by Christy Sumner Rue
As a mom to 3 biracial kids who live in your hometown, I have to say the now infamous “party hat” picture that went viral compelled me to write this open letter. The fallout from just one picture has become more widespread than anything I have ever seen in the decade and a half that I’ve lived in Rocky Mount. When I saw the picture, I instantly winced but not for the reason you might think.
I saw a group of girls, just being teenagers: doing cringe-worthy things with a group of friends, which is a teenage rite of passage. Making stupid decisions is a part of the human experience that everyone deals with at some point in their young adult life. Ask any adult and if they’re honest, they’ll admit having done embarrassing things when they were younger. The only difference is that most of us did not have cell phones to capture evidence of it or social media to instantly broadcast it to the entire world! (Thank God!!)
Since everyone who has seen the photo has made one assumption or another, I’ll join in. I assume most of you ladies have never seen the depth of racial hatred, even despite the presence of racial tension here in our community. I’m guessing probably the closest thing to witnessing the evil nature of racial inequality is in your history class, like most kids your age. When you see picture of a white man using a fire hose on a group of black people, I bet it feels foreign to you. Like it’s just another story from long ago like Christopher Columbus or Pearl Harbor. Racial issues are probably so far removed from you ladies that it never even dawned on you that your hats might be offensive to some people! I’m guessing you really didn’t anticipate the storm that would come from that one Instagram picture.
Did you intend for your homemade “party hats” to resemble KKK hats? Were you sending a message when some of you made guns signs out of your hands or were you doing what most teenagers do when posing in group photos, like Charlie’s Angels or Kung Fu ninjas? When it was posted a day after the Grand Jury announcement in Ferguson, MO that the police officer involved with the Michael Brown shooting death wouldn’t face charges, was that intended to make a statement to your fellow black schoolmates, the city of Rocky Mount and the nation at large? Or was it just really bad timing by a group of teenage girls hanging out, completely oblivious to what was going on close to 900 miles away? I have absolutely no clue because I wasn’t there and I don’t know you girls personally. But the problem is that people see that picture and they instantly associate your hats with the KKK. Ultimately, they are now associating you, your families and your school with the infamous hate group.
Now that the presumed association with the oldest American hate group has been made, people will assume you come from a long line of hatred that has been passed down one generation to the next. They will probably think that your parents are full-fledged members of the KKK; that they dressed you in little KKK onesies when you were infants and as you grew up, they indoctrinated you at the dinner table about the best way to incite hatred for black people as a whole. Is this possible? Of course, anything is possible, especially here in the South. Is it likely that active members of the KKK would encourage their teenage daughters to fashion white replica hats that did not hide their faces & then post it on Instagram in order to stir up racial tensions? Also, in a high school where almost 50% of the student population is black, not to mention nearly another 10% of the student body were identified as multiracial, does it make sense for you girls to release a photo like this if it were *really* intended to make a racial statement, knowing full well what would await you at school and in the community?
So whether it was just a big misunderstanding, an error in judgment or if you really were making a statement, you are now left to deal with the ramifications. I tell my kids all the time that we are responsible for our actions and how they come across to others, regardless of their motives or intentions. Even if it never once crossed your mind that the party hats resembled KKK hats, it stirred up that very same racial hatred that the people in your history textbooks faced. This racially-motivated rage is completely ruthless and it moves normally well-mannered people to act in unimaginable ways. It causes people to remove the humanity of the targeted group and treat them as objects without feelings or other human qualities. I know that many people say that only white people can be racists, which is a whole other topic, but I can assure you that racial hatred can be housed in any human being, regardless of color or ethnicity. People who have been searching for ways to further their own political and personal agendas now have jumped on this “party-hat” bandwagon.
In an effort to dehumanize you girls, these people have forgotten that some of you are worried about driver’s education classes while others of you are trying to finish up that last paper that was due before winter break. Some of you have now become living targets of political instigators, which is difficult for even adults to withstand their attacks. They have forgotten that you aren’t even old enough to vote or buy lottery tickets! They have accused you of getting special protection from the school and from law enforcement. They say that somehow your parents have some sort of clout over those in authority. Andre Knight, President of the Rocky Mount chapter of the NAACP and Rocky Mount City Councilman, has accused the Nash-Rocky Mount School administration of punishing black students who even “dare to mention” the incident while giving you police escorts. I wonder if Mr. Knight is aware of the harassment and death threats you girls were targets of in the midst of your classes while on school grounds. Also, if your parents were a part of the worst hate group in the United States and really did have power over the school system, why would you being going to a high school where you were the minority?
As a mama, I want to run right over to Nash Central and give you girls a big hug. I want you to know that you are stronger than you ever imagined. You found yourself in a really bad situation that took off like a runaway train. But this WILL NOT be the end of you! This is just a speed bump in your life; one that reminds you to slow down. Take this time to evaluate who you really are as a young woman. Most adults don’t figure it out until much later in life, but you’ve been given the opportunity to define who you are! People have made their assumptions and now you get to prove them wrong. What are you good at? What are you passionate about? What things are important to you? Do you love animals? Take some time to help out at the animal shelter. Are you good with kids? Volunteer at your church’s kids’ ministry or at the Boys & Girls club. This isn’t about “making up” or trying to balance some imaginary scale. This is about making sure that you grow through this whole nightmare.
My prayer for you girls is that you will not allow the hatred that you’ve been the target of to harden your hearts! Remember that not “all” white people are racists raising future racists in order to take over the world. Not “all” black people are violent or trying to blame white people for all of their problems. Do not let the hatred you’ve received turn you into the monsters they’ve claimed you to be! Do not allow this experience to taint your perspective of the world. Racial tensions are perpetuated by both sides assuming the worst, by generalizing and dehumanizing each other. You have the ability to stop the cycle of racial hatred!! Can you imagine if girls your age all over the country decided to stand against racial hatred?