In mid-June, a group of white students at a Christian school in Orlando went on Instagram to debate the best way to use a racial slur.
“So….I have a question for all my fans,” a rising First Academy junior wrote, starting the conversation. “Everyone contribute even if you wouldn’t normally. Is it ‘n—a’ or ‘n—-r’ … I think n—a is more respectful and (another student) thinks it isn’t supposed to be used as a respectful term.
“So. Like for n—-r comment for n—a. Thanks everyone.”
Later, the teen offered a hypothetical situation to explain her thinking.
“OK. Here’s a scenario for ya,” she wrote in the comments. “You’re driving down the road and u see a group of black people on the sidewalk. Do you say ‘n—-rs or do you say ‘n—-as’ because to me, saying n—-rs seems like ur being negative and rude while saying n—-s sounds like you’re messing around and being silly.”
The discussion continued. Some comments contained a single racial slur. Others provided details about why one form of the indignity was more acceptable than another.
“From my experience you should call a n—a a n—a only if you are close to that n—a and u should say ‘my n—a,'” one person replied.
The public Instagram exchange went viral last week after New York Daily News reporter Shaun King shared it on Facebook and Twitter, overshadowing the start of school at the First Academy, where officials say many of the teens involved in the debate are enrolled.
On the post, there are more than 40 comments from the teen, her friends and her followers, according to King, a journalist and Black Lives Matter activist who posted images of the exchange after somebody sent them to him.
Although the Instagram conversation presumably took place off-campus, the school addressed the swelling controversy: On Friday, a statement about the racially charged debate was featured prominently on the First Academy website, above enrollment details and the school’s mission statement.
Officials at the school, a ministry of First Baptist Church Orlando, have “unequivocally” denounced the Instagram debate and said the students who participated in it could face disciplinary action.
First Academy officials also said the conversation doesn’t reflect the private school’s commitment to inclusion and racial reconciliation.
“TFA is appalled by such inappropriate comments posted by some of our students,” Steve Whitaker, the head of school, said in the statement. “TFA does not condone or support this conduct, and will not tolerate this type of behavior.”
The exchange was yet another example of young people stumbling over the line between freedom of expression and insensitive speech, said Jody Armour, author of “Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: The Hidden Costs of Being Black in America.”
“It’s a process that we go through every generation — reteaching and relearning what the linguistic boundaries are,” Armour, a law professor at the University of Southern California, said on Monday. “It’s like every year or two I turn on the TV and I see, yet again, some college students learning that you can’t wear an Afro and blackface to the Halloween party.
“It’s something that should be part of cultural literacy. We should be teaching it at high school level, to freshmen and sophomores.”
America has used the n-word for centuries and debated it for decades. It has been used as a “strongly negative term of contempt for a black person since at least the 18th century,” according to the Oxford English dictionary. But the term has been reclaimed as a term of self-reference, the dictionary says, in the same way “queer” has been adopted by some gay and lesbian people.
The lesson for youths, Armour said, is that hateful words that have been re-appropriated by members of an oppressed group can’t be used by outsiders without a whiff of discrimination.
“Black folks have been on the receiving end of that word, the object of it, going back hundreds of years,” Armour said. “They are in a position to use it with a special sense of irony that someone who isn’t black simply can’t, and everybody sort of understands that.”
The First Academy was founded in 1986 as “a Christ-centered, college preparatory school whose mission is to prepare children for life as Christian leaders who choose character before career, wisdom beyond scholarship, service before self, and participation as a way of life.”
According to its website, the school boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for graduating seniors. Tuition ranges from $8,000 a year for part-time preschool students to $17,680 annually for high school seniors.
All 14 of the people listed on the First Academy’s “Leadership” page appear to be white.
Matt McGee, the assistant head of school, told The Post that about a third of the First Academy’s 1,450 students are minorities, although detailed demographics were not made available. “We’ve got Chinese students at our schools, Indian students at our schools, many African Americans and Africans,” he said.
Whitaker, the president and the head of school, did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment. But in his statement on the First Academy website, Whitaker said school officials “have taken and are taking, deliberate steps to address this issue. As we reflect on this situation, we have realized there is much work to do in the area of racial reconciliation that we must take ownership of.
“Have we done enough? The answer is no. However, we will continue to learn from this experience and are committed to do the necessary and important work to grow as a school community in this area of racial reconciliation.”
He added: “Let me state unequivocally, that any comments related to race or culture that are discriminatory in attitude or action, will not be tolerated. Despite our longstanding tradition of acceptance and inclusivity, we remain an imperfect school made up of imperfect people in need of God’s grace and forgiveness.”
The statement was not the only one released by First Academy officials as the Instagram exchange bounced across social media. The school also posted a “Board Statement on Race Relations” authored by Bishop Allen Wiggins.
Wiggins, who is black, wrote in his statement that the school “has taken appropriate disciplinary action and they continue to hold my complete trust as an institution.” He didn’t provide details.
McGee, the assistant head of school, said federal law prevented him from discussing individual student discipline. But the school’s parent/student handbook says students can be suspended or expelled if “inappropriate behavior impacts my witness for Christ, the school’s reputation and/or other TFA students or families in a negative manner.”
The teen who wrote the original post apparently deleted her Instagram account after claims of bigotry and threats.
“Old page got deleted. I’m not racist and stop stealing my picture!” she wrote on a new page. (The student could not be reached for comment by The Post.)
Still, the threats came.
“Someone please kill this dumb b—-,” one commenter wrote on Instagram, while including an emoji of a gun with her post.
“I say drop all of them off in a predominantly Black neighborhood so they can find out first hand which term is better,” wrote Genide Priori, the top commenter on King’s Facebook post.
The Instagram thread has also raised questions about what King called the “casual bigotry” of students at the private Christian academy in Florida.
“Person after person after person, either current students, parents or former students, have emailed me with varying degrees of horror stories about their experiences about this school,” King said in an interview. “People walking down the halls making squinty-eyed faces at Asian students, asking do you like fortune cookies. Asking [Latino students], ‘Did your family illegally cross the border?’ For black kids it was ‘what’s it like in the ghetto?’ ”
Worse, King said, minority students told him the thoughts white students expressed in the Instagram debate were so pervasive that they seemed normal. “This surprises nobody,” King said. “People said that was just not weird to them. Any ethnic person at the school saw that [on Instagram] and said ‘that’s just Monday.’ ”
To bolster his point, King posted a picture on Facebook that he said was sent by a First Academy student. It depicts an entry in a school art show — a sculpture of the Confederate Flag.
McGee, the assistant head of school, disputed claims of a toxic racial climate at the school. He said he didn’t know if the claims sent to King were factual or inflated — or if they even originated with students at the school.
“We have no way to verify those are actual students,” he said.
Randall Eggert, a linguistics professor at the University of Utah, said students in his “Bad Words and Taboo Truths” class sometimes dispute how inflammatory the n-word is.
At the beginning of every semester, Eggert asks students to write the worst words they can think of; the n-word is always one of the most-listed words.
But Eggert said some young people, influenced by a popular culture that profligately uses the n-word, don’t find the word to be particularly problematic.
“There’s a shift going on,” he said. “It’s going to be slow and it’s going to happen geographically different across the country. There’s probably a good chance that people are having this conversation in pockets all across the country.”
Occasionally in class, Eggert said, he’ll come across students who are adamant that people shouldn’t get offended if they don’t use the word in a racially charged way.
“It’s as though their freedom has been infringed upon, when they’ told that they can’t say the word. They get hostile about it,” Eggert said. “Undoubtedly, it’s a bit of white privilege, it’s the one thing that we can’t have, so you want to grab it.”
A 2014 Washington Post project expounded on the cultural shift in the n-word’s use. As Dave Sheinin and Krissah Thompson wrote:
It is the very notion of banning the n-word that appears dead and fit for burial. It was a long and noble fight, waged largely — but not exclusively — by an older generation for which the word is inseparable from the brutality into which it was born. If there is still a meaningful n-word debate left to have, it is over context, ownership and the degree to which it should be tethered to its awful history — or set free from it.
A word that is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter — as “n—a” is, according to search data on the social media analytics Web site Topsy.com — is almost by definition beyond banning. By comparison, “bro” and “dude” — two of the terms with which the n-word is synonymous to many people younger than 35 — are used 300,000 and 200,000 times, respectively. For many of this generation, the word is tossed around unthinkingly, no more impactful than a comma.