The boy who went viral: Nick Sandmann shown here in his MAGA cap with fellow students next to Indigenous elder playing the drum. Instagram / ka_ya11
Racism isn’t new and will not go away. What is new is the interest in pointing it out and calling out its perpetrators through both mainstream and social media. Especially white racists. What explains the need to do this? And why do incidents go viral so quickly?
Take for instance the case of Nick Sandmann, a white teenager from Kentucky whose picture and video many will have now seen. In a video, Sandmann is standing across from Native American demonstrator, Nathan Phillips, who is holding a rawhide drum. Sandmann is smiling or smirking at Phillips. From the videos, we don’t know which it is.
What we do know is that Sandmann has been widely condemned for disrespecting Philips. Sandmann was wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) cap. And many people believe wearing the MAGA cap proves that Sandman is a racist.
Maybe, as everyone seems loathe to do, instead of asking whether Sandmann is a racist or not, we might ask another question: Why is there so much interest in this story?
Why are so many people interested in pointing out and shaming individual white racists? There have been dozens of these events highlighted on social and mainstream media this year. Here are a few of the incidents that went viral and sparked outrage: a video of Fort McMurray teens mocking Indigenous dance, another of a North Carolina woman’s racist rant and the racist tirade against a Muslim family at the Toronto Ferry Terminal.
Why are people less interested in calling out the systems that prime them to act in racist ways and foster lifelong inequities.
We think the reason lies in the fact that by pointing out other individual racists, people can feel good about themselves without actually doing very much. In this way, individuals do not need to question how they must change their lives to create the more just society they say they want.
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White people can feel good about themselves because, unlike what is claimed about Sandmann, they probably aren’t overtly racist.
These days most people are not overtly or publicly racist. And being labelled a racist can lead to social stigma. The individual (who may or may not be white) racist and their story, however, provides easy answers and easy targets.
Structural racism and colonization are not seen as the problem. It also allows people to ignore broader trends, such as the recent rise of hate crimes. Instead the focus is often on the spectacle of the incident and the problem is pinned on just one individual or a group of individuals.
In the Sandmann case, many see the problem as the individual racist, not the context that created the MAGA movement.
Ignored in the process of labelling people racists and shaming them is that the shaming fails to condemn actions. Instead, it focuses on a single person. Condemning people gives them little room to change, grow or learn from their mistakes. Humility is needed on all sides.
The move to innocence
Pointing out and condemning individuals for their racism is popular because it exemplifies what scholars Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang would call a “move to innocence.” Moves to innocence are the rhetorical moves that people use to distance themselves from genocide and colonization.
A video which circulated on social media shows a heated exchange between a man and a family at the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal in Toronto in July. (Hasan Ahmed / Facebook)
Those who have privilege and power can just tell themselves that they are one of the “good ones” because they aren’t racist like the people in the videos.
In pointing out others as racist, people don’t then have to ask themselves difficult questions about their own privilege or do the work of fostering social humility. Those of the dominant society don’t have to think about the ways that they benefit from slavery, colonialism and land theft.
They don’t have to think about pipelines and stolen land. They don’t have to think. They can just point.
If we want to move forward, we need to stop taking an aggressive punitive approach to individual racism. This only divides the right and the left. No side is “innocent” when it comes to discrimination or colonization.
About The Authors
Rima Wilkes, Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia and Howard Ramos, Professor of Sociology, Dalhousie University