We Need to Hold Teenage Boys Accountable

Kaya Taitano via Reuters

Every time I hear or read the phrase, “We shouldn’t let this ruin their future,” I feel nauseous. Someone says it every time a boy rapes a girl or a boy is caught on camera being racist. It doesn’t matter how heinous and violent their actions are — the boy’s future is somehow more important than whoever he hurt.

I most recently read this phrase after UniteWomen.org posted on Facebook about the group of teenage boys wearing “Make America Great Again” clothing who were videotaped taunting a Native American elder at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington, DC on January 18. UniteWomen.org called for its followers to report one boy’s behavior — the boy who smugly stared down Nathan Phillips, the Native American elder — to his school and future college. The comments section of the post became a back-and-forth argument of whether it was ok to “destroy” the 17-year-old boy’s future.

One of the hardest things I’ve had to learn over the past several years is that society will almost always value a white male life more than anyone else’s, regardless of the circumstance. I’ve seen this with police brutality, mass shootings, and sexual assault cases. Women and people of color are disbelieved and disregarded time and time again. So, when a young white boy hurts someone — with clear, and sometimes hateful, intent — people often hold up the promise of his bright and shiny future as a reason not to punish him. The truth is, though, if he’s not stopped when he’s young, that boy’s future will probably include hurting more people. Some say that people change over time and that no one is the same as they were in high school, but look at how these boys were raised. If they’re not stopped now, they’ll raise their children the same way and the cycle of hate will be perpetuated.

I don’t know if the boys in the video should be expelled from school or rejected by their future colleges, but action needs to be taken. You can say they didn’t actually do anything to hurt the indigenous people at the march, but they did. They taunted them and made them feel unsafe, which could have incited violence. It could also lead to other people deciding to taunt or hurt indigenous people in their communities. When people see behavior like this go unchecked, it sadly makes them feel that it’s allowable and just. These boys need to be taught acceptance, understanding, and inclusivity, and it’s unfortunate that their schools and parents failed in teaching them sooner. Not only were they allowed by the adults in their lives to taunt the Native American people at the march, the reason the boys were in DC in the first place was to attend a pro-life rally. They’ve been brought up with both racist and sexist ideals.

People say that we should simply educate the boys in the video, as if they don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong. People who hurt other people do know better. They do need to be educated, but it needs to happen before it gets to this point. They need to be raised better. People aren’t born racist and sexist. It’s taught to them by society and by their parents. The behavior exhibited in the video is based on deeply ingrained beliefs about who matters in this country. The racist ideals those boys hold have been etched into them. Seeing as it’s too late to go back in time and raise those boys better, they need to be taught that actions have consequences and that their actions are reprehensible. They need to learn that their behavior can have a lifelong impact.

When people talk about the futures of young boys who do hateful things they don’t think about the futures of the people they hurt. They might think things will get better over time or that people aren’t affected by the things that happened to them in high school. I know firsthand that something a 17-year-old boy did to you can still hurt almost ten years later. Ask me again in 30 years. I’m sure I’ll tell you the same thing. Ask Christine Blasey-Ford. Ask Roxane Gay. Ask any number of women who had their bright and happy futures scarred by teenage boys who “didn’t know any better.”

I want girls and people of color to have futures that aren’t marked with violent and traumatic memories. I want the same for boys, but that means they need to stop hurting people and being allowed to get away with it. We should all want and strive for a society where everyone’s lives and futures matter and where ignorance and hate has no place. We need to stop boys before they get to the point of being racist or violent. Starting when they’re babies, we need to teach all children, regardless of gender, to accept and respect others. This won’t be easy because unfortunately not everyone agrees with this. This makes no sense to me and often fills me with anger and sadness and hopelessness, but I need to believe things can change. I need to see a future where girls and people of other genders matter as much as boys do and where people of all races matter as much as white people do. We need to stop privileged boys and men in their tracks and not allow this awfulness to continue.