Best wears an unamused expression in the photograph, whereas the others appear perplexed or unaware. Zottola directs a concerned gaze at the camera. Best is one of the nine-person board’s two African American members; the others caught in the frame are white.
According to the Courant, the selfie-taker uploaded the photo while she was still at the meeting, along with a brief message to her nearly 400 Facebook followers. “In a room full of folks talking about us (and the educational achievement gap) that don’t look like us…hmmm,” Best wrote.
Almost immediately after her posting, the photograph and accompanying caption ignited an energetic discussion among Best’s social network, with responses ranging from laudatory of her observation to abrasive toward the other educators pictured. One commenter posted a meme-like image of a little blond girl with her face in a grimace, as if to mock Zottola’s own platinum blond hair.
Several of the responses focused on the white teachers’ physical appearance. “Look at the chick in the black and blue,” read one comment. “Yikes.”
The public post garnered over 160 likes and 50 comments from a racially diverse group, the Courant reported.
Meanwhile, Zottola, a teacher of 23 years, sat through the rest of the meeting feeling uneasy about the photo but oblivious to the firestorm that it had ensued. It wasn’t until the next morning, when one of the educational consultants in attendance showed her the post, that she found herself the protagonist of an unsavory narrative — one of white teachers failing to adequately help a student population largely comprised of children of color.
Zottola wanted the photo to “disappear,” and she told Best as much via a Facebook message that was left unanswered. Her school’s human resource department and the Hartford Federation of Teachers called on the post to be removed on her behalf. Zottola’s husband, dentist Paul-Henry Zottola, wrote a letter to school leaders asking for Best to be removed from the board.
In his letter, according to the Courant, Zottola accused Best of having “insulted an entire district of dedicated teachers as being unfit for that role because, as she puts it, they ‘don’t look like us.'”
On Sept. 15, nearly two weeks after the original selfie was uploaded, Best posted a lengthy apology saying she was sorry for the pain she caused the educators in the photo, along with a re-post of the photo.
“I inadvertently hurt people in the frame who happen to be some of the city’s finest educators,” Best wrote. “That was not my purpose. The pain I felt is because there are not MORE people of color in rooms like this — teaching our children so our children can personally identify with people that look like them.”
She concluded: “If the cultural context were reversed and a room full of well meaning black folks were talking about the educational failure of white children — what would white advocates think or do?…Racial conversations often inflame us. I am sorry other people were hurt. This work is often painful.”
Speaking to the Courant, a maligned Zottola referred to Best’s apology in air quotes, clearly still hurt. The new post also received a flood of responses, some from educators supporting Best.
“I was ok with your comments and protest when it happened,” wrote Robert Cotto Jr., another member of the Hartford school board. To this, Zottola replied, “Are you saying…it’s ok for a board member to post an unauthorized picture of board employees and then allow awful comments and memes?”
Both the original selfie and subsequent apology have since been deleted from Best’s Facebook timeline, but not before they inspired a handful of written submissions to the Courant weighing in on the incident.
A college student and graduate of a Hartford magnet school criticized the “selfie flap” for masking real issues related to teacher diversity. “Zottola was not being targeted,” Haddiyyah Ali countered. “The rhetoric about Best being a cyberbully, and even a racist, is not only ridiculous, but also harmful. The decentering of the experiences of students of color in a school district that fails to represent them adequately in the faculty is heinous.”
Emmanuel Sanchez, a biracial alderman in neighboring New Britain offered an impassioned defense of Zottola, who he says “made all the difference” while he was a student. Meanwhile, the Courant’s own editorial board called Best’s actions “counterproductive.”
The selfie debacle in Hartford was fodder for discussion for several reasons, many of which only came into greater focus a month after the incident, when protests against institutional racism erupted on college campuses across the country. Students marched to raise awareness of not only perceived symbolic injustices at their institutions and in society generally, but also the concrete fact that most universities have struggled to recruit and retain diverse faculty.
On these issues, the rallying cry of students at the University of Missouri, Yale, Ithaca College and so on has been heard across the country in the past few months. Many of these campus movements were inspired by seemingly trivial occurrences — a poop swastika, an email about Halloween costumes — yet for the most part, student activists who drafted sets of demands for administrators all had a common request: more faculty members who “looked like them.”
In late November, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss recounted the experiences of Emily Smith, a white fifth-grade teacher in Austin, Tex. who was once told by a student that she “couldn’t understand because [she] was a white lady.”
Smith said this blunt accusation inspired her to radically change her curriculum to incorporate more works, such as those by Gary Soto and Ta-Nehisi Coates, that would personally resonate with minority students.
She proclaimed in an acceptance speech for a national teaching prize:
I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at the moment, but I can change the way I teach…You may agree that black and brown lives matter, but how often do you explore what matters to those lives in your classroom? Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases.
Where the Hartford selfie controversy is concerned, the matter is further complicated because it’s not just about diversity in education — it’s also about civility on the Internet.
After all, what are the ethics of uploading someone’s photo to social media without their consent? In the age of rapid-fire sharing, it is possible for virtually any previously unknown individual to go viral, for the Internet to transform someone who had no public profile into a national or international hero or pariah.
Best told the Courant that as the majority of students in the Hartford school system are “black and brown,” it is crucial to acknowledge the tensions inherent to a meeting such as the one where the selfie taken, in which she said “The slideshow showed young black males failing.”
The Courant’s editorial board acknowledged that Best’s point about minority representation is important, but called her tactics “divisive” and “misguided.”
When Zottola spoke to the Courant in September, she still seemed to be reeling from the public humiliation that she said targeted her for being (in reference to complexion) “probably the whitest person in the room.”
“I feel like she made me her poster child for white teachers in Hartford. The insinuation, and what hurt me the most,” Zottola told the Courant, her voice cracking, “is she’s saying that because I’m white, I can’t teach children in Hartford.”