Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in Washington and author of the book, “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
It’s tough out there for a conservative teenage social media personality these days – you can’t toss around racial slurs like you used to and still be welcomed into Harvard with open arms. Can you imagine a worse injustice?
That is, in all seriousness, the argument of Kyle Kashuv, an 18-year-old who became a gun rights activist in response to his classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, who themselves became activists against gun violence in the wake of their peers being massacred by a school shooter. Kashuv got into Harvard, and then apparently had his acceptance rescinded after evidence of him making a series of racial slurs appeared online. The slurs were made via text message, Skype, and in a shared Google Doc for a class study guide two years ago.
First, let’s talk about what we’re talking about: The milquetoast “racial slurs” doesn’t quite cut it. According to a screenshot from the Google Doc, which the HuffPost obtained access to, Kashuv repeated the n-word in all caps 11 times.
And in a text, obtained by the Huff Post, Kashuv, speaking about a girl appears to be complaining that she “goes for n***erjocks.” In that same text, he wrote “pasty jew < n****r.” The HuffPost reported that the messages were sent in late 2017 or early 2018.
Colleges are institutions of higher learning, and they are also communities where students live and learn on campus. Having a student who has a history of throwing around racial slurs for fun on campus is a huge liability, and is not in the university’s mission.
Harvard isn’t racist reform school. It’s one of the most elite universities on the planet. Admission is a privilege, not a right.
Kashuv does not see it that way. “Harvard deciding that someone can’t grow, especially after a life-altering event like the shooting, is deeply concerning. If any institution should understand growth, it’s Harvard, which is looked to as the pinnacle of higher education despite its checkered past,” he said on Twitter.
Harvard didn’t decide that someone can’t grow. Kashuv is welcome to grow as much as he wants – and I certainly hope that he does. But Harvard does have standards around character and personal morality, as it should.
More importantly, though, is how apparent it is that Kashuv hasn’t grown from this experience. When you’re 18, two years ago is a long time, and no doubt Kashuv is indeed a different person now than he was at 16 .
But the thing about truly profound shifts in worldview – like the shift that would be required to change from an unapologetic racist who found it amusing “to be as extreme and shocking as possible” – is that they come with humility. They come with the understanding that actions have consequences, and that reckonings come. They come with wisdom borne out of sincere regret.
Kashuv says he regrets his words. But has he truly learned from them if he’s not willing to bear their consequences? His Twitter thread is defensive and self-justifying – Harvard is racist too is his primary argument. And Harvard does indeed have an ugly racist past. It continues to operate in a vastly unequal and racist society. The institution continues to swim in these waters; there are ongoing, robust debates about what accountability looks like, what amends might be, what reparations should be. Harvard is very, very far from perfect.
But the process of accountability, forced by the many Harvard students and alumni who want the place to be better, is ongoing. Based on his Twitter statement, Kashuv does not appear to be doing any of that work on himself. He seems to genuinely regret that he got caught being racist. But he does not seem to believe that the hideous racism he exhibited should have any bearing on his life right now. Has he thought about the number of black students who could have been at Harvard but who saw their sense of self-worth systematically knocked down by the racism of white classmates like Kashuv?
Or the black students who were underestimated, perhaps put in the “slow learners” group or not given access to the advanced placement or gifted programs, because teachers who were unconsciously racist tracked them based on their skin color?
Or the black students who never had a chance to go a school as tony and desirable as Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the first place, because centuries of American racism have made the dream of Harvard much more accessible to the white and well-off?
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All of that, of course, is not Kashuv’s individual burden to carry. But he is part of a system where, for him, racism has been funny and shocking, not life-altering, kneecapping, and potentially deadly.
In Kashuv’s view, he is the victim here – not of his own typing fingers, or of his awful thoughts, or of his abhorrent decisions, but of Harvard deciding that someone who makes the choices he has made is not currently deserving of the privilege of admission.
Kashuv’s life has not been ruined. He has a huge platform. He will certainly find admission elsewhere. And he has an opportunity here to take responsibility and to use this as a moment of growth and serious reflection. He can choose to be accountable for his words, his actions, and how those fit into a much bigger system of systematic racism.
He has not been branded “irredeemable,” as he says Harvard branded him. All he needs to do is redeem himself.