Anyone with a Facebook account knows that Americans are still either celebrating the election of President Barack Obama to his second term — or still reeling from Mitt Romney’s loss.
Social media is a mixed bag. A blessing and a curse. On Tuesday, a high school classmate and Facebook friend of mine who lives in China posted a status update about another school mate “un-friending” him for openly supporting Obama.
Diplomacy was scarce and fleeting between the red and blue after the election. On Nov. 9th, the high-profile Gawker Media blog, Jezebel, posted a controversial story about American teens who tweeted their rage over Obama’s re-election, their famously short blasts dripping with racial epithets. You can read the post — and the 509 subsequent comments — here.
The story detailed a random sampling — 12 teenagers whose Twitter account profiles are linked to their actual identities — of tweets that referred to the president as a “nigger” or a “monkey.”
Welcome to “post-racial America,” y’all.
Jezebel aggregated and published the tweets themselves, including the author’s names, hometowns and the high schools they attend and represent as athletes and club members.
Jezebel was after the answer to one question: did the racist tweets about the president violate school policy? Blogger Tracie Egan Morrissey contacted the principals at each high school to find out. A lot of calls weren’t returned; A few schools reported that they were aware of the tweets and were dealing with the offending students. Those school officials wouldn’t divulge the consequences, citing policies that forbid them from discussing the details of individual disciplinary cases. That’s understandable.
As social media has expanded, a lot of American public schools have addressed formats such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to give school officials authority to deal with online behavior that can impact students while they are at school or are engaged in school activities off campus or outside of regular school hours.
Predictably, Jezebel commenters erupted over the site’s decision to identify the teens. They decried Jezebel editors for “outing” the teens in a format that is permanent. More than one commenter noted that prospective colleges could find the article — and the hateful remarks — simply by doing a Google search of the teens’ names. Because of Jezebel, colleges could willfully pass over students who have already demonstrated a propensity for stupidity at best, racism at worst. Those concerns are valid.* These commenters rallied around the teens, explaining that they are minors and therefore shouldn’t be named in a public forum.
Jezebel didn’t “out” anyone. In order to “out” someone, there must be secrecy — and often, shame — around the behavior in question. If you’re familiar with Twitter, you know it bears no relationship to secrecy. Think of Twitter as the YMCA. You have to join it to participate. And then when you participate, you are never, ever alone. When you participate in Twitter, you are in a public place, a place that is free to anyone who wants to join.
And if you’ve seen these tweets — made by teenagers whose profiles include photos of themselves, names, school activities and their hometowns — there is not one particle of shame in them. The racism is blatant. Boastful, even.
These teenagers weren’t “outed.” What they did would be very much like walking into Denton High School — a public building attended by all races and socio-economic classes — lifting a megaphone to your mouth, and declaring that you don’t want Barack Obama to be the president. Because he’s a “nigger” or a “monkey.” Does anyone think such a stunt would be met with silence? Does anyone think a responsible adult wouldn’t respond?
These teenagers haven’t earned the blunted edge of journalistic anonymity. And they might be young, but they are old enough to know better. I don’t pity them. I worry about the rest of us, who will likely spend the rest of our time on the planet mopping up after them. After all, these teens are being reared by adults who are either teaching them to be proud of their toxic beliefs (hey, they have a first amendment right to turn black and brown people into objects on the basis of race alone, right?) without consequence, or letting them think that racism isn’t penalized until the very moment they turn 18.
Maybe we all need read All I Really Needed To Know I Learned in Kindergarten again. The part about playing fair. The part about cleaning up your own messes. The part about saying you are sorry when you hurt someone.
If we believe that teenagers who are behaving badly should get a pass because they are young, then we are hurting them. We’ve let them think that adolescence is a golden age when mistakes can never stick and sin isn’t real. People need to graduate from high school prepared to navigate an America that is home to people of all kinds. If teens are to inherit a country worth fighting for and living in, then they need to be citizens with a grip on civility and social nuance. It’s not that they can’t express they’re beliefs. They can. But they also have to be accountable to and for them. Publicly and personally. And if we grownups think our little darlings can get away with this kind of behavior in the workplace, we’re certifiable.
If Jezebel’s condemnation and investigation stings the young psyches of these teens, I say let them feel it.
If we’re fortunate, the pain will teach them some humanity. I hope it’s not too late.
*In 2001, members of the Kappa Alpha fraternity confronted a group of University of North Texas football recruits, most of them black, as they were touring the campus with their parents. The members shouted racial epithets at the group and waved a Confederate battle flag at them. The UNT administration suspended the fraternity for five years. Universities and national officials of panhellenic groups often frown on such behavior, and deliver harsh punishments for these behaviors because they violate school conduct policies. Conduct counts. Online and off.