For those of you who do not attend my high school, or have been living under a rock for the past week, Whitney High School has been the subject of a large media attack this past weekend. Whitney has been under intense scrutiny by the media- and unfortunately, it isn’t for our academic achievement. Shardé Shardé, a concerned black mother, took offense with an eighth-grade slavery activity. In a viral Facebook post, Shardé released a lengthy email chain between Whitney staff and herself. Unfortunately, she involved the media, leading to a crudely exaggerated HuffPo article and an explosive debate.
What Went Wrong?
Both parents and students passionately debated the slavery activity all over social media. If you are reading this, you probably have already heard the emotional arguments of both sides. However, I personally wanted to point out a few specific factors that transformed a valid concern about the exercise into a nationally-reported attack on my school.
1) How the situation was handled.
The mother, Shardé Shardé, had a truly valid complaint about the eighth-grade slavery activity. She thought the rough simulation of slavery featured in that activity was extremely inappropriate for her son to participate in. While I do not agree with many of her points, especially her ad hominem attacks involving the Whitney teacher’s race and gender, she completely mishandled the situation. Instead of continuing to talk to the school’s administration, Shardé chose to scare the school into complying. She involved the Huffington Post, who proceeded to defame us in a blatantly fear-mongering article.
However, this entire situation could have been simply resolved if the debate was kept among Whitney staff and the concerned mother. By publicly attacking Whitney, Shardé not only degraded our reputation, but also created lasting resentments among students. If her goal was to fight what she perceives as injustice, she should have faced it instead of suppressing it, only for it to show its ugly face later.
2) Lies and misinformation about the slavery activity.
If we wanted to have an honest discussion about the slavery activity, we would need to hear both sides. We would have needed to listen to both the concerns of parents and the experiences of students of all races. And equally as important, we need to discuss the activity as it truly is- without either sugarcoating nor exaggerating. Of course, that wasn’t exactly the media’s plan. The “news” sources love a good sensationalist headline- as long as it gets them clicks and ad revenue. Soon after, people who had never experienced the activity were spreading misinformation everywhere.
While the slavery activity simply involved loosely tied masking tape and students crowded in a dark room, the situation was blown out of proportion. I can assure you from personal experience that Whitney’s teachers are in no way racist and always have students’ best interests in mind. However, soon enough, news sites were claiming students were “bound” in “duct tape” and “shoved into a dark closest”. Unsurprisingly, the now-angered readers, both revolted liberals and mocking conservatives, accused Whitney of “child abuse” and “brainwashing”. These gruesomely depicted situations and their subsequent responses started to accelerate the situation out of control.
3) The social media flame war.
Finally, the social media flame war snowballed the situation into a complete disaster. While I have previously criticized the slavery activity’s critics, here, BOTH SIDES were at fault. Both sides’ opinions were largely justified from their incomplete perspectives, yet nobody wanted to recognize that. Instead, people commented their opinion without even considering what the other side’s response was going to be. You could produce the most eloquent, logical argument possible, yet within minutes, a single comment can cherry-pick a single sentence and straw man it, effectively ripping your argument to shreds.
The heated debate created an atmosphere where many people were afraid to share their own thoughts. Especially considering that High School Thinker was published to help people express their own opinions, I found that this toxic environment hurt us and our school even more. I was ashamed to hear both sides resort to name-calling, ad hominems, and even blatantly inappropriate racist remarks. While the worst of comments were made by a minority of both sides, I hope that we can all have a more mature discussion about issues if they so arise- especially if we want to make real, meaningful change.