On Saturday night, 18-year-old Karlie Hay was crowned Miss Teen USA. By midnight, the internet had unearthed 3-year-old tweets where Hay throws around the N-word like confetti. To the surprise of no one, the internet was outraged.
By Sunday morning, Hay had issued her formal "apology" on Twitter (although it should be noted that not once did she use the words "sorry" or "apologize"), using multiple tweets from her previous Miss Texas Teen USA account to share, “Several years ago, I had many personal struggles and found myself in a place that is not representative of who I am as a person. I admit that I have used language publicly in the past which I am not proud of and that there is no excuse for. Through hard work, education and, thanks in large part to the sisterhood that I have come to know through pageants, I am proud to say that I am today a better person. I am honored to hold this title, and I will use this platform to promote the values of the Miss Universe Organization, and my own, that recognize the confidence, beauty and perseverance of all women.”
On Sunday, the Miss Universe Organization formally announced that Hay would keep her crown and that they were supportive of her “continued growth.”
Let me be clear: The Miss Universe Organization should have removed Hay from her newly appointed position as Miss Teen USA. Immediately. There shouldn’t have been hesitation. In an era where pageantry is continually fighting to assert its relevance, crowning and then embracing a national level titleholder who is not sensitive to our nation’s charged racial climate is brand suicide. After all, how can an organization claim to be “built on a foundation of inclusion” and “celebrate diversity” if its national level spokesperson has no real understanding of the implication that her repeated and excessive use of the N-word has on the women she is meant to empower?
Hay waited until there was a chance that she would lose her crown before finding it important enough to remove those tweets from her account. If she had truly grown, if she had truly learned, those tweets would have been deleted long before they were used to “out” her in the Twittersphere. She is incredibly privileged.
And, at the same time, she is just like many other kids her age, and their generational misunderstanding of social media and its implications poses major concerns.
As a middle school technology education teacher and a college social media education facilitator, I find the latter is true. My middle schoolers see me as “cool” and loop me into their social media lives and concerns while many college-aged students keep their accounts public for Insta-popularity, which has allowed me a more in-depth look at what pre-adult social media looks like these days.
Today’s kids are both incredibly social media savvy and totally and completely ignorant at the same time. Because they’ve grown up in an era where a large majority of their social lives exist solely on the internet, it is difficult for them to not share every little detail through the medium while also inflating who they are for popularity. What’s scary is that when they are younger, they lack the ability to understand the long-term implications of their social media presence and the clear judgment to discern how their words can impact others, especially in the larger scheme of things.
The negative impact of kids’ social media use has been studied, of course, and statistics tell part of the story. Over 40 percent of kids and teens report being bullied online (i-SAFE Foundation), and we all know being popular on social accounts is very important to kids. But the full story is found in the personal stories of our kids — in fights that carry from Instagram to the classroom, in the story of Nicole Lovell, a young girl abducted and murdered in Blacksburg, Virginia, following her connecting with college students through KIK, and in the current Miss Teen USA’s repeated use of the N-word to appear cooler to her friends.
The Miss Universe Organization missed a major opportunity to do the right thing by aligning themselves with their reported organizational values and not tolerating the use of racial slurs. More importantly, Hay could have been a concrete example to our kids, teaching them that their online presence has consequences — that what they post on a picture or say in 143 characters isn’t just the online version of themselves; it is who they are.
So what can we do? Parents, please follow your kids online. Even if they think you’re lame. If they are under 18, it should be a prerequisite for them getting the account they want. Have meaningful conversations when they post something that doesn’t align with who they are or what they value. Talk to them about the consequences of what they post. Encourage them to talk to their peers about cyberbullying. Discuss why it’s never appropriate to use the N-word, especially on their public accounts so that they can look cool. Tell them the story of Nicole Lovell.
Although Miss Teen USA is allowed to keep her crown, her tweets will follow her for the rest of her life. They will be read by college admissions counselors, employers, future friends and suitors, and they will be part of her story forever. But perhaps we can learn something from her too.
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