Johnnetta Cole listened in disbelief when her daughter told her what one of her teachers said on the first day of class.
The teacher at Francis Howell High School said she wished slavery had never been abolished because then she would have someone to clean her kitty litter box at home. Cole’s daughter was one of two black students in the class. Initially, she thought she misheard what was said.
Then, a white student raised his hand and asked why she couldn’t hire a maid to do the household chores.
“I would have to pay for that,” she said.
Cole’s disbelief turned into anger and sadness as she listened to her daughter. Cole immediately drove to the school to talk to a principal. Even though the incident happened four years ago, the details are still vivid to Cole, a therapist based in Chesterfield. Her daughter was questioned by several administrators and submitted a written statement about what happened. The teacher said her comments were intended to shock students as part of a planned lesson.
The district said in a statement that it “takes any and all allegations of racism seriously and investigates every incident that is reported.” However, they cannot share information about the identity or discipline received by a specific employee as the result of any investigation.
Cole removed her daughter from the class. She remembers an administrator telling her that he knew the teacher personally and knew she wasn’t a racist. The teacher continued to teach the same class. Cole wondered what kind of message it sent to the other students in the class.
“This is the education system; if these are views they have, you’ll have kids thinking it’s funny and all in fun,” Cole said.
She brought up the experience when I asked her what could be driving an extreme type of racist backlash among young people posting on social media sites. The vast majority of young people have used social media to support the protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. But some have posted photos of themselves kneeling on a friend’s neck and mocking the manner in which Floyd was killed; it’s called #GeorgeFloydChallenge on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. (The images have since been removed from most sites.)
When I first heard about this social media phenomenon, I was stunned by how abnormal it seemed and the deep level of racism it revealed. Teenagers often have lapses in judgment or make poor choices, but reenacting a torture scene and killing for kicks? People who can laugh at someone being brutalized are those who see the victim as somehow less than human.
One of the students who posted such a video on Snapchat was an incoming freshman at the University of Missouri. A copy of that video reached Mizzou officials. They released a statement that describes the video as showing students laughing while they appear to be simulating the choking of one of them. One student is heard saying, “I can’t breathe.”
“Given the similarity to the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the video is both shocking and disturbing,” wrote Mun Y. Choi, president of the UM System and interim chancellor at the University of Missouri, in an email to all students. The university launched an investigation and told the student she would be suspended during it. The student decided to withdraw. Another girl in the video was an incoming Missouri State University student and also decided to withdraw.
Marquette University rescinded admission of a female lacrosse player for posting similar content. It’s important to send an unequivocal message that this behavior is unacceptable, especially when schools and universities have a history of minimizing racist acts.
But, what could prompt adolescents to showcase these depraved posts?
Cole said young people who have witnessed adults in positions of leadership — from teachers to parents to political leaders — make racist comments or jokes and escape any consequence may internalize the message that this sort of behavior is acceptable.
Others may be reacting to the change they see happening in society, she said. “I believe that although young people are leading this movement (for justice), we still have some teenagers and young people who are fearful of change.”
This can lead to acting out in drastic ways.
Rachel Morris, a licensed professional counselor and anger resolution therapist in Houston, primarily works with teens and adolescents. She said that students of color have often had conversations with their parents about how to manage situations in which they might be treated badly because of the color of their skin or have experienced some type of discrimination. Students who have never had these conversations or experiences may lack empathy for those who have suffered in this way.
“If they have not experienced that trauma, they may not understand the seriousness of it,” Morris said. She said racist posts can also be attention-seeking behavior for those stimulated by the immediate responses they will get. Even negative attention is attention.
Both Morris and Cole said social and environmental factors are exacerbated by teens’ underdeveloped brains. Kristen Craren, a therapist based in Clayton, agreed that brain immaturity likely plays a role. But if there are other red flags in the adolescent’s behavior — struggling socially, violence toward others or pets — it’s worth talking to a therapist, she said.
“If they don’t understand that what they did was wrong, I would definitely suggest therapy,” Morris added. Craren suggests vetting the therapist before making an appointment to make sure they share the parents’ values and political beliefs.
Attitudes toward others are often influenced by what a young person sees and hears at home and the community of adults and peers around them.
Cole, whose daughter was a sophomore when she reported the teacher’s comments about slavery, recalled another painful incident two years later. A student asked a classmate to prom by holding a sign that said: If I was black I’d be picking cotton, but I’m white so I’m picking you for prom. The same racist sign had made the rounds in schools across the country. Some schools prohibited the student from attending prom. Francis Howell did not disclose how the student was disciplined.
Regardless of the way school leaders chose to respond, their actions sent a message to more than the student involved.
It spoke loudly to the entire school.
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