So much has been said and tweeted about “the smirk,” Nick Sandmann’s countenance as Nathan Phillips beat a drum in his face on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18. The ensuing controversy that brought the Covington Catholic high school teen from Kentucky and the Omaha Nation elder from Nebraska together is now the latest addition in America’s thick book of Rorschach tests on race and difference. And “the smirk” is its indelible image.
Listen, even calling it a “smirk” is a matter of interpretation. For those who think the Covington kids in general and Sandmann in particular did nothing wrong, that wasn’t a smirk at all. It was defiance. A sentiment Sandmann summed up in an interview with Savannah Guthrie, co-anchor of NBC’s “Today” show, that aired on Jan. 23. “I see it as a smile saying that this is the best you’re going to get out of me, you won’t get any further reaction of aggression, and I’m willing to stand here as long as you want to hit this drum in my face,” Sandmann told Guthrie when she asked him how he viewed his facial expression.
When it comes to matters of difference, I always try very hard to meet people where they are. That’s why I can see why Sandmann thought nothing of his actions or his expression. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started demanding that others try to meet me where I am. And 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.
My negative response to Sandmann’s countenance was buttressed by Sandmann’s “Today” show responses, which were mixed with a heavy dose of entitlement. As when he said, “As far as standing there, I had every right to do so. My position is that I was not disrespectful to Mr. Phillips.” Or when he said, “Mr. Phillips had his right to come up to me. I had my right to stay there.” Or when Sandmann said of Phillips, “I’m not sure where he wanted to go. And if he wanted to walk past me I would have let him go.”
That a child was in such an absurd situation with an adult in the first place is mind-boggling. That he talks about an adult as if they are on equal footing compounds the gall. But the privilege embedded in Sandmann’s responses is the audible manifestation of what the smirk represented to so many.
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.” What followed was one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read.
White male entitlement cuts across all socioeconomic categories. Young, old, rich, poor, too many of them have felt empowered to make others not like them in any way feel disrespected, unwelcome, worthless. But as Krehely’s poem makes clear, we’re tired of cowering and running and feeling powerless in the face of indifference or cruelty.
Sandmann doesn’t think he has anything to apologize for, nor does he believe he did anything wrong. Fine. I can understand why. But until folks like him bother — for even just a minute — to see how their own actions are perceived and compound pain, these racial Rorschach tests will keep happening. More smirks, more confrontations, more division.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast.