By Lauren Pankin
The Tower (Grosse Pointe, Michigan)
This Sunday, a friend sent me a link to a social media post from a high school party.
Like any other party photo, the South students posed in a basement and bared their midriffs. But what was unlike any other Instagram post I’d seen before was that these white students had written on their stomachs, in Sharpie, “I (heart) N-words”.
Because “The Tower” has made it their policy, I must use the euphemism. But the real word, uncensored, was displayed on not one, but several students’ bodies.
I don’t think you need me to tell you that the N-word is one of the most loaded words in the English language, subject to significant scrutiny. After the National Football League banned the N-word in 2014, “The Washington Post” created an interactive project exploring the word’s symbolism and connotation in modern America. From this and from personal observations, I learned the word is omnipresent in rap songs, becoming a subverted term of endearment and friendship when the word’s concluding “-ger” is swapped for a “-ga”.
However, this does not excuse the actions of these students. In this context, the N-word was not being used in any way except as a tasteless, ignorant and harmful “joke.” A joke I didn’t find funny, and a joke Tia Fowlkes ’16 called disgusting and horrifying.
As the first person to comment on the original Instagram post questioning the students’ actions, Fowlkes said she later tweeted a screenshot of the post to spread awareness of this racism. The original tweet now has over 1,500 favorites and has been retweeted over 1,100 times.
“I was shocked that someone who I thought was my friend would do something like this, so I decided to confront her about it,” Fowlkes said. “I told her it wasn’t funny, and instead, she tried defending herself, acting like it wasn’t an act of racism. So I decided to put it out there to know since she thought it was so funny.”
Fowlkes, a new member of South’s African-American diversity club BASE herself, said many students view BASE and comparable organizations as a joke, and that the only way to improve race relations is to increase awareness.
While Fowlkes said the students involved should be punished, she said she hopes this is ultimately less of an accusation moment and more of an educational experience.
I doubt the students in the photo will receive any sort of crippling, life-destroying punishment from the administration, and frankly, I’m not calling for it.
All I would advise is for the students to do precisely what they wrote on their bodies: to love black people.
The students pictured in the photo should contribute to the black community they mocked through volunteering in the majority African-American city of Detroit, working in adult literacy programs, soup kitchens or myriad other charities.
They should read black authors like Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison.
They should listen to black music, from B.B. King to Beyonce. They should join the NAACP, visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and tour the African-American gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Teenagers make mistakes, but it is crucial for them and for us to learn from them. I’m sure many people will be upset with me for writing about this because they believe mentioning it will aggravate the situation, especially since Grosse Pointe always grapples with its perception as a racist town. But I fear that if this elephant in the room isn’t addressed, it will grow large enough to smother us all.
In the past two years, I have written so much about race for “The Tower.” I’ve written about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., a parent’s challenge of the Honors American Literature text “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the need to discuss an American history of prejudice openly and honestly in our classrooms.
Although, as a white woman, I by no means fully comprehend the experience to be discriminated against based on my skin color, I do, though, believe it is important to try to understand what it is like to shoulder constant prejudice.
It would be a gross understatement to claim that I’m not the only one talking about race in Grosse Pointe. Last year BASE was formed at South, and its current impact is evident in the club’s successful Flint water drive.
For the first time this year, Black History Month was mentioned in every classroom at least once a week, per the direction of Principal Moussa Hamka. Even in the community at large, the tides have changed–the NAACP established a Grosse Pointe chapter in Fall 2015.
But this post is proof that we need to redouble our efforts. We cannot afford to limit these important lessons of tolerance and inclusion to a single month, nor a single English class text. This conversation needs to be held in the hallways, over a lunch at Hydrangea, at the family dinner table.
It needs to be held not just between teacher and student, or administrator and student, or even parent and student, but between student and student.
So, let’s get talking. And writing. And reflecting on what it means to be unified against racism in all its forms, and acting on our peaceful means of progress.
Image credit: Lauren Pankin