White People, Come Get Your Children

Surely you saw the image: a group of white youth from Covington Catholic school in Kentucky wearing red MAGA hats surrounding Omaha elder Nathan Phillips as he prayed and drummed an intervention between these youth and a group of black men. There is the close-up of one white youth face to face with Phillips, sneering in the face of that prayer.

Indigenous people and People of Color directly experience the hostile sneer of white contempt right up in our faces so often. I felt assaulted by seeing that sneer repeated scores of times in my social media feeds. I went offline to avoid it. I feel no desire to amplify that injurious image, but if you were under a rock this weekend and don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find it here.

There were lots of media conversations attached to those images. Many were filled with anger, outrage, and invective. They asked who was really in the right in this situation. They asked viewers to consider different perspectives. They expressed anger at the expression “Make America Great Again” as a veiled call to use violence to restore unquestioned white male supremacy. They raged at the Catholic Church for bringing young men whose lives it will not protect against sexual predation by priests to an anti-abortion rally called to “protect life”.

One conversation was notably absent, though. I did not hear a single white voice asking “How do we come get our children?”

photo by Jack Finnegan on Unsplash

“Come get your people” is a phrase from African-American vernacular that means, roughly “You are kin to, and thereby responsible for, the people who are causing harm here.” In current popular use, it signifies that the most important thing you can do is to come claim these harm-causing folks as your own, take responsibility for ending their abuse, and teach them to know better and do better. In our current cultural efforts to dismantle white supremacy, learning to “come get your people” is the hardest thing for white people interested in ending racism to do. It is also the most important.

So, if you are white and outraged about this situation, I want you to come get your children.

I want you to know that, whether you like it or not, the sneering MAGA-hatted white boys are, indeed, your children. Pretending that they are not your sons is your way of maintaining white supremacy while keeping yourself morally comfortable. Raging against them and discarding them as those Others — those Southerners, those Catholics, those overt white supremacists, those Trump supporters — is feeding the dog of white supremacy the bones of your own children just to keep that cur warm and friendly as it curls up at your feet.

White people will have to get honest about uncomfortable things in order to come get their children. They must ask hard questions, like: “How must we begin to show up as elders in ways that help white youth recognize and respect elderhood? “ White people of faith will have to ask each other: “How should we receive someone offering us prayer when it comes in a way that frightens us, or that we do not understand?” White educators will have to teach their children what it means to encounter an Omaha elder acting in love when pre-displacement Omaha territory likely included the place now occupied as Covington, KY. Not knowing that story is connected to widespread contempt for the white people of Appalachia, whom many Americans call trash.

Being outraged without planning to come get your people is a familiar practice of whiteness. It is outrage as a form of entertainment. It always makes me think of crowds of spectators at a lynching. Some were outraged by the supposed crimes of the victims, others by the fact of the lynching itself. But all were equally entertained by their own collective anger, while saving no one’s life.

There is one final reason I need white people to come get your children in Covington, KY, a place that is now a synecdoche for progressive white people disowning other white folks everywhere. Much like the sanitized versions of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., this image of Nathan Phillips is quickly being reduced and reproduced as the stereotypical Magical Indian, whose medicine exists to ease the painful vacuum in the soul that white settler colonialism demands. Sharing the image of Nathan Phillips without planning to come get your children reinforces the notion that indigenous, black and brown people are here to be spiritual nannies and servants, raising your children right. It celebrates us as the help, who walk into dangerous situations to sing prayer to your children because you do not love them enough to do it yourself.

So, don’t post that photo and rant on social media, then walk away with a head shake of disgust. Do not pretend that the harm done here does not belong to you. White people, come get your children. It is well past time to take their hands and, together, clean up your own cultural and spiritual mess.

A very different essay with a similar title was written by Renée Graham and published in the Boston Globe on Jan 22, 2019. I encourage you to read it here.