For some people, the video of police officer Derek Chauvin callously kneeling on the neck of the unarmed, pleading George Floyd looked like many things. A travesty. A horror. A stark reminder of the brutality and injustice of American policing, and an urgent call to stand up, dig deep, and demand change.
But for the subjects of an article published in the Washington Post on Wednesday, the video prompted a different kind of deep digging.
‘Blackface incident at Post cartoonist’s 2018 Halloween party resurfaces amid protests’, reads the headline, a prelude to 3,000 words of groundbreaking work in the field of offense archaeology.
Maybe this moment comes for every movement: a shift, as the earnest activists are joined by not-so-earnest opportunists who see these cultural touchpoints as a launching pad to catapult themselves into the spotlight, or to settle an old grudge by dressing it up in a matter of national urgency (or, as the meme goes, perhaps both?) Less explicable is how this petty quest for revenge became a feature-length story in the pages of a leading newspaper, with two reporters assigned to unpack a two-year-old incident in which a random middle-aged woman wore an offensive Halloween costume to a friend’s private party.
The woman, Sue Schafer, ‘wore a conservative business suit and a name tag that said, “Hello, My Name is Megyn Kelly.” Her face was almost entirely blackened with makeup.’ The costume was evidently intended as a meta-joke to mock Kelly, who had come under fire that same week for arguing that blackface (in the ‘wearing dark makeup for cosplay purposes’ sense, not the ‘Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn’ sense) shouldn’t be considered offensive. But Lyric Prince and Lexie Gruber, two young women who were also guests, were horrified by Schafer’s appearance and (loudly) told her so. Schafer was reportedly humiliated, leaving the party in tears and apologizing to the host the next day, which to many would seem appropriate, both in terms of consequences suffered and remorse shown. But for Gruber, the incident apparently festered, leading her to contact the Washington Post in the hopes of seeing Schafer and her two-year-old error in judgment dragged back into the spotlight.
Plenty of ink has been spilled already on the question of why, and how, the Post allowed Prince and Gruber to use it as a weapon in their quest to make Schafer suffer. But the insult-upon-injury of the piece is not just that it exists but that it opens with a gorgeous glamour shot of the accusers, staring boldly down the lens like a pair of modern-day riot grrrls (an amusing juxtaposition for a story about two women so fragile that they have spent the past two years of their adult lives tormented by the memory of a bad Halloween costume); the only thing missing are the strains of Fight Song soaring in the background.
The framing is very much on trend: 18-year-old former Disney star Skai Jackson is being celebrated by outlets including Teen Vogue and InStyle for using her Twitter platform, half a million followers strong, to ‘take down racists’ — in the form of identifying teenagers who have made offensive social media posts, exposing their names and contact information, and lobbying for their expulsion from whatever college they attend. (The glowing coverage of Jackson’s vigilantism does not mention that in at least one case, she incorrectly identified the perpetrator and subjected an innocent kid to massive amounts of harassment before the post was deleted.) And earlier this week, the New York Times reported positively on the trend of high school students compiling anonymous lists and creating callout accounts to name and shame their peers: ‘These lists often contain students’ full names, school information, social media profiles, contact information, the college they plan to attend if available and sometimes screenshots or an overview of their racist behavior.’
We might note that if evidence is provided ‘sometimes’, it may be understood that other times, people are added to these lists of known racists without any evidence at all. But fact-checking is hardly a priority for the kids who gleefully circulate them. They’re teenagers, with all the utter conviction of their own righteousness to go with it. As one 15-year-old noted, ‘People who go to college end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs.”
It’s incredible to think that until recently, a standard progressive position was that harassing teenagers on the internet was one of society’s greater ills (and that compiling anonymous lists of thought criminals was a practice best left in the McCarthy era.) Consider the 2009 case of Jessica Logan, who committed suicide after an ex-boyfriend sent nude photos of her to multiple other people, who in turn spent months shaming and harassing her. The case was a major flashpoint in the public crusade against online bullying, including earnest arguments that those who took part in the slut-shaming should be held liable for Jessica’s death. But a decade later, the ruination of people, even very young people, who make offensive or ill-advised choices in their digital lives isn’t just sanctioned by tastemakers, it’s something of a spectator sport.
As for the not-so-young woman at the center of the Post story, Sue Schafer was not just humiliated a second time over but fired from her job as a result of the story. We may be encouraged that generally speaking, and particularly in the WaPo comments section, an overwhelming consensus has emerged that this should never have been news at all. But not only is the damage done, it’s likely to continue as long as members of the media insist on framing these takedowns as brave rebellions against the status quo and applauding the petty tyrants who lead them as noble revolutionaries. There is the important work of making social change, and then there is cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Kids don’t always know the difference, but we should.