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When Summer Camp Turns Racist at School of The NY Times; A Powerful Lesson for Black & White Moms in Naming Racism & Moving Forward From Charlottesville

The School of The New York Times and President Trump seem to have something in common: apparently both find it really hard to name racism. The inability to call out racist behavior is a widespread problem, even at so-called liberal media institutions.

Imagine of group of white kids, dancing and jumping in a mob-like circle and loudly singing rap lyrics that include the N-word at a camp event. The DJ at the event was actually playing the clean version of the rap song, but the young people took it upon themselves to sing the racial epithet anyway. Now imagine, this teen party was hosted and staffed by The School of the New York Times, a flagship media organization that has extended its brand into training future writers and journalists yet nobody on the staff of the New York Times stopped the kids, addressed the kids afterward or held the kids accountable to the School’s stated zero-tolerance policy for offensive speech.

This is exactly what happened earlier this summer, when my 17-year-old daughter attended the School of the New York Times pre-college academy. She was super excited to be accepted through the rigorous process after working very hard on her application. But at the end of term boat party, while the DJ played the clean version of a rap song, a group of white students, dancing in a mob, began shouting the N-word lyrics anyway even though they had been edited out. The relatively few black students attending that two-week semester, were stunned.

To add insult to injury, when I approached one of the administrators the following day and expressed that my daughter and her friends were deeply offended by what happened and asked whether the N-word shouting students would be addressed for violating the School’s policies–I was given a myriad of excuses. At the time, the director, stammered through an unacceptable explanation which included that it was “difficult” because the word is in pop culture. I asked for a follow up call to learn what would be done to resolve this situation, apologize to the black students and otherwise hold those students accountable for their speech.

This seemed like the least that would be done at a brand that claims to stand for the integrity of language and purports to have high journalistic values.

To make a long story short: that did not happen. I did not hear from The School of the New York Times until I sent a strongly worded email. After a series of emails with the school CEO and then the SVP of the New York Times brand, David Rubin, the School decided to only send out a vague email that asked people to “reflect”  on the incident–the email called the language “derogatory” not racist nor did it explicitly state that racist language was a violation of The School’s policy.  In addition, the email went on to say that the students “Did not appear to realize that they may have been offending others.”

REALLY??

Have white parents failed to teach their children that the N-word is one of the most inflammatory racial epithets in the American vernacular and you must not say it, in song or in word, regardless of who else is singing it or saying it? Many groups have specifically stated that certain “insults” are used by members of that group with a completely different meaning, but the word is not to be used by others outside of that group. It’s very simple. But it is white privilege that prevents young white children from feeling that they should not be denied access to any words, regardless what those offended by the word have said. You can’t say everything you hear. This is an important lesson for life, be it in kindergarten or in your career.

The failure of The School of the New Times and its parent company to name white privilege and racism in their programs and in their own staff training failures does not bode well for the rest of us–particularly from a so-called liberal leaning newspaper that sees itself as a progressive leader on race conversations. Dear New York Times, podcasts on race don’t make you progressive on race dynamics–actually standing up against racist behavior–intentional or not, does. Standing by your stated policies does.

Then I went to Facebook to share my frustrations and a beautiful and unexpected thing happened. White women stood up–and not just in their comments–expressing disgust that the New York Times failed to properly respond to my concerns in a timely manner,  that my daughter was subjected to such an offensive incident, that the New York Times failed to hold the offended students accountable (I asked the NYT to have each involved student write a reflective essay) but more importantly they wrote that they recognized that failing miserably on this “teachable moment” was a huge failure for all white kids too. Several wrote letters to the NY Times CEO. I am sharing this one because it really nails what white allyship can mean in all of our lives.

 

As we are all learning, it does everyone a disservice to not properly name racist behavior in any form.  I am sharing this email written by a white mother to the School of the New York Times, because it represents what all white allies can do to stand up and call out racism not only as damaging to those being oppressed, but to us all.

There are many, many lessons to be learned from Charlottesville. But the fact that more white people have to use their voices to stand out against injustices is just one of them.

We also have to continue to hold our media institutions accountable for what they print on the page, how they engage in other brand extensions and how seriously they take on the responsibility of shaping young people’s perceptions and experiences on what is just and socially acceptable in the real world.

 

 

 

 

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