Don’t shame youth who post racist tweets, educate them

Posted by reyjunco on November 19, 2012 in Commentary |

Shaming teens who post racist tweetsRecently, Jezebel engaged in the public shaming of teens who posted racist tweets after the election. The doxxing began on the comment thread to the original “racist teens” post and then the Jezebel writer ran with the mob mentality.

Now, I’m not trying to give those teens who posted the racist tweets a “pass;” however, the way Jezebel handled this was completely inappropriate. It’s especially disconcerting because they are focused on shaming minors. There are a number of reasons why shaming these teens is ill-considered:

  1. Shaming does not work as a teaching method especially for teens. In fact, shaming teens for racist tweets might actually solidify their racist attitudes.
  2. The Jezebel writer and the commenters have no knowledge of youth development and they are making assumptions about these children from their own frame of reference. They are treating them as if they were at the same level of moral and ethnic identity development as they are. In other words, they are assuming that because they would never say such a thing in public, that teens shouldn’t either.
  3. Evaluating teen behavior through the value system of an adult doesn’t take into account the vast number of reasons why these children posted such things in the first place. We hold adults responsible for their racist actions and words because we have a pretty good sense those are being driven by internal motivation; however, the cause of teen racist behaviors is much more multifaceted (for instance, environment, parental attitudes, and developmental issues).

In addition to shaming, Jezebel is using their considerable power and influence to ruin a teenager’s future college and job prospects. I’m not being alarmist when I say this: It’s already the case that top hits from a Google search of the names of some of the teens shows the article labeling them as racist. Unfortunately, potential employers and colleges will view this not as a mistake of youth but from their own framework (well-developed moral and ethnic identity development) and pass judgment on these students in a way that may no longer be appropriate since these kids still have a lot of growing and development to do. As I have argued before, denying an applicant admissions to college because of some of their mistakes an admissions officer found online is unethical and completely against the mission of colleges and universities.

In this story at Forbes, the editor of Jezebel was quoted as saying “And I think there’s something larger at play here, and we’re going to see this kind of story over and over again until it’s innately understood that the line between ‘online’ and ‘in real life’ is basically nonexistent.” Not only does this speak to a lack of journalistic ethics, but highlights the worldview that Jezebel has chosen to espouse: That young people have no right to make any mistakes; nor do they have the right for their online mistakes to be forgotten. This has the potential to cross the line into institutionalized bullying. Something that, in this case, actually happened.

Chris Menning over at Modern Primate found that at least one of the teenagers identified in the header image posted by Jezebel had not actually posted a racist tweet. Instead, a troll used the picture of a teenage girl who had been harassed online for a long time. So in this instance, you have a major blog “feeding the troll” supporting their behavior and also shaming a teen who never posted a racist tweet and who has been the subject of long-term harassment. A real “win” for the troll – encouraging more of such behavior.

What can be done? 

We should be teaching kids to have ethical boundaries on Twitter and other online social spaces. Part of the problem is that educators have really shied away from interacting with social media in educational settings. Primary and secondary educators believe the hype propagated by traditional media sources that “social media are bad” and that using, teaching with, and talking about them can only lead to negative consequences for their students (i.e., inappropriate relationships with them). If high school educators ever do talk about social media, it’s from a very paternalistic and abstinent framework (i.e., don’t post things online that you wouldn’t want others to see or stay off of these sites). Sure, that’s fine to talk about; however, teachers need to go further and teach civil discourse in online spaces, discuss the benefits and pitfalls of living our lives online, and explore how mistakes can be interpreted by others.

I am left to wonder how big of a story this would have been if the schools of the teens involved would have done a better job of integrating teaching about social media into their curriculum.

Image credit: royalconstantine http://www.flickr.com/photos/royalconstantine/4319316557/

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  • Fantastic post on so many fronts!

  • Amazing post, I bump up against this issue all the time! I have a saved twitter search for “my anatomy professor” and am shocked by the angry profanity directed at teachers by some students. I never know what to do but feel like I should do something. These tweets are in the public domain. I will never shame anyone but I wonder what my role is being unrelated to the student or their teacher.

    What is an example of a response I can give? Should I remind them that their tweet could be seen by their teacher? I’m struggling for a remediation strategy.

    Thanks Rey!

  • Shmi

    What about the youth who see these racist tweets, and who have to deal with these students’ racism in everyday life? It’s not like Black kids don’t exist or aren’t online. And  “In other words, they are assuming that because they would never say such a thing in public, that teens shouldn’t either.” makes this issue sound as if it’s a matter of taste rather than of bigotry.

    In short, you are giving these racist young people a pass, unsurprisingly and depressingly.

  • As I’ve already said in the post, I’m not giving them a pass; however, the correct way to deal with racist attitudes is to challenge them through education. Shaming youth shuts them down and does not allow them to explore their white racial identity and their racism. It is incumbent upon teachers to help students (and help is all they can do because the parental and societal influences in such cases are strong) work through their racism. However, teachers cannot do this if they don’t know the racist attitudes exist. They won’t know the racist attitudes exist if they’re not on social media. 

  • Mike, I’m a big fan of the one-on-one conversation with students about the inappropriate things they post online.

  • So if I don’t know them face-to-face I should DM them? Or maybe I shouldn’t concern myself with those not directly ‘my students’.

  • I would not reach out to them if they are not your students – that can backfire just like shaming.  

  • What backfires the most is unconfronted racism, it becomes accepted as the norm. Racism exists precisely because it is protected by society. Teenagers are not primary school, if no-one points out their errors it gets worse.
    Most ill-behaved tend to be Anglo-Saxon dominated countries where this sort of excusing is widespread.

  • What is clear is that White America is not taking responsibility for educating these teenagers. Without that will, interventions are needed to create the motivation for change, not only for the teenagers but the parents, teachers and White society in general.

    If only, the outrage was as loud at everyday racism, like stop-and-frisk in New York.

    My blog on this http://qhabhuti.wordpress.com/2012/11/22/liberal-mindset-that-sustains-racism-social-shaming/

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