Assistant Minister's Corner - Rev. Monica Dobbins

29 January 2019

A young man in a red MAGA hat…

A tribal elder drumming and singing… 

Maybe you’ve already heard this story. It made the rounds on social media last week: as a busload of young white men from a Catholic prep school in Kentucky clashed with a band of Black Israelites at the Lincoln Memorial, a Native American man stepped in between the two groups and began to drum and sing. And one young man, wearing the signature Trump hat, faced off against the drumming man, with a familiar sneer on his face. 

We saw the viral video, and we made up our minds within a few seconds which side we were on. 

And then, the news media stepped in, to analyze the deterioration of our national dialogue. We are so quick to rush to judgment, they proclaimed, as a longer video was released showing the black protesters seeming aggressive, the absent chaperones, all the details that might have changed our minds if we had just stopped to think for a moment. 

I observed all this with a mix of feelings. I, too, had perhaps made a quick judgment; I hadn’t known all the facts. And yet, I didn’t like the way the media wrapped the story up and tied it with a bow. The only thing that worries me more than people jumping to conclusions is people jumping back from those conclusions, deciding, “well, we can’t ever really know what was in anyone’s mind, so we should just stay out of it.”

In one discussion of the video, I saw a white male commenter say, “I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted” – if he had been that young man, a teenager from a privileged family, who claimed to have been standing calmly and trying to defuse the situation. 

Two things came to my mind when I read that: white people rarely do think ahead about how we will behave when we find ourselves face to face with racist hatred; and we are rarely aware (or aware enough) of what we are bringing into the situation with us, that might affect how other people see us. 

This young man was wearing a hat that represents anger, hatred, and power; he was with a large group of other men wearing those hats, who were taunting and jeering; though he was young, he was not being supervised by adults; and after it was all over, his family was wealthy enough to hire a public relations firm to rescue his reputation. He was interviewed by the Today Show, and invited to the White House. But the people of color in this situation had none of those advantages and we never got to hear their stories. 

How often do we see this same series of events play out in our public life? How often are young white men given the benefit of the doubt, while young men of color are jailed (or worse) without a second thought? And how often do we think, if only I’d been there, if only I’d known what to say…

My hope is that more white people will take the time to really think through what we’re going to say to interrupt racism and stand up for people of color. We also need to instruct our children, especially our boys, on how the way that they look, dress, talk, stand, and show up in the world matters. It may seem innocuous, but if it isn’t actively, intentionally anti-racist, it can end up hurting the people that we wanted to protect. 

The good news is, our kids are way out in front of us on this. They are already learning much more about racism than my generation ever learned in school. If you talk to them about it, they will listen. So let’s talk about it! I’m happy to help if you need help getting the conversation started.