The response to a picture of a MAGA-hatted teen smiling at a Native American activist revealed how badly we’ve lost the ability to relate to one another. How we assume the worst in people even when they mean well. But it also reveals how we can start rebuilding our ability to relate and connect to one another.

The key is to train ourselves to react first with compassion and understanding not outrage and disgust.

Training is the word because this isn’t something that comes naturally.

A nation is built by unifying people from difference backgrounds and perspectives. While we don’t have to agree with everyone, we have to understand where they’re coming from to have even a small chance that they might understand where we’re coming from and hopefully join us.

This event is a cultural Rorschach test about the meanings we bring into a situation.

All sides seem to have dug in and argue how their side was in the right. But in reality, no one was completely right or completely wrong. Everyone has something to learn. Especially us viewers.

I’ll be honest, my gut reaction seeing the snapshot of MAGA-hat wearing teens smirking at a Native American activist, dredged up images of Nazi youth taunting Holocaust Jews and because he’s a Native American, white settlers stealing the land of Native Americans and driving many to their deaths along the Trail of Tears.

But I learned that, like much in life, the real story is much more complicated. It made me question my own thought process and what everyone, including myself, can learn from this event.

The facts
Some basic facts have emerged.

While waiting for a bus at the Lincoln Memorial after participating in the March for Life (the U.S.’s largest pro-life demonstration), a group of teen boys from Kentucky’s all-male Covington Catholic High School had a confrontation first with members of the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group that the Southern Poverty Law center considers racial supremacist extremists, then with Native American activists attending the Indigenous Peoples March.

Seeing the Black Hebrew Israelites berate the students with homophobic and racist profanities, Native American elder and Vietnam vet, Nathan Phillips, attempted to intervene by beating his drum before the students when he came across a student, Nick Sandmann, who stood unmoving and smiling.

Why no one was completely right or innocent

Black Hebrew Israelites
The group unambiguously wrong were the Black Hebrew Israelites. Given the history of injustice in America from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the many ways that racism remains institutionalized today, blacks have just cause to be angry about many, many things.

But there’s simply no justification for taking that anger out on a bunch of kids waiting for a bus.

Racist, homophobic tirades are not acceptable for any reason and especially when its directed towards children.

One interesting aspect of this event was how little press their actions got. The media discussed their actions mainly to explain the white teen’s response. Had the teens not reacted, it’s doubtful that their actions would have received much press at all.

From an understanding perspective, it sheds light on why many white Americans feel confused and attacked.

From their perspective, it’s mind-boggling how these teens could possibly be the bad guy for standing silently while being berated with profanities for nearly an hour. In their minds, that’s quite a stoic, admirable respond to adult provocation.

Covington Catholic School: MAGA hats are viewed by many as symbol of white supremacy and bigotry
The students, including Nick Sandmann, the teen in the photo shown, meant well but exercised poor judgment. The school and it’s chaperones were even more to blame because their priority needed to be the safety of the children under their care. Neither the school nor the teens were completely innocent bystanders though.

Here’s the thing white conservatives need to understand… MAGA hats are viewed by many Americans as a symbol of white supremacy and bigotry.

I have no doubt that none of these students think this. They almost certainly meant it to convey the good parts of American culture like hard work and community.

But we don’t get to define the social world we live in. We can help shape it but we all have to deal with the reality we have, not the one that we wish existed.

I’ll give a personal example.

The Nazi swastika was originally a symbol of peace and luck to Buddhist and Hindus. Even though my mother is Buddhist and I’ve seen swastikas Buddhist gravestones, I can’t go around waving the swastika around in an attempt to resurrect it’s positive connotations just because I want to convey what it means to me.

I know it’s history, what it means to others, and the inevitable animosity, hard feelings, and conflict it fosters.

Similarly, if you know that many people view red MAGA hats as a divisive symbol of hate, it’s irresponsible for school administrators to allow these children to wear them at a venue known for conflict.

They can’t pretend that they were innocent bystanders because those parents knew that by wearing MAGA hats and joining the March for Life, they were using children to gain leverage in a cultural, political conflict.

Even if Nick meant to do the right thing by standing, smiling, and silently praying, he and everyone else, needs to understand that any action, including a smile, will be understood within the context of the social meanings and history attached to racialized symbols MAGA hats.

MAGA hat wearers need to be self-aware. They need to act with the understanding that it is a divisive symbol that will likely lead to confrontation.

Like it or not, MAGA hats are viewed by many as the modern American version of the Nazi swastika.

Just like I can’t wave around a swastika flag then act surprised by the inevitable conflict that I’m well aware will surely follow, MAGA hat wearers need to stop pretending that they’re totally innocent bystanders too.

Native American activists
Nathan Phillips likewise meant well when he interceded but also exercised poor judgement. A key fact to keep in mind is that he is an adult approaching a bunch of teen boys without any explanation.

Yes, it was weird and awkward for Nick to just stand there and smile but what would you expect him to do? Most teen boys would either freeze up or run away in an alien situation like this.

Compassion means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.

So imagine for a moment that it was your own teen boy in this situation. What would you expect him to do and how would you react?

My son is the kindest, most loving boy on the planet and I’m pretty sure he’d probably freeze up too. If I saw an adult approaching him and beating a drum inches from his face, I’d step in and tell the guy to take a few steps back. I definitely wouldn’t censure my son for standing still.

Watching the video, the boy’s emotions seem mainly to be confusion and bewilderment (as you would expect from most teenage boys in an alien situation like this). They didn’t know what to make of some guy approaching them, beating his drum because no one, including Nathan, explained anything to them.

The adults, Nathan and the school chaperones both, needed to act like responsible adults dealing with children in a confusing, unusual situation.
Rather than beat a drum inches from a boy’s face (which is also weird and awkward), Nathan should have first approached the school chaperones not the children.

At minimum, the adults should have talked it over and maybe coordinated. The chaperones could have explained to the teens that they were going to clap along with Nathan’s chat for peace and unity. That alone would have turned this negative situation into a positive one.

A little understanding and common sense would have gone a long way

Rather than assuming the worse in everyone, what we needed was a little understanding, compassion, and common sense about how to interact with one another. Not only on the part of the participants but also on the people who saw and reacted to the video.

In this age of viral videos intent on dividing us by stoking instant outrage, we need to learn to train ourselves to instead react with compassion. Instead of assuming that they (whoever they are) are terrible, immoral, and disrespectful people, we should assume that most people are probably average, decent people doing the best they can and that there might be a good reason they’re doing what they’re doing.

If we start to train ourselves to replace reactive disgust with compassion and understanding, even when we still conclude that people exercised poor judgement, we can at least relate to them as decent people and see them as one of us rather disgusted at them.

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