At Issaquah High School in Washington, prom season was in full swing. The first goal was to ask someone to go with you, obviously enough, but having the funniest sign was just as important to many students. All was well until one girl, whose name will remain undisclosed, showed up with a sign bearing a blatantly racist joke. The sign was emblazoned with the multicolored words “if I was black I’d be picking cotton, but instead I pick you.”
This is clearly not an acceptable statement under any circumstances and is perhaps even worse when you consider the context in which it was used. Even the creator of the sign acknowledged this. “I have no excuse for what was said, and I take full responsibility,” she wrote. “From the bottom of my heart, that was not me, that is not how I was raised or what my family believes in, and I understand the severity of what was written. I am sorry.” Having said this, she mentioned the most shocking part: “It was just some stupid poster we found on Pinterest.”
Whether it was intended to shift blame or simply as a confession, this small fact completely changes the story. If it wasn’t her idea, if she just thought it was a funny thing, who does the blame fall on? Her? Her teachers? Her friends?
Stories like these, of young people doing bigoted things without knowing what they mean, seem to circulate through the news every couple of weeks. Still, more don’t reach national media or go unreported entirely. The circumstances that make this possible are complex, and the blame goes to people in almost every walk of life. In the end, we have nobody left to blame but ourselves, and the society we live in. However, different people have diverse influences on the ideology of a young person and all those groups must be educated in order to make hate speech and hate crimes less prevalent. These influences are usually intertwined but can be separated into a few categories.
While it’s easy to blame people who participate in hate incidents (and we usually should), they are hardly ever completely at fault. While someone who spreads hate can never be innocent, a vast majority of these people have a lack of education in racism or bigotry and wrong versus right. Alternately, they may have been indoctrinated by friends, family or even teachers. That being said, this does not mean that they shouldn’t face consequences. As human beings, we have a responsibility to educate ourselves. People who are radicalized to the point of being blatantly racist or committing crimes are guilty, ignorance or not.
“It was just some stupid poster we found on Pinterest.”
Mob mentality also tends to play a role in hate incidents perpetrated by teens. While chiefly mentioned in the context of drugs, peer pressure is just as present with regard to bigotry and crime. It only takes one or two in a group to get the ball rolling, and when it stops there could be anything from a campus covered in slurs and hate symbols to a spur-of-the-moment neo-Nazi rally. According to CBS News, the number of hate crimes committed by minors increased by 27% from 2016 to 2017. Overall, hate crime only increased by 17%. The Anti-Defamation League recorded a near doubling of anti-Semitic incidents in elementary to high school during 2017, a trend that continues today. When one student starts a hate incident, it can and should lead to consequences for all students involved. However, a majority of the blame usually falls on that one person. However, nobody in the situation is innocent. This also points to issues in the overall education of students. If we were able to learn not to smoke cigarettes, it should be easy to teach us not to commit hate crimes.
Prevention is important when it comes to education. The sad truth is that most teachers in America are likely not doing enough to educate students against hate. While it is definitely not a comfortable subject, simply not being prejudiced in class isn’t nearly enough. It’s a good start, but it simply has no influence on students instead of a negative one. In order to actually help, teachers must be trained to actively combat prejudice and teach that crimes of hatred will not be tolerated. This isn’t a new idea — a 1997 Department of Justice document mentions several pilot programs to educate public school students about prejudice, but it hasn’t been followed through to the extent that it should be.
In addition, principals and superintendents often avoid publicly referencing incidents that do occur. Concerns that it may damage the reputation of a school or other institution are valid, and so are privacy concerns surrounding an issue. However, most public guidelines for responses to hate incidents emphasize the importance of denouncing the incident directly. This will teach students that there are, in fact, serious consequences for people who choose to discriminate or make decisions that stem from bigotry.
In the end, we all have a role to play in combating bigotry. Simply lacking hate yourself isn’t enough. Teachers and parents must educate their children about the importance of acceptance and the dangers of prejudice and hate. Teens must educate themselves and be the one who walks out and goes to an adult if an incident does happen. It takes bravery to stand against hatred. In a world where children dance around swastikas because they just don’t know any better, I just hope that we are all brave enough.
Featured image Via CLCCRUL