When Racism Goes Viral

Do white students need more room for error?

L.D. Burnett
Dec 31, 2020 · 7 min read

A few days ago, The New York Times published “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning,” a story about a high-school student’s racist act and its exposure by a fellow student.

Arc Digital’s Nicholas Grossman wrote about the Times story, as well as the consequences and criticisms both students have since faced, including the consequence of now becoming even more internet famous thanks to major coverage in one of the biggest newspapers there is.

For Grossman, the local story that became a national story could be summed up as adolescents making mistakes in an increasingly online world of hyper-scrutiny that does not give kids any room for error. Young people, Grossman affirms, “deserve space to screw up and grow up without making this the defining incident of their young life.”

He then draws connections between this recent incident of public shaming for youthful bad behavior to the sharply divided public reaction surrounding the young teenager from Covington Catholic high school who became similarly infamous for a photo of his encounter or confrontation with a Native American protester.

In the photo, the face of the young man wearing a red Trump hat and a wide smile seems just inches away from the wrinkled face of the Native elder drumming. Grossman suggests that to the extent that people ascribed malign political motives to either figure in this photograph, that public condemnation was an unfortunate side-effect of our current media climate, where newspapers like the Times and The Washington Post turn trivial incidents into national news not because the incidents themselves involved any significant acts, but because “adults [project] all sorts of things onto teenagers.”

Grossman argues that all three of the young people he has mentioned — the 15-year-old white student who dropped the N-word in a video, the 18-year-old Black classmate who wanted to teach the white student a lesson by releasing it at a later time, and the Covington high-school student in the Trump hat who had a face-off with an Indigenous protester — had all made the kinds of mistakes that are common to young people, and it was unfair to all of them to have those youthful mistakes haunt them for the rest of their lives. The adults in the room — including the media as an industry — have been failing the kids, not giving them room to learn from their mistakes.

I want to make three points in reply to this argument.

First, it’s important to remember that the freedom to make youthful mistakes without consequences is a freedom that has always been afforded very unevenly to American youth.

It is primarily white kids who grow up with the ability to mess up morally or ethically, or to hurt their peers, or show callous disregard for others, with the expectation that their misdeeds would be forgotten with time, or written off as youthful follies now outgrown. That was true before the internet, and it’s still true.

For example, white kids and black kids use marijuana at pretty much the same rate, but black teenagers are arrested for the same “crime” way more frequently than white teenagers, and are charged more harshly.

So it’s important to think about what it means to say that kids need the space to make mistakes. Whose kids? What kind of mistakes? Maybe the problem is that some kids have been given or have taken up a little too much room for error relative to their peers.

In her excellent essay “Forced Context Collapse or The Right to Hide in Plain Sight,” Tressie McMillan Cottom explains how the internet has created the conditions for what she calls “context collapse,” a phenomenon whereby online platforms and online discourse bulldoze the dividers between the various sandboxed areas of peoples’ lives — public and private, work time and free time, inside conversations and outside scrutiny.

As a result, for the first time in their lives, some white people are surprised to find themselves on the receiving end of the same routine forms of scrutiny and societal discipline that Black people are subjected to with far greater regularity and punitive consequence. This is the unequal racial burden of sudden microcelebrity.

Thus, to put the young white kid who dropped the N-word and the young Black kid who publicly shared and condemned the video in the same category—young people making typical young-people mistakes—denies both the moral inequality of their acts and the social inequality of their prospects vis a vis public scrutiny.

Second, Grossman insufficiently considers how these teenagers react to their newfound internet fame.

The student from Covington high school is a good example of someone who does not seem to be anxious to move beyond whatever caused him to stand eye to eye with a Native American elder, sporting a red Trump hat and a forced smile that, at least in the moment captured by the camera lens, looked more like a sneer.

Certainly, that young man did not ask to become internet famous. Because of that confrontation, he was suddenly experiencing a level of public scrutiny and judgmental pronouncements from strangers that he had never dealt with before as a relatively privileged youth moving through a world he may have felt he was born to master. So, like many others, he became a target of outrage on a scale he could not have imagined.

However, even if his parents have shaped his politics and are driving his lawsuits, this young man has some agency now, and he is embracing his “youthful mistake,” not seeking to correct it. His youthful mistake snagged him an invite to speak at the Republican National Convention. He is not seizing this opportunity to defend everyone’s freedom to make mistakes, but rather using the controversy to insist that he and his friends did nothing wrong, that they were the real victims, and that it was the anti-racists and anti-Trumpists who were and are deeply mistaken about him and about everything else. In short, he has embraced his celebrity status as a culture war symbol and has become a culture war activist.

Unless some very wise person or some very surprising fate intervenes, that moral choice he is making now will define his life. If he was once an innocent bystander, he is a bystander no more; he has joined the battle and apparently aspires to be a great champion in the culture wars. But his success on that career path — and it has been a career path for many immature and overweening young men, from William F. Buckley to Dinesh D’Souza to Charlie Kirk — will depend very much on his never re-examining or questioning his own actions and choices on the day of that confrontation. He can only succeed on this trajectory by never growing out of it, never moving past it.

Finally, I would note a small feature of Grossman’s text itself that can teach us a lot about where the more pressing moral perils of our society may lie. In the first paragraph of Grossman’s piece, when he relates what the 15-year-old said in her video, he asterisks out all but the first letter of the racial slur she used: “N*****.”

This problem is something we all grapple with as cultural critics: how do we discuss language as a source of harm without repeating the harm via our very discussion?

I have had to confront that question myself quite recently; indeed, I think reading Grossman’s essay much sooner might have helped me here. With the N-word, it’s very easy to talk about it without saying it or spelling it out, as Grossman shows in his piece. But that is so precisely because every white person beyond the age of accountability (8? 10? 12?) knows that it’s not a word that white people should say or write. It would be a very sheltered white child indeed who had never learned before the age of 15 that this isn’t a word for her to throw around as a joke, even if she is imitating a rapper.

The conversation about the N-word in rap music and whether it is a source of continued harm or a sign of triumph over historic oppression is a conversation that rappers and their communities have been engaged in for a long while. That conversation is not my concern. My concern is that white people continue to point to rap music as an explanation or an excuse for wielding a word that we know good and well communicates nothing beyond hate when it comes from our mouths.

If we wish to acknowledge that young people who do racist things and who mock anti-racist activism may very well go through experiences in life that change them, or that inspire them to work toward change, that’s all well and good. We should welcome such moral transformations.

But committing racist acts without expecting to face serious consequences is not a sign of immaturity; it is a symptom of assumed impunity.

That’s not something you just grow out of.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

L.D. Burnett

Written by

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

L.D. Burnett

Written by

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store