Another week, another college student is toast after dropping a racial slur on social media.
In the most recent case, Natalia Martinez, a freshman soccer player at Georgia State University, dropped out of school rather than face the brewing conflict started by her own foolishness. The team had suspended her and a petition circulated — online, of course — to have her expelled.
Martinez wrote the N-word on a fake Instagram account, one that apparently didn’t protect her identity as well as she had hoped. Whether she used the word as a joke, to be mean, to be edgy, it doesn’t matter. These days, putting it out there on social media (for whatever reason) is like walking around with a gas can while flicking a Bic lighter. Same result. Ka-Pow!
The internet cares not about nuance. Context doesn’t matter. Use it once and you’re David Duke. There’s a Zero Tolerance. Dance with the N-word and you’re done.
The GSU student’s post came just days after the University of Alabama booted Harley Barber, a mouthy 19-year-old sorority girl who posted an N-word-laden video diatribe on her fake Instagram page. And a similar situation just occurred at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Yes, the nasty racial slur stays alive no matter how hard society tries to bury it. I know, rappers keep it current, and many black people have embraced a version of it in their vernacular.
But, white folks, stay away! It’s radioactive. If you say it and mean it, then you’re an idiot and get what’s coming. If you’re trying to be funny, ironic, edgy or showing your cred: Don’t!
No sort of explanation that black folks are using it will get you off the hook. Remember, gas can, Bic lighter. There goes your job, school, reputation, etc.
Martinez, an 18-year-old Floridian, wants to study biology, according to her school soccer bio. She is now under wraps, trying to live down this tempest. Apparently, someone saw her Instagram post, screen-grabbed it and reposted it for all the world to see. It is stunning at how quickly such things gather angry momentum. The culture of outrage demands new meat every day.
There’s a formula to this skit: Someone cluelessly posts a comment, photo, joke, nasty slur or diatribe on what they think is a closed network among friends, or like-minded others. Why they do it — having seen the wreckage of others — is a head-scratcher. Perhaps it’s social media’s thrill of immediate interaction and reaction that feeds the dopamine in the brain. And stupidity.
Then someone redistributes the post, often with their own scolding analysis. And then it’s on. The evil-doer is roundly and repeatedly excoriated as more and more people jump in to add their wisdom, calling for the person to be fired, kicked out of school or run out of society.
Such internet pile-ons allow us to proudly — and very publicly — wave our banner of personal virtue. In doing so, the offender is taught a lesson, as are possible future offenders. It’s a harsh world with this self-policing.
It’s like the pillory in the town square of olden times. But now your transgressions live on forever on the internet for future employers to view.
Ari Cohn, who works for FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) said common sense concerning the offending person’s language matters not. Activism for social justice takes no prisoners.
“Students now have the ability to make their voices heard — for better or for worse,” said Cohn. “A mob will very quickly achieve results. Schools and businesses don’t want PR disasters. They capitulate.”
RELATED: The AJC’s RE:Race Project Page
The recent cases are reminiscent of a couple of cases from a few years back, Gerod Roth and Justine Sacco.
In 2015, Roth was an Atlanta marketing dude who shot a selfie that included a 3-year-old boy standing behind him. The kid was black and Roth’s online friends had a field day with mean and vile racial jokes.
Back then, I noted that if you Google the terms “Gerod Roth” and “Racist,” you’d find 123,000 hits. It gets that intense. He was fired from his firm.
And perhaps the mother of all social media shaming is Justine Sacco, a communications director who in 2013 was boarding an overseas flight and felt the need to be witty: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
When she landed 11 hours later she was hated worldwide, her career and reputation in tatters. Turns out the internet mob didn’t like her stab at ironic humor.
Is overturning people’s lives overkill?
At the time of the Roth uproar, I spoke with Ife Johari, a blogger who distributed screenshots of Roth’s Facebook post far and wide. People are comfortable online, she said, and show their true selves.
“I think people (online) are who they really are,” she said. “They are like they are when they’re at home.”
I dropped in at Georgia State to ask what students thought of the latest digital self-destruction. I interviewed mostly minority students.
Baruk Cruz, a sophomore, wants to be a doctor. He supports a hard line against those caught using the N-word. It teaches a lesson. He said those caught using slurs should not work in the public realm, including law enforcement or education.
Society keeps trying to bring the N-word back into common use, he said, and that should not happen.
“Things regurgitate,” he said. “It’s like a clothing line from the ’70s returning to fashion. But some things you don’t want coming back.”
Darius King, a senior in criminal justice from Stone Mountain, said some people are naive and some aren’t.
“It can be one bad moment, one bad day, and it can affect your life and close you out of the American Dream,” he said. “You can be young and dumb. Should that be the end of you? The punishment should fit the crime. If you’re a Nazi or something, that’s one thing but …”
He trailed off. It’s a tough one, he said.
William Haston is a senior in journalism.
The backlash in these cases “is built on raw emotion,” he said. “But I don’t know if the wisdom of the crowd is the way to go.”
Before posting online, “you should censor yourself to what would you say to someone in person,” he said. “It’s no PC culture. It’s just common decency.”