiving end feel marginalized. I have experienced this in my own neighborhood and at my job at an evangelical university.
My first memory of this was when our family moved to then all-white Arcadia, California in the late 70’s. Just a few blocks from our house, my dad pulled to a stop behind a pickup truck with a group of mangy-looking white dudes in the back. Noticing an Asian family in the car behind them, the dudes started getting animated. One yelled, “Go back to fucking Cambodia!” I remember these words because I later asked what Cambodia was. They started screaming and laughing, and I remember being scared but wondering what was so funny to them. I was only 8 or 9, so despite being afraid, I smiled, trying to join the merriment until the
light turned green and the truck drove off, leaving our young family bewildered and shaken. After a few more incidents at school and at the local mall, I would eventually realize that despite being a 4thgeneration American, a son of a U.S. army captain and dentist, I was still an immigrant. And to an immigrant in America, the last thing you want to see is a group of white dudes cackling in your direction or staring you down. The message is clear when faced with these kinds of men: To be different is to be something that needs to be confronted and put down.
It doesn’t matter what those boys from Covington Catholic School claim they were doing. To people of color, they were playing the role of, at best, white males asserting their dominion, and at worst, white supremacist attackers. The hats. The chants. The smug, defiant smirks. These are triggers to us. The optics alone compelled the school to immediately condemn the action of its students. And this is a school with a racist history. This school remained silent and supportive of students in blackface in the name of school spirit but immediately apologized for the actions of its students last weekend.
Even well-meaning white people can be terrifying. Every fall, Azusa Pacific University, a majority-white, conservative, evangelical university outside of Los Angeles, observes its annual move-in day in the student dorms. Parents drive up Alosta Ave. to encounter hoards of mostly white kids in white t-shirts waving
signs. They are all shouting and screaming words of welcome and school spirit, but there is an aggression to the whole scene akin to a ritual hazing or running of a gauntlet. It feels like the point is to challenge you to break through the line of “welcomers” to be worthy of gaining entry to the school.
I know this because as an English professor there for 15 years, I often had to fight my way through to get to my office during the week before classes began. Students climbed on top of cars. If a window was open, students would stick their heads in and scream, “Wooooooo!” at the occupants. As the cars pulled into the packed parking lot, students swarmed them, shaking them. And the screaming. The constant screaming. “APU!!! Woooo!!!!” One year, my car was surrounded by crazed faces and signs, and as I honked and attempted to drive through without running over anyone, I heard someone shout, “Sorry, professor!” I never did find out whose voice that was.
One Asian American student told me her dad was so unnerved at the move-in day scene, he wanted to turn around and drive 400 miles back to the bay area. More than a few black students told me, referring to move-in day, that the hoards of screaming white kids scared them. Even some white families felt unnerved by the whole scene. To be sure, there were women also screaming and whooping, but the dudes made the biggest impression out there. As they tend to do. The bottom line was that a lot of POC families did not feel welcomed. They felt threatened. But, maybe these kids were acting inside a not-so-well-meaning system.
I abandoned my own faith a few years into my time at APU, but I was there long enough to recognize what I saw last weekend in Washington DC: White men facing down people of color in the name of a group. Their group. After move-in day, a student or faculty of color at a school like APU is subjected to numerous aggressions and micro-aggressions whenever the differences between them and the majority culture come to a head. The smug, smiling face of that MAGA hat teen was a face I saw every day. Believe women have a right to choose? Same faces. Want to discuss systemic racism?
Faces. Believe LGBTQ people should be accepted as fully and wonderfully human? Faces. So many faces.
I’m writing a book about this, but I’ll just say here that only the most adeptly assimilated POC students and faculty should dare attend or work at places like APU. And god help them.
If the Covington boys had good intentions and were there to “help diffuse the situation,” they had a terrifying way of doing so. They encountered nut job religious fanatics, the four dudes from the Black Isrealites, spewing ridiculous nonsense. Instead of just walking by like everyone else, the one hundred or so students, engaged the nut jobs with their school chants. And when the Native American group approached, they confronted them, too. They did the “Tomahawk Chop.” They did their school chants, later claiming it to be some kind of defensive move. School spirit was weaponized that day against people of color. The kid in the video wrote a response claiming he just
loves his school so much. So what does that have to do with anything happening at the Lincoln Memorial? It’s fine to love your school or your country. I guess we need to define our terms here, but what kind of “love” makes you shout down people with less social standing than you?
This is what I saw year after year at APU. School spirit was a violent gauntlet. School spirit was a demand for conformity to white evangelical culture. When I was being fired by the dean, I was told I was harmful to the school community because I openly valued and supported my LGBTQ students. When white teens in a pickup truck taunted my family, they did so out of a perverted national pride that feared differences in their community and perhaps an outsized fear about war with Cambodia. And when white teens visiting their nation’s capital saw “lesser” people speaking out, they acted out of both “school pride” and the same fucked up patriotism I saw in the back of a pickup truck almost 40 years ago. On a more subconscious level, I suggest, they acted out of a fear that their country and their dominion were being threatened. Which they were not. Those boys were heading back home to their wealth and privilege solidly intact regardless of what religious nuts or Native American activists might say or do.
School pride? Same racism. New label. Same result.