A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning
“In one sense, the public shaming of Ms. Groves underscores the power of social media to hold people of all ages accountable, with consequences at times including harassment and both online and real-world “cancellation.” But the story behind the backlash also reveals a more complex portrait of behavior that for generations had gone unchecked in schools in one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, where Black students said they had long been subjected to ridicule. “Go pick cotton,” some said they were told in class by white students.
“It was just always very uncomfortable being Black in the classroom,” said Muna Barry, a Black student who graduated with Ms. Groves and Mr. Galligan. Once during Black History Month, she recalled, gym teachers at her elementary school organized an “Underground Railroad” game, where students were told to run through an obstacle course in the dark. They had to begin again if they made noise.
The use of the slur by a Heritage High School student was not shocking, many said. The surprise, instead, was that Ms. Groves was being punished for behavior that had long been tolerated.
A ‘hostile learning environment’
Leesburg, the county seat of Loudoun County, lies just across the Potomac River from Maryland, about an hour’s drive from Washington. It was the site of an early Civil War battle, and slave auctions were once held on the courthouse grounds, where a statue of a Confederate soldier stood for more than a century until it was removed in July.
The Loudoun County suburbs are among the wealthiest in the nation, and the schools consistently rank among the top in the state. Last fall, according to the Virginia Department of Education, the student body at Heritage High was about half white, 20 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Asian-American and 8 percent Black, with another 6 percent who are mixed race.
In interviews, current and former students of color described an environment rife with racial insensitivity, including casual uses of slurs.
A report commissioned last year by the school district documented a pattern of school leaders ignoring the widespread use of racial slurs by both students and teachers, fostering a “growing sense of despair” among students of color, some of whom faced disproportionate disciplinary measures compared with white students.
The university declined to comment about Ms. Groves beyond a statement it issued on Twitter in June, in which officials said they took seriously complaints about racist behavior.
Ms. Groves’s parents, who said their daughter was being targeted by a social media “mob” for a mistake she made as an adolescent, urged university officials to assess her character by speaking with her high school and cheer coaches. Instead, admissions officials gave her an ultimatum: withdraw or the university would rescind her offer of admission.
“We just needed it to stop, so we withdrew her,” said Mrs. Groves, adding that the entire experience had “vaporized” 12 years of her daughter’s hard work. “They rushed to judgment and unfortunately it’s going to affect her for the rest of her life.”
‘You taught someone a lesson.’
In the months since Mr. Galligan posted the video, he has begun his freshman year at Vanguard University in California and Ms. Groves has enrolled in online classes at a nearby community college. Though they had been friendly earlier in high school, they have not spoken about the video or the fallout.
At home, Ms. Groves’s bedroom is festooned by a collection of cheer trophies, medals and a set of red pompoms — reminders of what could have been. Her despair has given way to resignation. “I’ve learned how quickly social media can take something they know very little about, twist the truth and potentially ruin somebody’s life,” she said.
Since the racial reckoning of the summer, many white teenagers, when posting dance videos to social media, no longer sing along with the slur in rap songs. Instead, they raise a finger to pursed lips. “Small things like that really do make a difference,” Mr. Galligan said.
Mr. Galligan thinks a lot about race, and the implications of racial slurs. He said his father was often the only white person at maternal family gatherings, where “the N-word is a term that is thrown around sometimes” by Black relatives. A few years ago, he said his father said it aloud, prompting Mr. Galligan and his sister to quietly take him aside and explain that it was unacceptable, even when joking around.“