Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

What Prompts Teens’ Racist Posts?

The vast majority of young people have used social media to support the protests following the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. But some have posted photos of themselves kneeling on a friend’s neck and mocking the manner in which Floyd was killed -- the so-called #GeorgeFloydChallenge on TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. (The images have since been removed from most sites.)

When I first heard about this phenomenon, I was stunned by how abnormal it seemed, and the deep level of racism it revealed. Teenagers often have lapses in judgment or make poor choices, but reenacting a man’s torture and killing for kicks? People who can laugh at someone being brutalized usually see the victim as less than human.

One student who posted such a video on Snapchat -- teens laughing while simulating choking each other, with one heard to say “I can’t breathe” -- was an incoming freshman at the University of Missouri. A copy of that video reached Mizzou officials, who released a statement.

“Given the similarity to the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the video is both shocking and disturbing,” wrote Mun Y. Choi, president of the UM System and interim chancellor at the University of Missouri. The university launched an investigation and told the student she would be suspended until it was complete. The student decided to withdraw, as did another girl in the video, an incoming Missouri State University student.

Other universities have revoked admission for students posting similar content. It’s important to send an unequivocal message that this behavior is unacceptable, especially when schools and universities have a history of minimizing racist acts.

But what could prompt adolescents to showcase these kinds of depraved posts in the first place?

Johnnetta Cole, a therapist based in suburban St. Louis, said young people who have witnessed adults in positions of leadership -- from teachers to parents to political leaders -- making racist comments or jokes and escaping any consequences may internalize the message that this behavior is acceptable. Others may be reacting to the change they see happening in society.

“I believe that although young people are leading this movement (for justice), we still have some teenagers and young people who are fearful of change,” she said.

This can lead to acting out in drastic ways.

Rachel Morris, a licensed professional counselor and anger resolution therapist in Houston, primarily works with teens and adolescents. She said that students of color have often had conversations with their parents about how to manage situations in which they might be treated badly because of the color of their skin, or have experienced discrimination. Students who have never had these conversations or experiences may lack empathy for those who have.

“If they have not experienced that trauma, they may not understand the seriousness of it,” Morris said. She said racist posts can also be attention-seeking behavior: They will get immediate responses, and even negative attention is attention.

Both Morris and Cole said social and environmental factors are exacerbated by teens’ underdeveloped brains. Kristen Craren, a therapist based in Clayton, Missouri, agreed that brain immaturity likely plays a role. But if there are other red flags in the adolescent’s behavior -- social struggles, violence towards others or pets -- it’s worth talking to a therapist, she said.

“If they don’t understand that what they did was wrong, I would definitely suggest therapy,” Morris added. Craren suggests vetting the therapist before making an appointment to make sure they share the parent’s values and political beliefs.

Attitudes towards others are influenced by what a young person sees and hears at home, and in the community of adults and peers around them.

Cole recalls a racist incident two years ago, when her daughter was a senior in high school. A student asked a classmate to prom by holding a sign that said: “If I was black, I’d be picking cotton, but I’m white, so I’m picking you for prom.”

The same racist sign had made the rounds in schools across the country. Some schools prohibited the student in question from attending prom; Cole’s daughter’s district did not disclose how that student was disciplined.

Regardless of the way school leaders chose to respond, their actions sent a message to more than the student involved.

They spoke loudly to the entire school.