Letter to the Editor: The Covington Catholic students need education, not affirmation

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Obviously I don’t know Nick Sandmann, the teenager who went viral for his standoff with Native American elder Nathan Phillips at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, D.C. last week. But I do know kids just like Sandmann, armed with conservative upbringings, arrogance and, most dangerously, ignorance.

Like Sandmann, I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, mine in St. Louis, Missouri. Four years at a predominantly white institution — including me, there were less than two dozen students of color in my class of 270 — taught me, among other things, lessons that are salient to last week’s events.

As a freshman at my high school, I was bombarded with racist, offensive and alienating comments from my white classmates. The worst came when a teammate on the freshman baseball team told me that I’d look good hanging from a nearby tree (I’m not kidding). The comments hurt, and the first two years of my high school career were pretty rough. Unbeknownst to me, the majority of my classmates’ remarks didn’t come from a place of malice, but rather from ignorance and discomfort. What I failed to realize until the second half of high school was that, for many of my white classmates, I and the other black students in my year were the first black classmates they’d ever had. All they knew about black culture came from the media’s laughable depiction of it. Their social defense mechanisms were problematic, but they themselves, for the most part, were OK as people. Diversity in these educational environments, be it teachers of color or fellow students, is paramount — and something Sandmann and his classmates don’t have in their school.

What my white classmates needed wasn’t some Twitter troll telling them that they were scum of the Earth. They needed an education of the world outside of the homogeneous, sheltered, whitewashed Christian bubble that they had been raised in.

This leads me back to Sandmann and the other kids with him. Wearing MAGA hats was their first mistake. Regardless of what political views they might possess, their ignorance blinded them to what that hat has come to mean to so many people in this country, especially people of color (e.g. Native Americans). By hurling slurs at Sandmann and his friends, the Black Hebrew Israelites only made matters worse. Then came Phillips and the Indigenous Peoples March. Whether Phillips approached the group or Sandmann blocked his way is moot. Made uncomfortable when faced with something that was genuinely foreign to them, the kids from Covington Catholic put up their walls. Unsurprisingly, these walls manifested themselves with racist overtones.

Sandmann, along with his classmates, could very well be some of the unfortunate Americans who just want to watch the world burn. But my gut tells me this isn’t the case. Instead of being educated on how his actions were hurtful and problematic, Sandmann was allowed to go on to the Today Show and have his actions justified. Now, he will learn nothing.

Call his actions what you’d like. Ignorant. Rude. Disrespectful. Racist. None of these words are inaccurate. But as liberals, we need to be better. Getting angry and putting whoever we think is culpable on blast via social media is the easy thing to do. But is it the right thing to do? Feeling angry when a personal identity is threatened and attacked is valid. Instead of using anger as a soapbox to preach with, maybe we should try harder to use it as a syllabus to educate.

—Marty Johnson, Medill senior