If you wear shirts that spell “NI**ER” with your friends, you actually are racist
Last Friday, a photo surfaced of six White girls wearing black shirts with gold lettering. When standing in a line, the letters spelled “N-I-*-*-E-R.” It was clearly meant to reference the n-word. It wasn’t until after the Snapchat photo received national attention, the girls were suspended, and protesters began to call for their expulsion that any of them even came forward to take responsibility for their actions.
Thus, I have no reason to believe these young women deserve anything from the Black Americans they insulted and marginalized with this display of racism. What’s more, I think it’s time we start calling these acts just what they are: racist. Just so there’s no confusion.
The young women are all seniors at Desert Vista High School in the suburbs of Phoenix. They were posing for senior photos when they decided to rearrange themselves into a racial slur.
According to The Arizona Republic, Rachel Steigerwald (who was the “R” in the photo), spoke up at a protest of the image this week saying, “I have come here to say that I am incredibly, incredibly sorry. I have love for everyone in my heart. I am not a racist and I’m asking everyone for forgiveness.”
This is a problem for me. The idea that one’s act of racism can be annulled because of love in one’s heart is the theme from a Disney movie. It isn’t real life.
The photo alone is so interesting. The girls were each smiling with their arms interlocking across each other’s shoulders. It was clear from the photo that these young women thought wearing the slur on their clothes was funny and cute. They were standing in a school gymnasium when they took the picture. All facts that make it both weird and disturbing at the same time.
That they came up with the idea, followed through with it, and even remembered to snap the shot to commemorate the occasion is impressive. I can barely remember to catch photos of my children’s milestones so this was particularly interesting to me. It was also an unsurprising confirmation that this idea that racism is reserved for old people is neither factual nor evidenced by actual behaviors of young White people.
What the news isn’t saying is that this wasn’t the first time there has been a racist incident at Desert Vista. As long as these types of displays are met with lightheartedness, unconditional forgiveness, and a slap on the wrist, they will continue to happen.
The truth is: posing in t-shirts to spell out the n-word is racist. It’s something racist people think to do. The fact that they all did it with a smile and an implied hair-flip makes it just that much more racist. It’s what some call “casual racism,” the idea that people, White folks in particular, can simply say racial slurs and joke about racial stereotypes freely because it’s cool and they probably have a Black friend so that gives them a “get out of racist jail free” card.
Besides the fact that these young women probably wouldn’t have given this racist act a second thought had it not gone viral, there are a host of reasons to treat this with severity. First, only one girl has made a public apology. While I’m not saying that clears her transgressions here, it is evidence that she understands she did something wrong. I can’t say as much for the other five students. Second, this is clearly a part of a larger trend in this particular school and district. That it has gone on for this long is already a disservice to students and staff. Lastly, and most importantly, there was probably a Black person in the room watching as these women made a painful racial slur into a joke. There may be many Black students at the school whose job it is to go to school, get good grades, and graduate. It isn’t their responsibility to carry the burden of racism into the classroom. And these young girls, with one act, made their existence on campus that much harder.
I’m not here for any arguments about love and forgiveness. Neither of those things precludes someone from receiving the just consequences of their actions.
These young women knew precisely what they were doing when they planned this display. No one should allow them to use whiteness to get out of it now.
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