Sunday, January 20, 2019

When injustice strikes: Guiding your gifted teen

Recent video of adolescent boys at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., laughing and mocking Native American elder and veteran Nathan Phillips, have evoked shock and disgust. Many wonder how these teens could show such disrespect. While the camera focused on one boy's face, others were shown laughing in the background.

Call it what you want - racism, ignorance, mob mentality, or teenage stupidity - it is still abhorrent to witness. It evokes historic memories of systemic mockery, bullying and shaming of ethnic, racial and religious groups. We are not too far past the pre-Civil Rights-era South, or 1930's Germany, or even #metoo awareness.

Social psychology reminds us that we often conform to the crowd, and even base our reactions on the behavior of those around us. Should we laugh? Panic? Assist that homeless person? Flee from a questionable looking individual? We look to others for cues.

And no one is more susceptible to peer pressure than adolescents, whose reputations rest on fitting in, appearing invulnerable, and yes, sometimes making fun of others. But joking with a friend about his new haircut is quite different from mocking his race, ethnicity, culture, religious affiliations or political beliefs. Other targets of bullying include differences in appearance, obesity, disabilities, lack of athletic talent, giftedness, gender differences, and refusal to conform to prevailing social norms.

So how did these boys at the Lincoln Memorial transition from typical adolescent pranks to the entitlement that engendered mocking an older adult? What empowered them to join together and embrace this attitude rather than merely allowing Nathan Phillips to continue on his path? Is it the school? Their parents? The prevailing political climate?

I would imagine that many of these boys' parents are feeling pretty awful right now, and school officials also are horrified. No one instructed them to behave in this manner.* Yet, the values of inclusion, diversity and respect do not appear to be ingrained in how these boys view their world.

I raised boys. And my boys did things I was not always proud of. Stupid things. Teenage things. All in the process of learning and growing up - like every other child. I made stupid mistakes also. I still do. But I can guarantee that my kids would not have participated in this mocking, shaming event that took place in D.C. Why not? They were fortunate to have experienced a neighborhood, community, school system and family where racial, ethnic, cultural, gender and religious diversity were the norm. Any conflict or bullying that took place within the schools typically involved personal insults, but almost never included racial/ethnic/religious slurs. It just was not part of this community's language.

Many of you with gifted children are aware of their heightened sensitivities, concerns with social justice and struggles to fit in with their peers. Although we don't know the specifics of what occurred at the Lincoln Memorial event, the interplay of confrontation between disparate groups is distressing. Please help your children continue to understand that remaining true to their sensitivities and recognizing the commonalities in all people will support their sense of fairness and justice. Remaining true to these values, especially on this Martin Luther King weekend, will engage their sense of purpose. Even if some of those around them are not so inclined.

*(Since writing this post, more information regarding the event has emerged, with conflicting viewpoints of what occurred. Out of respect for the students, who were apparently tormented by a hate group prior to the incident with Nathan Phillips, and who may have been startled and confused, I wanted to share this version of events.

The convergence of a black nationalist group, participants in a Native American rally, and students wearing MAGA hats at a pro-life rally may have resulted in more chaos than could be contained. And it was a distressing example of how confrontational behavior, presentation, and perception create impressions and influence viewpoints - for both members of a peer group who search for social cues, and for those of us affected by the media. If my original impressions of what occurred were wrong, I apologize for some of my written words about the students. However, the role of mob mentality, peer pressure, and the importance of encouraging a child's sense of fairness and justice still are relevant.)


  1. Gail,

    I hope that gifted teens did learn something from this. I hope that they learned that first impressions aren't always right and that the loudest voice doesn't always speak the truth. I hope they learned that just because stereotypes exist about Trump supporters, teens, Native Americans, and veterans doesn't mean that everything must play out according to those stereotypes. I hope they learn about gathering facts before speaking, something I learned better myself in this situation. I hope they learned that not every issue has a good side and a bad side.

    We recently had a priest I consider a friend destroyed in the media for a homily he preached at the funeral of a young man who committed suicide. The parents claimed he was condemning their son and saying he went to hell, when the priest was actually trying to give hope to the family. The Archdiocese of Detroit publicly shamed him too. When the homily came out, it vindicated the priest. Unfortunately, not nearly as many people read the updates or retractions. He still is hurt daily by this.

    Kathy Griffin wanted to dox these kids so that the attacks against them could leave the newspapers and become more personal. To me, that is the story that should bear the greatest shame.

    1. Thank you, Joshua. You are right - first impressions certainly may be incorrect. I am hoping to learn more in the coming days about the full extent of what occurred. I do not agree with the harsh judgments against them - they are kids, after all. And I am appalled to hear that these kids and their families have received death threats.

      Nevertheless, the images were provocative and may have evoked a great deal of distress and memories of prior historical conflicts that may affect many teens. This is not the same as the terrible story you shared about the priest who was slandered. This is about the power of large groups, peer pressure, mob mentality and the visceral response many experience. And it is reflective of the unfortunate political divide that exists at the present time in our country.

      Thank you for taking the time to respond to this.

  2. Thanks for writing this. My daughter was very upset after viewing the original video. She has a great affinity for Native American culture, and was saddened to see this elderly man treated like this. I know that these boys are now covering their tracks and are saying they were just chanting school cheers or something like that, but I watched their body language. My daughter thought they looked scary, like some of the boys at school who she avoids.

    1. Thank you for sharing about your daughter's reaction. Events like these can evoke strong reactions for all of us - especially children and teens.

  3. I suggest you educate yourself more on the issue of this supposed racist harassment of a Native elder and veteran. This viral meme has been circulated and the students' behavior widely condemned. The irony of discussing mob mentality and its potential evils is that in this very instance we may see how a mob, led by adults in the media, smeared the reputations of these young men without bothering to do further research into the incident. Only a small amount of research would have lead them to the truth, which is that they themselves were the victims of racism by the Black Hebrew Israelites--a Black Supremacist cult--and harassment by Mr. Nathan Philips, who walked into the crowd of boys waiting for their bus, not engaging them with words, but banging a drum in their faces. A modicum of effort would have led journalists in the media to the fact that Philips also lied about his service in Vietnam, and has attempted to falsely claim racist discrimination similarly in the past. Your post strikes me as evidence of mob-mentality and over-confidence in first impressions when they support preexisting ideological views.

    1. Thank you for sharing your opinion. As I noted in the addendum, and also on my FB post, I have given this a lot of thought, and have reviewed much of the additional video. I think that the situation is kind of a Rorschach for so many of us projecting our opinions based on various political and personal views.

      Although I do agree that there has been a rush to judgment, and clearly these boys were harassed by the BHI group, there are indications that the framework from which they were responding was not one of innocence. Yes, of course, they are teens who act to impress each other and want to look cool in front of their friends. That's what teens do. My concern was that their response was to mock rather than walk away or show some respect - even if they thought that Mr. Philips' behavior seemed odd to them.

      These boys were on a trip to an anti-abortion rally in DC and their chaperones allowed them to wear politically suggestive clothing. There is video from 2013 from a basketball game at their school where students were permitted to attend a game in blackface, mocking players from a visiting team. Clearly, the messages this school is sending these students is not one of acceptance toward those who are different.

      My point in the blog post was about sensitivity among gifted teens, who might be affected by what occurred. Gifted teens are often proponents of social justice - not proponents of defending bullying of the disenfranchised. Those who are sensitive and care about social justice would not wear blackface or mock indigenous peoples. What the students in DC saw was a Native American individual beating a drum, and perhaps, behaving in a manner that was confusing to them. I am not saying that these boys in DC were not thrown off by this or unsettled by what occurred. And certainly, they should not have been harassed by the BHI. And, their chaperones where appallingly absent. But IMO, their behavior should not be condoned or overlooked.