Friday, February 21, 2014

Hometown pride - Phillipsburg Edition

I find myself somewhat reluctant to post this, now that I've started writing under my real name.

Our small town is in the news again.Seven (white) high-school wrestlers posed for a photo with a lynched wrestling dummy. One of them is saluting the dummy while two have small cones under their hoods, so they look like Klansmen.

Here's a copy of the picture.

Reaction has been....predictable. Variations on, "I know these kids and they weren't up to anything malicious" from sympathetic students and "Political Correctness is out of control! It's getting to the point where a gang of white kids can't lynch a black dummy while dressed as sieg heiling klansmen without being called racist! Anybody who thinks this picture is racist is the REAL racist."

I certainly wouldn't want to be judged for the rest of my like for something I did when I was eighteen. I've done stupid things, and said offensive things. If you looked at me in the worst of my private moments, I'm sure you could find something that I said that paints me in a very bad light. Anyone, at his or her worst, looks bad.

That said, it's hard to interpret this photo as anything other than pretty fucking racist. It's hard to imagine anything that could possibly make it any more racist, other than adding some swastikas, an actual burning cross or that Nazi-saluting monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

That's not to say that these kids are themselves bad kids, or even racist ones. It's possible to have racism without racists. I don't know how someone can look at this picture and say, with a straight face, "Oh, he's not saluting. It's just sunny in the gym and he's shading his eyes." "Hoodies styled like KKK Hoods? No, there's just an updraft down there." (One thing I can agree with is their claim that the color of the dummy is probably incidental. Not that it makes the whole thing any better, but it prevents it from being any worse than it already was.)

I think that defense by the town is the real problem. This picture happened in a climate where, at best, the kids really don't see what the big deal is. Also, the whining after being suspended after the principal assured them that they would not be: ("When the photograph first surfaced, Principal Greg Troxell assured each of us individually in separate face-to-face meetings, and confirmed to our parents that while we would be disciplined in some manner, we absolutely were not going to be suspended from the wrestling team, and we were going to be permitted to wrestle in the individual championships. Now, for some reason, without further explanation, and despite our repeated unanswered inquiries, the school has done an about face." is not winning any sympathy.

"For some reason." Jesus. Could it be because our little town of 15,000 people is in the national spotlight and we look like a bunch of racist shitheads? It reminds me of nothing so much as a six-year-old whining "But, you promised!" when you tell her you can't take her to the park like you said because your car broke down. Circumstances change. We adapt.

Is the photograph racist? It's hard to argue that it's not. The lynching, the hoods, the salute. You could possibly rationalize any one of those elements, but the three of them together lead to a very clear theme.

Are the kids racist? I don't know. The picture was insensitive and showed monumentally poor judgement, certainly. I don't have a favorable impression of them based on that whiny "We're the real victims" lament, but being entitled doesn't make you racist, either. I'd stop short of calling a bunch of kids racist based on a single snapshot.

As I said above, I make mistakes, just like everyone else. And I believe in redemption. I wouldn't want to be judged by things I said ten or twenty years ago. I like to think I learn from my mistakes. But the first part of learning from a mistake is understanding why it's a mistake. I wouldn't have learned a lesson, if, every time I did something wrong, if my attorney issued a mealy-mouthed passive voice "He's-sorry-if-anyone-was-offended" apology on my behalf while other adults circled the wagons and vociferously attacked the very idea that there was any reason to apologize in the first place.

Except, that's not true, is it?

I would have learned a lesson. Just not a good one.

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