I woke up today (the day after MLK Day in the U.S.) to a Facebook friend who presents as a white woman asking if I’d seen the #CovingtonCatholic student’s statement because she’s not sure what to believe. Later in the day, a white family member also sent me the statement, presumably to vindicate the white students.
These messages come in response to me speaking out over the past few days about the incident, asking for white folks to break patterns of niceness and to advocate for institutional change. They may also convey some genuine confusion about what to believe at this charged moment when “fake news” is all the buzz.
I’ve decided to share the emotional labor and conversational turns these messages elicited with the hope that my messy, everyday experience helps with processing the #CovingtonCatholic incident and with learning to speak and write UP for racial justice.
Here goes …
This morning, I take a few deep breaths and sit at my computer to respond to my friend’s comment. I don’t always respond, but today I do because this comment is on a public thread where it’s not only between the commenter and me. Also, as a white woman, I’m committed to working with white folks, or attempting a number of actions before unfriending.
I begin my response by attempting to shift the conversation, sharing a bit of a previous Facebook thread, though perhaps without enough context: “Manifestations of oppression—white supremacy, colonialism, heteropatriarchy, and more—are everywhere in everyday life. We won’t get anywhere until the questions shift from ‘IF this act was racist’ to HOW it’s racist—and when, where, why, for whom, by whom …”
Next, I offer a rhetorical analysis of the student’s aggression: “I feel the aggression of this white student so deep in my bones: the intense stare, smile, and smirk … I’ve experienced this with Marquette [Catholic university] students: white men who’d use their body to communicate anger and deny they’d done anything if/when called on it. I don’t trust the student’s statement because he’s positioned to do face-saving, not truth-telling moves.”
In addition to reframing and giving my personal account, I share resources, including a few tweets, asking my friend to read analysis by scholars and activists of color to learn more. I ask us to think about how racism is often about who’s believed and who’s disbelieved, who’s listened to and who’s silenced. I suggest watching the interview with Nathan Phillips, which is included here, along with what’s clearly the Covington Catholic students singing fight songs and doing tomahawk chants.
Still, she’s concerned whether events have been reported accurately. She’s concerned about “corrupt media.” She’s concerned that the “boys are pretty young.” All of these statements come with the acknowledgement that she hasn’t had a chance to read or watch anything I’ve posted, leading me to understand her comment not as a learning-and-teaching request but as a defense of the Covington Catholic students.
I respond more pointedly: “Believing the student’s or church’s statements over video evidence, analysis, and testimonies of Black and Indigenous folks IS supporting the MAGA-wearing, Trump-supporting folks. They are showing us exactly who they are. Who are you choosing to believe? And why?”
I feel my anger intensify when she comments back that “most of the people in the video made many mistakes” and she doesn’t completely believe “any side.” I recognize right away the language of “many sides” and “all sides” from Trump’s address following the Charlottesville protests and violence in August 2017. In that address, Trump said that there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides,” a statement reiterated by a White House spokesperson as “all sources and all sides.” All sides: the language used to equate overt racism and antiracism, the language used to justify white supremacy.
Feeling gut-punched (literally, my stomach aches, and my heart hurts), I add, “White women have a long history of siding with white men through this sort of language . . . There’s a LOT to unlearn and to re-train ourselves to see, starting with not flattening the story.”
A few minutes later, Facebook pings, and I read the reply: “I am Mexican & Native American, more than white. And I do not side with trump!!!”
I’ve been in so many conversations in which there’s defensive move after defensive move, which is all this exchange has become. I respond by saying that there’s much to dig into around the differences of race, ethnicity, culture, nationality, and linguistic background as well as self-identification and group membership. I don’t have energy to go there, so I link instead to recent articles talking about the trouble of white folks claiming Native heritage (e.g., this piece and this one).
In this exchange, I read the invocation of “Mexican & Native American” as defusing attention to how her actions are aligned with whiteness, white fragility, and white supremacy. Rather than take responsibility, the friend who presents as white uses her racial self-identification as a shield. As someone with white privilege, she’s still siding with white students. The exchange reiterates, instead of breaks, white solidarity.
And who’s blocked, dismissed, and disbelieved by these white solidarity moves?
I’m sharing this conversation, in part, to show how everyday racism accumulates. Racism occurs not only in the initiating #CovingtonCatholic incident, but also in white folks choosing to believe the account of other white folks at the protest. It grows as media spread the white student’s words, and then those words (the narrative crafted “with the aid of a GOP-supporting PR firm”) become the center of conversation.
This moment is one with a lot of potential for learning and unlearning. What I’ve encountered, however, is defensiveness framed as a question of “who to believe?” And belief is the terrain of epistemic injustice, or the problem of folks with power and privilege being systemically listened to and believed, whether or not they’ve earned the credibility. That “unearned credibility excess” sits alongside the “unearned credibility deficit” facing people systematically marginalized.
Epistemic injustice is why we need to assert again and again and again: #CiteBlackWomen (because Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color are made invisible and disbelieved). It’s why I ask friends and family “who are you reading?” and why it’s critical to read and share blogs and books by feminists and womanists of color.
As I continue to sit with the emotions and conversations that unfolded today, I’m feeling through the need to change who’s believed—and when, where, how, and why.
Why would the student’s statement be believed over multiple videos capturing the white students’ aggressive energy?
Why would the student’s statement be believed over the elder Nathan Phillips?
Why would the student’s statement be believed over the varied accounts and in-depth analysis of the incident?
Here again—and I’m speaking to white folks and folks with white privilege—we must counter epistemic injustice. We must break white solidarity. We must believe, amplify, and stand with communities of color.
With love, compassion, and an attitude of try-try again,
This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville” and “My New Year’s Resolution = Self-Love for Countering White Fragility.”
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