Who could have predicted that the 2019 equivalent of The Dress meme would be a conservative high school shooting survivor’s college admission being rescinded over racist comments? Not I. Maybe not you. And yet, here we are.
The Internet is up in arms either in defense of or in condemnation of 18-year-old Kyle Kashuv following a string of tweets he shared Monday detailing the events that led him to now: a high-achieving high school grad whose admission to Harvard was rescinded over his use of the N-word and anti-Semitic sentiments he expressed two years ago, at the age of 16. Kashuv’s tale is further complicated by the fact that the high school he graduated from was Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the very same school where 17 students and staff members were killed in a school shooting back in February 2018.
In fact, Kashuv wrote about the shooting and how it impacted his world view as part of his college admission essay to Harvard; he described hiding in a classroom closet while the shooter made his way around the school, and how he learned about the deaths of his classmates one by one. Kashuv emerged from the traumatic experience an advocate, but one who, unlike many of his more celebrated classmates, actually opposed gun control.
“While I support a conservative viewpoint on the Second Amendment, I know that finding common ground is the path to protecting our students,” he wrote in his essay. “I still believe that from the pits of despair, goodness can and will prevail.” Despite his bipartisan verbiage, however, conservatives were quick to claim him as their own, which is important to note because of how his college admission—and subsequent rescission—has played out in the media, and perhaps more importantly these days, on social media.
Kashuv’s troubles began in May, when a former classmate, Ariana Ali, posted screenshots of Kashuv unabashedly using racial slurs in a shared Google Doc and in texts with friends. Kashuv tried to get ahead of the inevitable backlash by issuing a statement that called his use of the slurs “callous and inflammatory,” explaining that he and his former friends were attempting to be “as extreme and shocking as possible.” Still, Harvard kicked an investigation into gear, insisting that Kashuv submit a written explanation to them within 72 hours for consideration, given that his unsavory past behavior caused them to question his “honesty, maturity, [and] moral character.”
He submitted his response letter and the requested documents, and even reached out to the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, but to no avail. On June 3, Harvard rescinded his acceptance. He tweeted about how he believes that “institutions and people can grow,” but that Harvard’s decision to, in his eyes, give up on him, was sending the message that he would not, and could not, change.
Here’s where his argument becomes an identity politics litmus test. Yes, people should be allowed to change and learn from their past mistakes. This seems to be a universally accepted fact: things change, people change—ideally, societal structures change (slowly). This is what we call progress. But what Kashuv and his supporters seem to be implying is that since he has become a “changed” person following the Parkland shootings, he can completely disassociate from the person he was previously, a teen who used the N-word for shits and giggles, and therefore not have to suffer any sort of consequence.
By this logic, however, sexual predators like Weinstein, who’ve spent decades abusing their power for their own sexual and egotistical satisfaction, can in theory be “changed” by a life-altering event (a medical emergency, an eye-opening conversation, a lawsuit) and thereby not have to face any sort of repercussion for their past actions. “This isn’t … who I am,” Kashuv told Vox in a recent interview. Cool. But our actions are indicative of our ways of thinking, even if those ways of thinking aren’t malicious (what high schooler hasn’t tried to impress their peers by saying shocking things?) — and the only way we can begin to actually fix the problematic institutions that result in these ways of thinking is by taking ownership of our missteps and wrongdoings.
It may seem extreme to compare a 16-year-old’s use of the N-word in a private Google Doc to the widespread predatory behavior of a media mogul, but the parallels are definitely there. Passage and accountability are two intangibles that we teach our children from an early age, and the fact that Kashuv felt bold enough to question Harvard’s decision is indicative of both our success and failure as a society to instill a sense of righteousness in our youth that, if wielded carelessly, could lead to unchecked behavior. In other words: individuals who abuse their power or privilege because they are conditioned to believe that they can say they’re “changed” without doing any of the hard work, and be granted a clean slate.
Also, critics who question the “oppressive” nature of Harvard’s decision and worry about the precedent it sets for high school teens who fuck up (and again, who doesn’t?) are slightly missing the point. It is one thing to do or say something harmful that in hindsight, is understood to be wrong; it is another thing entirely to recognize the “extreme and shocking” nature of what’s being said in the moment and then later having apologize for it because digital evidence of those slurs are hindering one’s chances to attend an elite institution. The conversation that we should be having is not whether or not it’s possible to raise perfectly PC kids (the definition of what’s PC and what’s not changes, too), but how they learn to take actual responsibility for their words and actions. Kids and teens should be allowed to fail, yes; the question is: what does learning from their mistakes look like?
Kashuv’s political leanings matter because they’ve divided pundits and armchair pundits alike, many of whom view his situation—and Harvard’s decision not to offer Kashuv a seat at its elite table—in totally different ways, a la the #BlackAndBlue or #WhiteAndGold dress. Specifically, in ways that are much larger than whether or not a teen’s obnoxious, attention-seeking (and yes, definitely racist) words should follow him throughout his academic and professional career. Real progress, after all, is marked not by what happens to a person, but how that person deals with the circumstances; Kashuv will most likely be fine no matter where he ends up. At 18, he’s already met with the President of the United States and is politically active and engaged. He’s got an influential platform and decades ahead of him to keep learning and changing and growing.
In the end, not being allowed to attend Harvard may turn out to be the best education he never knew he needed.