“Racist” and “Stupid” are not synonyms and sometimes it seems like some people would like for them to be. In the wake of the decision by Harvard University to rescind Parkland survivor and conservative activist Kyle Kashuv’s acceptance because of text messages and shared electronic documents in which he wrote racist slurs, a national debate has been ignited.
The debate over whether or not Kashuv deserved to have his acceptance revoked is complex— it is much larger than one kid, one university and one example of a 16-year-old’s private communications not only being made public but becoming a national story about the rescission of an ivy league acceptance. A fundamental layer of the debate is about racism and the consequences for repeatedly saying—well, writing— the ‘n-word’ among friends and thinking it’s funny. But it also a conversation about the very long digital tails that now follow the children who have grown up on a steady diet of smartphones and snapchat.
And it is about consequences. Cancel culture. Social media mobs. Redemption. Contrition. And grace.
I have personally never heard or witnessed a conversation like the ones Kyle Kashuv had with his friends. I can only remember hearing the n-word spoken in front of me once by someone white and I am 46 years old. I am admittedly ignorant and naive about the pervasiveness of the word’s use in some places. Admittedly, my jaw hit the floor when I read the messages Kashuv wrote. I still remember having lunch with a new colleague in 2003 when we were both starting a job at the same school. Somehow the use of the ‘n-word’ came up—I was gobsmacked when she said that, growing up in Florida, she had heard it daily. It’s not lost on me that Kyle grew up in Florida.
Kyle Kashuv is hardly the first student who has written or said racist things and subsequently been accepted into Harvard. And he won’t be the last. But we know him because he survived the Parkland shooting just months after he wrote those vile words. He became a public face, the conservative counterpart to David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, also passionate about school safety but with different ideas about the best ways to achieve it. Tragedy put him on our radar. And that also matters in this debate.
When the screenshots became public, Kyle responded:
But a concerted effort had already taken off online to get his acceptance revoked—the far-left and the far-right came together to take this kid down.
None of us can know Kyle’s heart. While some say he has only apologized because he got caught, others believe his contrition to be sincere. But none of that is the point. The larger question is whether or not we as a society are ready for the standard that Harvard has set with this decision when it applies to someone other than Kyle Kashuv. Where will we land when the offensive writings do not contain the ‘n-word’ or any racism at all but are still indefensible and out of step with what the university requires in terms of “maturity” and “moral character”? Are we comfortable with people sending all of our private communications from the past to colleges, universities, potential employers or current employers? If every person reflects on all of the things they have typed in anger, jest, the heat of competition, and frustration from their youth until today, it is hard to imagine that the answer for anyone is a resounding yes.
This is not a defense of Kyle Kashuv. Nor is it a defense of Harvard’s decision. It is an attempt to dig into what that decision means going forward. It is an attempt to ask if we want to be a people who believe in redemption and grace—particularly for adolescents—or if we believe that social media mobs and cancel culture are a worthy avenue of pursuit.
Today it’s Kyle Kashuv. Tomorrow it could be you.