There is so much about the U.S. in the story of Kyle Kashuv.
Kashuv as a teenager has had thrust upon him a complex and accidental fame. First, he gained recognition by being among the high school student survivors of the Parkland, Florida school shooing.
Next, Kashuv filled a partisan political niche by being the face of conservative activist students after that school shooting—an event that spawned a rise in what has been characterized in the U.S. as left-wing political activism by a number of his classmates.
And now, Kashuv is the face of consequences: He was first accepted in Harvard and then that acceptance was rescinded.
Conservatives across the country have rushed to express outrage, focusing on arguments that his actions (documented and repeated racist language) occurred while he was still young; these defenses of Kashuv have often been absent the fact that colleges, and Harvard, have rescinded acceptances for similar reasons in the past (with little media fanfare) and that the nature of all college admission is judging applicants for their behavior while only in their teens.
By the logic of apologists for Kashuv, Harvard—and all colleges—are irresponsible for admitting or rejecting students for the grades they earned and the accomplishments they achieved while teenagers.
But the larger problem with how conservatives have rushed to defend Kashuv is that it is grounded in a plea for license, not freedom.
Kashuv has not been denied his freedom to express racist language and bigoted ideology; Kashuv has not been denied the opportunity to rise above these deplorable displays of calloused youthful indiscretion (if that is what it was); and Kashuv has not been denied access to a college education.
While it may seem harsh due to his age and his notoriety, Kashuv is simply experiencing consequences. To be free to speak and believe in the U.S. is not, ideally, also freedom from consequences.
As I watched this debate play out on social media, I noticed several people share that when they were teens, they knew racist language and slurs were wrong, and they refused to use them.
For me, however, I have quite a different confession—one that the following Tweeted video well documents in a context far different than my upbringing in the 1960s and 1970s in South Carolina:
Rosedale, Queens (1978). By the mid-1970s, Black middle-class families were moving into the all-white neighborhood. Tensions rose, even amongst children. Here’s a clip illustrating this tension. pic.twitter.com/u66FLwaeRo
— SOLAECLIPSE®️ (@DrinkSolaPop) June 22, 2019
These children above both knew the terror of their language and their actions, and they seem almost gleeful in the boldness of their hatred. This video in many ways feels like the evidence of Kashuv’s behavior, which he frames as “private” and “immature.”
In my home and community of Upstate South Carolina, everyone knew racial slurs and racist behavior were dehumanizing and, essentially, wrong. But whites of all social classes and statuses persisted in using the language (casually and often in whites-only situations) and held the N-word in their pockets when the moment arrived to wield it against a black person.
Except in rare circumstances, you see, there were virtually no negative consequences for our casual and aggressive racism; in fact, among whites, racial slurs and behavior gained a person status.
Whites pridefully told stories of putting black people in their places—retelling in vivid detail the exchange so that racial slurs were fore-fronted in the retelling.
When I was in my late teens, I worked as an assistant in a golf pro shop at the country club where my parents built their dream home; this was the urge of proximity my working-class parents aspired to as an unconscious rejection of being just working-class in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
The private golf club was all-white, as detailed in the by-laws, but the people living on the course and the members were mostly just the rednecks of my hometown no matter how hard they pretended to be otherwise.
One morning while I was in the pro shop, one of the grounds crew workers was milling around and decided to teach me something: “Want to know where [racial slur] come from?”
We were alone, and he was an adult. But I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear what was coming, but his question was just a formality.
He explained in detail that when Cain killed Able, and Cain was banished from the Garden, Cain mated with apes. And the result was the black race. And he had learned this himself in church. Sunday school.
He quoted scripture.
The problem with this moment in my life is that my only real response—all remaining private in my thoughts—was that I knew I wasn’t that ignorant. But thinking myself better than this man did nothing to dissuade me from my casual racism couched in my family and my community (among many whites who actually did not reject this man’s outlandish Garden of Eden version of races).
So here is my story of privilege, of the grand comfort I was allowed because I was a white young man and a good student, smart.
I attended junior college, and then I was a commuter at a satellite campus of the state university—never even considering a selective college in my home state much less something a rarified as Harvard or Duke. I was first-generation and my parents, despite their aspirations, could not have afforded more than what I did (college never cost my family more than hundreds of dollars a semester).
Here is the white male privilege part, and why I am not an apologist for Kashuv having his acceptance revoked—even as I freely admit my own behavior probably trumped his in many ways.
At junior college on a lesser level and then during my last two-and-a-half years as an undergrad, I was allowed the space to realize that an entire world and set of ideologies existed unlike my home and community—specifically that many well-educated people were actively not racist, sexist, or homophobic.
These new contexts and my journey with professors and literature (Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes) allowed me to choose to be a better person, to face my bigotry spawned by my home and community in order to be a more humane, to be fully human.
Four decades later I am deeply embarrassed by who I was for those first couple of decades of my life. In fact, I spend a good deal of my work as a teacher and writer seeking ways to confront that past by advocating for equity for all humans.
But there really is nothing I can do that pays the debt, that changes my history.
As I watch the sound and fury surrounding Kashuv, however, I can say without hesitation that he is being afforded a privilege I was not; Kashuv is being held accountable and this is happening early enough that he can right his ship if he so wishes.
He will suffer very little loss from this, but he can benefit—as white men often do—on the other side of being a truly calloused young man who is blind to his advantages.
There is far too little difference between my truly unforgivable youth and Kashuv’s more recent “private” and “immature” racism.
Neither, however, is the least bit funny, and neither is a case of how the U.S. should honor freedom.
Language and behaviors must have consequences in order to protect everyone’s humanity against the privileging of some people’s humanity.