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Finding Bigotry in the Mirror

Recent expressions of hate speech may be protected as ‘free speech’ but what does it reveal about our community?

Is it okay to allow a high school student to wear a T-shirt to school with a blatant anti-gay message?

Should a Twitter account with hate speech about Jews, African Americans, Latinos and others be shut down?

The speech, prejudices and beliefs are out there, but we as human beings and as a community need to decide whether we will allow them to thrive unchallenged in our midst.

Both of the incidents I referred to above happened in our region very recently. 

On April 20, when Wolcott High School junior Seth Groody wore a T-shirt depicting a rainbow symbolic of gay rights on the front with a slash over it, he was doing so in protest of the day being designated “Day of Silence” — part of the national movement to raise awareness of bullying and harassment of gays and lesbians. His shirt also pictured female and male stick figures holding hands on the back, under the phrase, “Excessive Speech Day.”

Last week, a Twitter account presumably written by one or several students at Wilton High School was found to be — purporting to describe what life in Wilton is like. Written under the account @YouLiveInWilton, some recent tweets include the following gems:

“F*ck Darien. Since they don't allow Jews to live in their town, they dump them on our land!”

"#IWillNeverUnderstandWhy people think we're racist? We love black people... Everyone should own one."

Of course these aren’t the first incidences of racism and prejudice, and they certainly won’t be the last.

Just this year, there have been more times where racism and bias made the headlines. In January, East Haven for saying the way he’d support Latinos in his town would be by “hav[ing] tacos when I go home.” And Darien resident as well as assault and larceny after an altercation with a cab driver, during which he allegedly made some bigoted statements.

Indeed, prejudice seems to be alive and well here in Connecticut.

I’m less interested in the punishment or the consequence for perpetrators of isolated, single incidents. What is more important to me is the response from the community as a whole to incidences like the ones I’ve described.

Is there an effort to dismiss, minimize or ignore the offensive material? When I wrote about the Wilton Life Twitter account, some people suggested that the comments were really satirical. Perhaps I wasn’t clever enough to get the joke?

“Under any circumstance, language like that and statements of that nature are not funny. They’re hurtful to people and they cause problems in the community,” emphasized Gary Jones, the CT Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).  “Most people who have no intention of [being] bigoted and demeaning certainly understand that. Our leaders need to reinforce that principle so that there can be no confusion.”

Some people suggested that when residents read the news about the hate speech, people might not care. Perhaps they’d chalk it up to a “kids-will-be-kids” kind of behavior. But Jones also said to dismiss such language is also dangerous.

“Ignoring hate speech or people or incidents, is rarely a good thing. Because it sets a tone of acceptance for inappropriate behavior, it may make it more likely to be copied.”

Curiously, in the Wolcott case of the student wearing a T-shirt expressing his anti-gay sentiment, Groody found himself with an unusual defender — the ACLU. Defending the teen’s First Amendment rights, Sandra Staub, the director of the ACLU of CT, told the Hartford Courant, “The ACLU has fought hard for same-sex marriage and we couldn’t agree with Seth less on that issue, but he is absolutely correct about his right to express his opinion.”

There needs to be a distinction made between free-speech and appropriate speech — what is going to better our community, and what needs to be defended against tearing it down. My hope is that while the ACLU was absolutely correct in defining Groody’s right to spew his hate, there were more people that stood up to say, “We repudiate it.”

To think of it another way, how would the community have reacted if the shirt had been expressing anti-African American or anti-Latino language? In truth, when one segment of our community is attacked, it’s really an attack on the community as a whole.

It’s in the response by the community to stand up for the subject of such outward bigotry that paints a true picture of the community as a whole. “One of the things that haters like to do is to make the people who are their targets feel small and alone. That’s a very powerful weapon they have if they are successful. But there’s an equally powerful weapon that the good people in the community have, and that is to stand with the people who are the victims, and make it clear that the victims are not isolated and alone, they have the support of the entire community. Rather, it’s the haters and the bigots who are isolated and alone and who have no support,” said the ADL’s Jones.

Racism and bigotry does leave you feeling isolated and alone — it’s divisive and poisonous and is designed to keep us separate. I find it sadly ironic that this week marks the death of Rodney King, who involuntarily became a symbol for racial bias and hate after the 1992 Los Angeles riots started, spurred by the acquittal of police officers whose beating of King was caught on videotape. While you may not have agreed with some of the missteps King took in the 20 years since, there’s something to be said for the sentiments he expressed the day after the riots began:

“Can’t we all just get along?”

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