On November 9th, three days after our nation reelected President Obama, Jezebel author Tracie Egan Morrissey reported on various “racist teens” who had tweeted about the President’s win. In her article, Morrissey states (with the inclusion of written examples) that “[they] contacted their school’s administrators with the hope that, if their educators were made aware of their students’ ignorance, perhaps they could teach them about racial sensitivity.” Most of the tweets included in the article were spoken (and yes, this is 2012, so we can confidently call Facebook posts and tweets “spoken,” it is your voice) by sports players and seemingly well-known members of their high school communities.
A football playing student in Jackson, Tennessee publicly tweeted: “Lol Obama may be the president but even he still needs welfare. #n*****”
A student in Beaver Falls, Pennysylvania publicly tweeted: “Lets face is… Romney aint the best choice..But hes a hell of alot better than that sand monkey we call a president. #MITT” as well as, “like 90 percent of latinos and blacks voted for obama.. But were the racist ones…?”
The Beaver Falls student later defended himself saying something along the lines of “there are worse tweets out there,” and “I’m only eighteen.”
Morrissey, confidently and admirably (in my not-so-humble opinion) called the schools of the students to inform the administrators that their schools are being represented by such people, and to nudge them into educating their students further in the realm of racial sensitivity.
Racial responsibility. This is what I am here to discuss, a little thing called responsibility.
Did you play sports in high school? I did not play sports in high school (what a joke that would have been), though I was a member of the International Studies Club, an honor student and I held a part-time job that I felt I represented while I was both at school and in my community. Even if I had none of those extracurriculars on my plate, I had a mother and three brothers, I had best friends and their siblings and their parents who knew me (still know me) well. When I was a teenager, I knew what I represented, because we all represent something. When I speak my mind, then and now, I am not necessarily representing the views of all people in my life, but I am most definitely representing the credibility of the people around me, who have chosen to hire me or proudly be my friend, my brother, my boyfriend or any kind of relevant person in my life. I, as well as these high school students, have an innate responsibility to not only themselves, but to their communities. Sixteen or seventeen years old is not too young to understand that.
I have a Facebook, and I have a Twitter and I have a blog and a Tumblr and everything but an Instagram because I don’t know what that is. When I say something on Twitter, sometimes it gets “favorite”d or “retweeted” by people I have never met, or people that I know very well. If I were to wake up tomorrow morning and decide to tweet something extremely racially offensive about anybody, not even the President of the United States of America, I would be representing everyone I interact with. I work for Starbucks–how do you think my company would feel if I were to represent myself with a blatantly ignorant and inappropriate comment about a man I do not even know, not to mention a man who deserves basic human decency and the utmost respect by the people he oversees on a daily basis? How would anyone who has ever “like”d one of my Facebook statuses feel? If you had previously retweeted me, would you not feel humiliated knowing that maybe we agree on loving the same Justin Bieber song, but not on my racist thoughts regarding our Commander-in-Chief‘s race, not even his actions?
But I am 25 years old, so I know better, right?
I will admit that before my editors asked me to write on this subject – “racist teens” with seemingly no regard for mankind – I had already read this article. (I am a huge fan of Jezebel.) Not only had I read this article, I had in fact made the rookie mistake of reading the comments on this article. (Reading comments can be a soul sucking activity.) I was stunned–admittedly naively–at the defense of these teenagers. Yes, in the article, Morrissey names the teenagers, and the schools they attend, but I personally did not feel this was even remotely overstepping her boundaries. Many readers felt that using the kids’ real names was out of line, many readers felt that “people change eventually” and that the article was distasteful for “picking on” “children.” Many readers felt that the parents were to blame and these kids should take basically zero responsibility for mouthing off about the President. If this is how they feel, it must be based on parental influence.
But. There is a vast difference between a kid high-school-age and a kid kid-age. You long before high school begin forming your own opinions. Some readers’ comments express the fact that “these kids” will change, of course when they enroll in a nice liberal arts school and pay a whole lot of money to be taught that racism is still alive and well, and we should not be racist because it is not a nice thing to be. How simple. College cures all.
I went to such a school. And while I was going to that school, I was called a nigger for the first time in my life. I went twenty-one sweet years of my life encountering what I thought was very little racism. When I was twenty-one years old, living in what I consider a very liberal town, I was called that invidious word. He was my best friend (at the time’s) boyfriend and he was “just kidding.” He was “drunk” and was making a “poor joke.” You know what happens when you send a racist, over-privileged, rarely disciplined, likely white kid to a liberal school? Nothing. Maybe not 100% of the time–I am a good person who believes in redemption and change, but I have known plenty of people stuck in their way of thinking when they don’t realize their way of thinking is indisputably wrong. Maybe there is a kid who said the “n-word” once or twice when he was younger and by the time he was in his 20s realized it was stupid, realized it made little sense and he never meant it “in that way.” Of course that happens, of course that kid is not a bad person based on the word usage alone, of course he should be forgiven.
When that ex-best friend’s ex-boyfriend called me to apologize on Christmas Eve, his voice cracked and he said he did not mean it and he said he was so sorry. I forgave him. I still say hi when I see him, but it was not the last time I heard him speak the word. He was not sorry for the use of the word, he was sorry that it was likely the first time in his life he was faced with the blunt and sometimes uncomfortable responsibility of his own actions. The word is a part of his vocabulary, he learned nothing from the lesson presented to him by the universe.
And when you make a conscious decision to slander in a public forum, you have to accept the responsibility and retributions for your actions. Sure, maybe these children have racist parents who use extremely outdated slurs like “monkey” and make comments about watermelons that these kids absolutely do not understand because they know nothing of the historical background between Black and White in this country, but there is no reason these kids could not have formed their own opinions by the time they were elected to their varsity soccer teams.
My mother and I do not agree politically. She supported the Iraq War in 2003–I was sixteen years old and I wholeheartedly did not. She sounded off about how and why and I did not understand because she had lived longer, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Respectfully, I disagreed and never supported that war. I was sixteen years old, and I was of average intelligence, at best. I was not born a martyr for freedom and social justice. I am not necessarily smarter than my mother, and she still raised me, solely, she raised me. I was never a parrot. I am a normal human being who formed my own opinions, political and otherwise when I was but a “kid.” If my mother had ever spoken a racial slur (and to be honest, she had, plenty of times throughout my life, as well as using words like “dike”), I would not have been even tempted to repeat her. This mouth, this brain, these views are my own, and I will be damned if every other child in America does not have the right, the freedom to think how they think. Parents have nothing to do with this argument.
Parents have an insanely important responsibility to raise their children to not be horrible people, to encourage them to think for themselves and to learn from the good and bad examples set out in front of them. In no way am I excusing these kids’ parents–I think they are probably pretty awful, ignorant people–but in my mind, that does not mean the children have to replicate their examples. No “child” in public or private school these days can use any kind of excuse of obliviousness of the distribution of social networking. No “child” can claim that they do not know the difference between racism and, at the very least, tolerance. I am a child of the Civil Rights Movement, which means that anyone younger than I am should know way, way better than to use the “n-word” when referring to any human being, nonetheless their President. Calling him names will not change his title.
After contacted and questioned over their tweets, most of the students claimed their twitter accounts were hacked. When a twitter account is hacked, you post about raspberry ketone, you do not post misspelled threats and racial slurs.
I challenge “children” of all ages, high school or otherwise, to own their opinions, especially when those opinions come under fire for being entirely obscene. No more parental blame game. No more backing out of your words. If you regret–truly–apologize and hope for forgiveness, but do not expect it.
If you meant it, own it and expect retribution.
When Morrissey contacted the administrators of these schools, I hope she not only questioned their prioritization of racial sensitivity, but also nudged them in the direction of educating their students on how to spell elementary school words.
Image via ShutterStock.