After writing about being a black woman who attended a Kentucky high school with a Confederate general as a mascot — and the feelings and memories going to my 10-year reunion dredged up, in the wake of the South Carolina shootings — I posted the piece to Facebook. A few people shared it with words of encouragement, solidarity, or affirmation. But. Some replied with the internet equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and exclaiming, "lalalala, racism isn't real!"
I wanted to share these messages because I think they're illustrative of the problems we have speaking out about race issues in America. A personal experience was relayed, and defensive justifications and emotional gaslighting followed.
The most shocking comment of all comes from Kenton County Deputy Sheriff Steven Sweeney, who — unless he was held back for many decades — did not attend BCHS when I did. Still, he claims that I "haven't changed" since high school (😑), and defends the Confederate flag right on the original post's page. That's right, a government official who carries a gun in Northern Kentucky is confidently defending the Confederate flag to a black stranger on the internet in the wake of a hate crime against black people in South Carolina. Is it any wonder no other black people attended the high school reunion?
The argument "its [sic] a flag, people fault [sic] and died for that, so it must have meant something to them…" is not just poorly worded, it's nonsensical. People fought and died for all kinds of detestable causes, from the Nazis to the KKK. Doesn't make it right. Doesn't make it okay to have a symbol of hate in a public school.
One old classmate seemed to believe that the only reason I wrote about my experience as a black person at a school with a Confederate mascot — mere days after a white, rebel flag-wearing gunman murdered nine people in a black church — was because of "popularity." I participated in loads of extra curricular activities and consider many of my former classmates good friends. But maybe if only I had gotten more high-fives back then, that could have erased the 400+ years of oppression that our high school mascot represented?
My original piece did not state that everyone who was white and attended the school was racist. It was about how it felt to be a black person in a Confederate-friendly climate. How it felt to be a black person going to high school ball games, supposedly cheering for the Rebels. But still, he writes: "could it off [sic] been popularity?" Answer: Nope.
After a bit of back and forth, the former classmate brought up his "mixed" child as a way of proving he is not racist. Unfortunately for him, a friend of his slid into my inbox with this bombshell:
Upon seeing the screen grab, BS decided that I was the one with the problem:
So being popular in high school really matters, but the things you say in middle school don't? Got it.
He's the white father of a biracial child, and maybe (hopefully?) he's changed since middle school. But why so defensive?
Another ex-classmate responded to the post with a slew of derailing arguments, from black people owning slaves, to the Irish slave trade, to faith. It's unclear how the fact that Irish people were once discriminated against is pertinent to my discussion about the high school's Confederate general mascot.
After being dissatisfied with my inability to argue about these points, this person sent me a late-night FB message:
I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. I could posit that he's making a statement about free speech, but given the nature of his comments I'm reluctant to give it that much credit.
Another person claims that we are all wrong and the Boone County High School mascot is actually based on Rebel Without A Cause, because the school was founded the same year. Except the school was founded in 1954 and the film came out a year later, in 1955. And the mascot was created by H.B. Deatherage, class of 1963. But anyway, apparently the "rebel" in question refers to the classic James Dean film:
The similarities are uncanny. 👀
(This origin tale is repeated in a post on Kentucky.com; apparently school Superintendent Randy Poe also claims the Rebels mascot was inspired by James Dean.)
One man goes on to state that "white privilege" did not exist at our school, and that bigotry was a problem, but racism wasn't. Okay?
"This doesn't mean that there is racism going. It's simply high school bigotry." What? Equating being called a "band nerd" to a system of racism that makes black people feel unsafe in an environment dripping with Antebellum imagery is probably the lowest form of comprehension.
Although the ignorant voices were loud, many more people messaged me directly and expressed gratitude that someone had finally said what they'd been thinking. Some of the people are — or were — teachers at the school. Some are former students who were there when the Confederate flag was still featured in the school logo. They all expressed the same hope I have for a better future, and acknowledged the school's past.
One person I had never met found me and expressed that her horizons had been broadened by reading about my experience:
One classmate wrote to say that looking back made her realize how easy it was to lack cultural awareness in our school, but that she's pleased to be learning from people with different backgrounds than her own:
One friend from college — who went to the rival high school in our hometown — recalled how frequently those symbols were worn and seen at her school, and the words of outspoken racists in her classes who were never corrected. Clearly, my experience was not unique.
Kentucky.com reached out to Boone County Community Relations Spokesperson Barbara Brady about my story and the current state of the school; her reply was:
"There cannot be anything in anything we do — our curriculum, our presentation and the way we represent ourselves — that can be offensive to anybody of any skin color, of any race, of any ethnicity, of any sexuality. We are completely neutral and inclusive of anything and everything."
But a personal message sent to me by an educator at the school — who's requested anonymity fearing retaliation — had a different tone:
Sadly, what you said was true. Diversity at Boone is increasing, but that doesn't mean that the issue doesn't remain (including teachers). I like Boone, but that mascot…
PS: I taught [the person who argued that the Irish were slaves too]. He graduated from Boone. I think he bolsters your point.
What's fascinating is that those in support of my article were more comfortable coming to me directly than commenting publicly on Facebook. I don't blame them; for some it's about maintaining neutrality in the face of employers and coworkers on social media. But why is it that people defending the racist flag are comfortable doing so in such a public way? I received no less than 25 private messages in agreement with my article, but maybe 5-10 very bold, extremely uninformed people drove most of the conversation on the public threads.
One day I hope we all look back and realize how absurd it is to be scared to demand equality and respect — and how unfair it is that we've had to settle for less for so long. Change is coming. Change is here.
Akilah Hughes is a comedian, YouTuber, and staff writer and producer for Fusion's culture section. You can almost always find her waxing poetic about memes and using too many emojis. 🍕