I rarely agree with Jonathan Capehart but I think he’s a capable writer and has shown in the past that he’s willing to buck his own tribe, so to speak, when he believes it’s the right thing to do and that goes a long way with me. Today, Capehart has a piece about the smirk heard round the world, the Covington smirk as he calls it. He says people defending Nick Sandmann need to recognize that a lot of people see something powerful and painful in that smirk:
When it comes to “the smirk,” Sandmann, the Covington kids and their defenders must understand why my reaction and the reaction of untold others was so strong. Sandmann’s smirk struck me as the inverse of the Kavanaugh scowl. Now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s “the world is mine” smugness revealed itself during his confirmation hearings last September. His petulant display came after Christine Blasey Ford testified that she was sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh at a party when they were in high school…
Ask just about anyone who is not straight, white and male what they see in that smirk and you’ll most likely open up a world of hurt. Memories of continual bullying and other abuse at the hands of entitled men and boys who weren’t or never feared being held accountable. For my friend Jeff Krehely, executive vice president of the Roosevelt Institute and an openly gay white man whom I consider one of the generals of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, ‘the smirk” was too much.
“I knew since the story broke last week that his face is that of many young white men who get the benefit of the doubt, who are able to shrug off their bad behavior with a wink and a nod, whose parents and teachers protect them when they do all sorts of wrong (or at worst the adults in their lives simply look away),” Krehely wrote on Medium on Jan. 23. “Last night I realized that his face is one I saw a lot in sixth grade, toward the end of the school year when I became the boy most of the other boys decided was a fag.”
I have no intention of crapping over other people’s pain because, frankly, I had friends in high school, girls and boys, who were gay and I know that pain was real for them. So let’s stipulate up front that kids can be tough on their peers and that’s especially true for those that are different in some notable way.
But here’s what I think Capehart is missing. Just because a kid is white and straight and male does not mean that he’s part of some club where everything is easy and fitting in is always a given. I was all of those things and I can tell you I was not accepted or even known by my peers in high school. I was a nerdy GATE kid who loved Star Wars and went voluntarily to summer school to study astronomy before my freshman year of high school. I was interested in art and music. I liked to read science fiction novels and cosmology non-fiction. And I was shy and over six feet tall which made me impossible to ignore even when I felt like blending into the carpet.
My best friends were a kid down the street with a difficult family life and another kid whose parents had immigrated from Vietnam. I won’t go into detail on some of the issues they faced, but suffice it to say one of them had parents who drank a lot. The other had a conflict with a step-parent that spilled over into violence occasionally. My blended family of 6 kids (mom remarried) and going to see my dad every other weekend seemed better but wasn’t always easy. My dad and step-father got in a fist fight once at my house. It was a one-time thing but it gives you a sense of the under-currents that were there.
All of that to say, my friends and I did not enter high school each morning with the sense we were the masters of the universe. The fact that all of us were straight and male (and two of us were white) didn’t mean we passed through that time on top of the world smirking down on anyone. Far from it.
And what I take from all of that is not that Capehart’s pain or that of his friend growing up don’t matter. It does matter. But they weren’t the only kids struggling with real problems and feeling smirked at by their peers, for wont of a better word. When you assume that all the white, straight males had it easy or at least easier, you’re generalizing in a way that doesn’t hold up to reality. It’s simplistic thinking, which is one reason I think it’s so popular. In reality, people are individuals and you don’t really know how hard they have it by looking at them for a minute or two. You’d have to know them to really know that. And yes, that even goes for the kids doing the smirking some of whom are probably suffering more than you know.
With that in mind, I’d return to Capehart’s claims about Justice Kavanaugh. Calling him “petulant” may work for some, but a lot of us saw a man who was being publicly abused and shamed for something it’s not clear he did. Certainly several of the allegations against him didn’t have any support. How is a man supposed to act when he’s publicly accused of gang-rape without evidence? Should he be calm and restrained? I’m not sure that makes much sense unless you assume he’s guilty. Not just guilty of this one act as a teen but guilty in the broader sense Capehart is raising. Guilty of being a smirker who has gone through life hurting people for his own amusement. I don’t think that’s what the record showed about Brett Kavanaugh.
The same goes for Nick Sandmann. When a stranger comes up to beat a drum in your face and his friend is telling you and your friends to “Go back to Europe!” should you fold like a cheap suit or should you demonstrate a little defiance at being singled out and challenged in this racist way? Capehart doesn’t know the first thing about Sandmann. There’s no evidence he’s a bad kid who goes around hurting gay people or minorities. No one involved in the online shaming and death threats against his school and family knows anything about him. They’re just channeling their own pain into a kid’s smirk (which isn’t even clearly a smirk the whole time).
You can’t assume Sandmann is the equivalent of your childhood tormentor because he’s white, straight and male or even because he stands up for himself (peacefully) when confronted. Don’t make this kid a target because he reminds you of someone else from 30 years ago. You don’t know him or whether he’s had it easy or hard thus far. And beause you don’t know, you shouldn’t assume.
Addendum: One last thought. One thing we do know about Sandmann is that he seems to be the kid willing to stand up for other kids being bullied. How do we know? Because that’s what he was doing here. His group was being racially bullied by the Black Hebrew Israelites and also by the guy who walked over with Nathan Phillips. He was right to want it to stop and I think in a quiet, peaceful way he was trying to stop it.