Those Covington Catholic Boys: A Commentary on White Male Privilege.
By now, we’ve all seen the videos and formed our opinions on those Covington Catholic School boys.
No matter where you fall on the spectrum of blame, fake news, bullying, or disrespect, one thing sticks out in every narrative: that smirk. It is not a smirk of an inherently evil or bad person. It is the smirk of an entitled person who is unafraid of being punished. It is the same smirk my ex-husband wore when he was belittling my intelligence or invalidating my reality.
It is the same smirk Brett Cavanaugh wore as he was questioned about his drinking habits. A smirk that is not learned, but gifted to white, privileged men as they are taught that their potential is precious and will be protected at all costs.
I taught high school Chemistry for 13 years. When three boys turned in a quiz with the exact same wrong answer, I slapped a zero on each boy’s paper and told them I suspected cheating. The next day, two of the boys’ mothers called a parent-teacher conference.
One mother, a high-ranking member of the FBI, as she reminded me several times, sought to bully me into clearing her son’s name. She wanted me to apologize for the accusation and change his score. He said he didn’t cheat.
The second mother sat strikingly silent as this woman used her own accomplishments as proof of her honest, upstanding, hardworking son. I knew this boy. He was not the angel his mother purported him to be. I knew he and the two others had shared information on the quiz. But his being labeled a cheater did not fit her plans for him, and she was determined to eliminate all consequences for her son.
Ultimately, the boys were allowed to take the quiz again. The FBI woman’s son smirked as he took the re-test from my hands. A privileged, white woman had just taught her son that he could cheat and get a second chance without accountability.
High-school boys graduate and become college-aged men. I attended a small liberal arts college in the northeast. To say that the demographic was primarily white, upper-middle class would be an understatement. Many of my friends had attended elite boarding schools like Exeter, Choate, and Groton. These were people raised around wealth and privilege and the feeling of entitlement was rampant.
After some uncomfortable jokes made in my presence, I voiced my discomfort to my boyfriend and his fraternity brothers. My boyfriend explained, “When you get a group of rich, white guys together, they are going to be racist and misogynistic.” All men present laughingly agreed with smirks on their faces.
Being white and male in the United States had taught them that being amongst select peers excuses and justifies bigotry and misogyny.
Several years ago, I rented a small apartment across the hall from a group of men only slightly older than the boys from Covington. The three boys, one or two years out of college, had all gone to high school together at a local private boys’ school. On my first night, they insisted I stop by. After their aggressive invitations and repeated knocks on my door, I agreed.
The fist-sized hole visible in the living room wall and the kitchen covered in beer cans contrasted sharply with the expensive furniture and antiques clearly purloined from wealthy parents. One of the boys, who had been more reserved when we had met earlier, was visibly drunk and sloppily hitting on a girl. I was uncomfortable and quickly excused myself when they made moves to go to the bar.
Around 2 am, I heard them rowdily laughing and yelling in the hallway. After a few minutes of loud banging on their own door and screaming for someone to let them in, they proceeded to bang on my door. The banging and yelling continued for 20-30 minutes, getting progressively louder and angrier, until suddenly I heard an inexplicably loud crash and thud followed by laughter.
The next morning, I opened my apartment door to see they had ripped the solid-wood door to their apartment off its hinges. The wood was splintered and the door was laying askew inside its fractured frame.
That evening, they walked out in pressed chinos and blazers as their parents arrived at the apartment to take them to dinner. They had glued and nailed the door frame back together and screwed a very damaged lock back onto the door. They were polite and reserved with their parents, almost reverent.
The contrast between these well-dressed, well-pedigreed men and who they had been the night before was unsettling. I gaped at them as they walked out the damaged apartment door and one of them smirked at me knowingly. His raucous and destructive behavior would go unpunished.
Society trains Covington Catholic School boys and those like them that bad behavior is only bad if it cannot be fixed. Parents and schools reinforce this protection by sheltering them from major consequences. For the most part, these boys/men are not behaving out of malice or cruelty. They are simply unaware of the permissions granted to them.
How could they be? When real consequences threaten, mothers, fathers, wives, and friends step in to defend their character and integrity. A chorus rises up to minimize their misbehavior and protect their right to excel.
The interesting thing about my Chemistry students is that one of the three boys apologized to me without actually admitting guilt. He did not smirk. He looked down ashamedly. His mother was conspicuously absent at the conference.
I think about that boy and his mother often these days. I like to imagine he told her the truth and she held him accountable, thus fostering an honorable, honest man able to accept his failures and mistakes with humility. I will never know.
But I, and so many others, fear that the Covington boys who rowdily cheered and jeered at the Lincoln Memorial steps last Friday will not have the chance to learn such character traits. Because the world is focused on blame and fault rather than the foreboding disrespect inherent in one entitled smirk.
Jennie Willoughby is a former school teacher whose passion is the resiliency of the human spirit. Based out of Washington DC and New York, Jennie speaks on the benefits of mindfulness and self-compassion in creating a healthy perspective from which to view life’s challenges and to heal from chronic stress and trauma. She writes at Borne Back Ceaselessly and has been published in the Washington Post, Time magazine, Elephant Journal, and Rebelle Society. Jennie has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and NPR. You could follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.