“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see.” — C.S. Lewis
We don’t believe what we see.
We see what we believe.
So, what did you see?
Listen, I have no desire to adjudicate this moment. Even with the myriad of videos, no video can discern the heart of man. I am here to give commentary about us, the onlookers.
I’m a firm believer, especially convinced in this polarized climate we exist in, that we don’t believe what we see, we see what we believe. So I’m asking myself this: does my lens bathe moments like this in justice, empathy, and love? Why or why not?
So let’s think about us. Not them. Us.
What DID you see?
Did you see the irony of a group of people hindering lives already lived in misery, on Martin Luther King weekend, after something called the March for Life? Alleged shouts of “build that wall!” tossed at a Native American, itself almost cartoonishly absurd?
Did you see a lack of home training? Who doesn’t teach their kids to to respect Elders? Did you see, packed into one moment, hundreds and hundreds of years of unspeakable atrocities and the erasure of native peoples? Did you see mockery? Did you see the poise and wisdom of a life lived in service, suffering, and endurance—a man who, despite the nation’s neverending effort to pacify, then forget about him—refuses to go unseen and unheard?
Or did you see a group of kids who were just happy for a field trip, having fun, like teenagers often are? When too many of them get together in one place, they somehow all forget how to use their prefrontal cortex. Maybe you can empathize with trying to supervise kids on a field trip. (I have supervised MANY! It is exponentially worse than herding cats.)
Maybe you saw a bunch of kids who were actually confused as to what was going on, who thought Elder Phillips was part of the celebration. Maybe they thought they were honoring him. Maybe they thought the Elder was confused. Maybe they felt they were being accosted by someone who didn’t even know them! Maybe they felt like that man had no right to be in their space. Maybe you saw kids who felt uncomfortable with what was happening, but, for fear of not being in step with the crowd, didn’t say anything.
We saw what we believe about each other, and others.
Here’s a test—and I don’t have an answer, just a thought. How would this moment wash over you if those boys had been girls? Or brown? Or immigrants? Or if it was a refugee rally? Would your gut tell you a different story?
What if the Hebrew Israelites had been a different group? What if that Native Elder was Muslim?
What would our news cycles say then? If you swap out the characters with a different faith, race, or gender, how would it wash over you then?
Let me be honest.
I can tell you what I saw.
I saw 400+ years of history and conditioning.
The first thing I saw was that face. I know that face. It’s so uncomfortably ambiguous.
That “I’m having fun, why would you think any different?” face. That “unconsciously knowing I have the freedom to not even think about my expression” face.
He might have had the purest of intentions. Completely unaware of his body language or historical context. Still, my gut felt like I’ve seen that smirk before.
One that can always say, “What?! I was smiling! I didn’t say anything! I didn’t touch him!”
“It just a joke!”
“I just told her she was hot! Isn’t that a compliment?!”
“She kinda liked it though”
“What?! Monkeys are cool! I wish I could be as strong!”
I know that look. At least I feel like I’ve seen it before. The untouchables clash with the unseen.
A facial expression is harmless, true. Unless it’s the expression you’ve been looking at for years in museums, textbooks, and videos of your forefathers and mothers being hanged, or burned, or dogs unleashed on them, or being taunted, or murdered. Some things are hard to not see, to unsee.
I’ve been yelled at by black Hebrew Israelites, too, because of my Christian beliefs. You’re right, it ain’t fun.
My gut knew the forthcoming narrative.
He’s just a kid! (But weren’t Trayvon and Tamir kids?)
Boys do things that don’t make much sense. (Cue Tamir.)
Don’t make him your liberal villain!
It’s a wonderful thing when kids are the granted the basic human right to have their age and maturity considered. Concerned their MAGA hats might cause them to be judged unfairly? You’re probably right. Its kinda like how my father was concerned about my hoodie and headphones. Every piece of clothing for young black teens—every sticker, every slogan, every rap song—are potential death wishes.
It’s not so much what I saw in these boys in DC; it’s how I wished little black boys would be given this much benefit of the doubt. I can’t help but feel like young white men can be simultaneously too immature to know what they were doing and mature enough to choose a political stance. Discerning the nuances of modern politics, yet not mature enough to behave well in public.
Remember: it was kids who did the 2 x 2 sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and the freedom riders. It was also kids who spat and threw milkshakes on them.
I saw an Elder who wasn’t really concerned about social cues—that’s what trauma does to a person. Besides, as anyone with a grandparent knows, old people do what they want. But trauma can make you seem intrusive.
Not-so-fun fact: in all the statistics of women who go missing in the sex trade—Native American women aren’t even counted. And their numbers dwarf ours. It’s one thing to be discriminated against, it’s one thing to have atrocities done against you. It’s another level to be ignored completely.
They say social media can rob us of context. That we can’t get a full picture unless we were there. It’s not that I disagree with that, I just think it’s incomplete. You can be in the moment and still see it out of context. Context is just as complicated as we are.
How wide is your lens? How extensive is the timeline? Where do you want to start the narrative that would lead to the moment you’re watching?
All of this informs what we believe. What we think we saw. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a hero? Maybe. Was he a criminal? Maybe: I mean, he was jailed 29 times! You tell me.
I don’t want to tell anyone what they should have seen, but I do want you to ask yourself this:
What have you believed about people who look like me, and people who don’t? About our collective history? What would make you see what I saw? If the benefit of the doubt is given for the young men, why not for Elder Philips? Or vice versa? You tell me.
Propaganda is a poet, political activist, husband, father, academic, emcee, and artist in residence with Preemptive Love Coalition.