Optimists once thought that the internet was going to democratize communication, dissolve the lines that divide us, and usher in an era of peace and equality.
Yeah. How did that work out?
It seems like all the internet really did is make us all shameless self-promoters, and by “shameless” we mean “proud of our shameful acts.”
The latest version comes in the form of a “promposal.” No one screws up their courage and stutteringly asks a crush to the dance anymore (see: internet). The dance in question hardly seems to be the point. Senior prom has become just another excuse to smear your face across every public forum you can access, and there are many.
But when a teenage promotional stunt becomes an avenue for perpetuating antebellum racial stereotypes, we can’t just ignore the scene and walk away. We must condemn these acts or at least try to understand them so we can participate responsibly in the conversation.
So, okay, here’s the picture. Two white girls flank a black girl in the Florida sunshine, because Florida, of course. The three girls hold a cardboard sign. They are all smiling. The sign reads, “You may be picking cotton, but we’re picking you to go to prom with us.”
After the initial rise of bile in the back of your throat, you might start to wonder if there are any extenuating circumstances behind this image. Could there have been an inside joke that failed to translate? Might this image be the result of a tragic tone-deafness rather than a self-conscious expression of racism?
Yes and no. According to the Coconut Creek, Florida, ABC affiliate, the students didn’t intend to perpetuate damaging stereotypes. The two white girls just wanted to ask their black friend to the prom with them.
The black girl, an heir to her grandmother’s cotton farm, is homeschooled. She didn’t think she could go to the local high school prom. She “said yes,” according to the picture’s caption. The girls reportedly weren’t trying to refer to the painful history of slavery and Jim Crow–era oppression.
Still, for a joke like this to seem like a good idea, you can’t have a very strong grasp of Southern history—or of American history in general. In a sense, this racist promposal is a failure of education, a failure of culture. We are all implicated.
As in the debate over the Confederate flag, personal intention does not and cannot change the way an image or a symbol is generally interpreted. That means we all have a responsibility to listen to one another when we discuss the images and symbols we find painful and the things that, on a deep level, simply hurt our feelings. We all need to do better.
Anyway, on to the backlash. An alumnus of the girls’ high school found the picture and shared it on Twitter along with the exasperated comment that “It is two thousand and f***ing seventeen.” The girls were quickly identified and their Twitter handles were made public. Things got scary for the teens.
The girls have apologized. They say they’re afraid to attend the prom now. They were suspended from school. They deleted the Instagram account that hosted the picture and their Twitter accounts, too.
“They really want to apologize for their extremely poor choice of words in this situation,” the father of another student at the high school told Local 10 News. “They would like to take it back. They would like to find a different way to express this invitation to prom.”
But the internet does not allow take-backs. For better or for worse, our impulses live forever there. Tread lightly.