Words || Ilhan Abdi
It seems that wherever we look, in moments of racial tension or violence in America, you see a familiar sea of blood-red hats atop of jeering white faces. Recently, on January 18th two marches clashed in the US capitol; an Indigenous People’s rally, and the March for Life, an annual pro-life march. The pro-life march was attended by vice-president Mike Pence, a surprise guest, who proudly announced to the crowd, “We’re the Pences, and we’re pro-life!”
“You have an unwavering ally in this Vice President…and you have a champion in President Donald Trump”, Pence said, after which he preceded to introduced Trump via video screen who promised to veto any bill that “weakens the protection of human life.”
In spite of these remarks a video of a group of white school boys taunting a Native American man who appeared to be drumming and singing was what ended social media. The viral video was inescapable. It involved a white teen staring down an elderly Native American man, his face painted in an arrogant smirk, with a MAGA cap on his head. His white classmates, all versions of the same hat taunted and jeered at the man. This image of the white teen gleefully heckling a person of colour is familiar. History has produced countless black and white photographs of white teenagers, both boys and girls, taunting and physically abusing non-white peaceful protesters in an effort to incite some violent reaction.
Influential conservatives fuelled revisionist account of the protest, reframing the story to read that “left-wingers are always trying to make everything seem racist, and teenagers can’t be (rightfully) vilified for their actions”. The boys quickly became conservative heroes who stood their ground against political correctness. All this while media began vilifying the 64-year-old Nathan Phillips’, by reporting about perceived criminal past (he was charged for alcohol related crimes at in 1974 at age 19), even though social media was flooded with evidence of the teen’s previous racist history.
According to a report by The Washington Post, Twitter’s algorithm took ‘two snippets of these videos posted by random accounts and helped bring them into many people’s feeds’, which eventually led to social media timelines being swamped with arguments from all sides. But the thing is, the face and the hat are emblematic of transgression.
This hat, unlike any other article of clothing except perhaps, a confederate flag t-shirt, represents something. It’s a visual support of the person who used it as a symbol and slogan for his political campaign and later on, his presidency. It literally is a symbol – Stanford’s Symbolic System Program named it symbol of the year in 2016. The hat is a sartorial statement that automatically aligns its wearer with Trump’s policies and actions.
But what do the words on the hat represent? Make America Great Again. What does that imply? In its hundreds of years as a sovereign state has it ever been great? Think of the horrors of every century since its foundation. From colonisation, to slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration, to American imperialism; this is what the hat and Trump represents.
The hat’s allure is in its unwelcome nature as petasus non grata. It’s a declaration against political correctness that has been echoed in the words of other politicians of Western nations (*cough* Cory Bernadi *cough*). They take cue from America and make their own country-specific iterations of the phrase. But as the March for Life shows, the hat is most popular amongst teenage boys, as a symbol of dissent and intimidation. The nation’s capital city, D.C. is awash with mostly white pre-teen and teenage boys on school trips wearing those hats as souvenirs. The students repeat Trump’s slogans, chanting phrases like “build the wall” and “fake news”, usually to bully and exclude other students or groups of colour, as evidenced by the video from the march. In 2017, Buzzfeed News found 81 accounts of the bullying of Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates across the U.S. by MAGA hat wearing teens.
For those of us who cannot hide the identities that make us targets of the violence that this hat represents, it’s an incredibly jarring thing to see in real life. If I were to see someone with that hat walking in the street, on a train platform, I would brace myself. Because if its supporters and recent events are any indication, a person wearing that hat could easily end my life. I visually represent a multitude of the very things they hate; Black, Muslim, female, and all it takes is one push off a train platform. This is what the hat does. It imbues fear.
So no matter the intention, anyone who wears it discloses a connection with the violent white supremacy that Trump and his supporters represent. The intention of the wearer does not matter, whether it is an act of rebellion amongst disruptive white teens or a proud display of support. The hat represents hateful ideologies, such that the act of wearing it with pride is violence in and of itself.