Racist video, revenge and shattered lives: a textbook case of “cancel culture” in an American high school

The New York Times has returned in recent days to the sad case that rocked an American high school in the summer of 2020. A teenage girl saw her future education upset by the exhumation of a video in which she uttered a racist term. The high school student who denounced her is now himself the target of harassment. While these two young people suffer online wrath, the failing institutions have not reacted.

Jimmy Galligan and Mimi Groves are two American teenagers whose lives changed in 2020, the year they turned 18. Until a few months ago, the two were classmates at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Virginia. He is mixed-race – white father, African-American mother – she is white. Their last year at this school before they began their higher education was marked successively by the covid-19 pandemic and then by the nationwide rise of the anti-racist Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the death, at the end of May, of George Floyd, an African American killed by the police.

In June, Mimi Groves was at the center of a social media storm, fomented by Jimmy Galligan. The latter had saved a semi-private video of Mimi Groves, a copy of which he had received a few months earlier. In this three-second Snapchat message, sent several years earlier to an acquaintance, 15 year-old Mimi Groves was filming herself behind the wheel of a car. To announce to a limited audience that she had obtained her driving license, she blurted out: “I can drive, niggers!”. While the racist nature of the “N-word” is indisputable when uttered by a white person, it is not used here to insult anyone, but as a vulgar punctuation for a statement of self-celebration. “She fucked up. But she was 15 and was imitating a style in which it means roughly ‘dude’ or ‘motherfucker,’ as is evident from the context,” said journalist Jesse Singal.

12 years of work reduced to nothing

Neither the student’s age nor the context of the pronunciation of the “N-word” changed anything: once published by Jimmy Galligan, the short video went viral and in a few days turned Mimi Groves’ life upside down, accused of being racist when she had just publicly supported the BLM movement. Under insults and threats, she was quickly forced to withdraw her application to the University of Tennessee, which had just accepted her for the following year.

For her mother, these are twelve years of work which “vanished” in a few days. This textbook case of cancel culture in schools, far from being an isolated U.S incident, where the number of informant Instagram accounts has multiplied this year in the wake of BLM, has been recounted in detail recently by the New York Times. Galligan and Groves agreed to answer questions from journalist Dan Levin – however, the educational institutions involved did not comment.

Entitled A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning (it should be noted that “reckoning” has a religious connotation, as in “day of reckoning” meaning “day of the Last Judgment”) – this article has been criticised by many American conservatives as a glorification of whistle-blowing and harassment. This analysis is difficult to justify on reading the nuanced article, which does not minimise the disproportionate consequences suffered by Mimi Groves, and which paints a less than flattering picture of Galligan. The comments made by the “vigilante” high school student in the article have, moreover, caused him a wave of online insults and threats since its publication.

“I wanted to get her where she would understand the severity of that word,” says Galligan, devoid of any remorse about his premeditated act. The teenager admits that he waited until Mimi Groves was accepted into a university to release his old, compromising video. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he adds with “satisfaction” (the words are from the New York Times, which thus concludes the article), then declares: “I’m going to remind myself, you started something. You taught someone a lesson”. These quotes led to Galligan being called a “psychopath” and then having his YouTube and Instagram accounts thrown out and inundated with derogatory remarks. His latest YouTube video, released on 29 November, is a school work report that now garners 25,000 views, with an overwhelming majority of negative reactions; among the most liked comments is this one: “As an African man, what you did to that girl disgusts me”.

Teens pay for adults

This sad affair cannot be summed up as a case of tables being turned against a background of base Manichaeism. While it is easy to caricature Gilligan as a shamelessly vindictive manipulator, the fact remains that this teenager witnessed racist comments within his high school that went unpunished, according to him, even when reported to the school authorities. “It has been fascinating to see how many people are (rightfully) concerned by the consequences this girl faced for saying the N-word while being absolutely silent on the toxic racial culture Black kids express repeatedly in this article. That’s why this kid DID this in 1st place!”, writes Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times civil rights reporter.

A position that is more or less in line with that of Glenn Greenwald, political journalist and ex-The Intercept :

“If empathy is due the girl on the ground she was a teenager whose life shouldn’t be damaged – a view I fully share – the same empathy is due to the boy who posted the video, especially given his frustrations. The villains are the adult institutions too cowardly to reject this”.

The New York Times article also mentions examples of racist incidents at Heritage High School, attended by the two ex-high school students, as well as at the University of Tennesse where Mimi Groves was to join. Between the lines, the article suggests that the teenage girl acted as a scapegoat, in terms of communication, to absolve two institutions far from being irreproachable in the matter (this is often the case with cases of this genre).

Jill Filipovic, an American lawyer and feminist author, also avoids limiting herself to the individual responsibilities of the two teenagers (racial insensitivity for one, vindictive denunciation for the other) by focusing her criticism on failing institutions, in a long thread on Twitter:

“We are saddling children with the consequences of decades of adult failures, and then calling sporadic excessive punishment “progress”. Adults fail to integrate public schools. They fail to proportionately and fairly address racism when they see children engage in it. They fail to adequately educate their student body on American history. They fail to consistently protect kids of color from racism”.

She adds:

“The most frustrating part of these conversations is that there seems to be little interest in talking about proportionality. You’re either ‘canceling’ someone or you’re ‘giving them a pass’. Might be more productive to consider what fair, proportionate consequences would be”.

The ambivalence of the “N-word”

Beyond the risks associated with social networks (Snapchat has long been presented as a service that guarantees its young users temporary publications, therefore unlikely to cause them harm years later), some observers question the cultural ambivalence linked to the problematic terms which systematically lead to excommunication and public humiliation. Mimi Groves told the New York Times that the “N-word”, which also abounds in the dialogues of Quentin Tarantino’s films, was in “all the songs we listened to, and I don’t use that as an excuse”. For example, in 2017 – the year her problematic Snapchat is supposed to have been sent – Kendrick Lamar’s Humble was the hit song that was playing in a loop in the playlists: it contains five occurrences of the word “nigga” in its lyrics.

In 2020, the “N-word” became such an issue in the crystallisation of the evils of the time that it was at the centre of several controversies. We recently told you this gruesome story of a teacher in California who had been withdrawn from his management course after pronouncing a Chinese word whose pronunciation resembled the “N-word”. And last October, it was Verushka Lieutenant-Duval, professor of history and art theory at the University of Ottawa, who found herself in the midst of the turmoil – in a case that set the whole country ablaze – for having pronounced the “N-word” in her class to illustrate the concept of subversive resignification (the principle of reappropriation of an insult by a community which was its target).

Chloe Valdary, an African-American activist and founder of an anti-racist training programme – thus she will not be suspected of being a supporter of white supremacism – reacted to the Galligan/Groves affair on Twitter by pointing out the cultural paradox around the word that derailed Mimi Groves’ life:

I don’t use the N-word out of respect for my elders. But the hip hop community brilliantly reappropriated it by turning it into a euphemism for ‘man’. You can’t exude the coolness of an art form & then act all surprised when people who don’t look like you want to be part of it. I have no problem with white people saying it within that specific context even if it makes me uncomfortable; and the idea that a term that was used to call a human being less than has been turned into a euphemism for ‘human being’ is spell binding”.

A few months after the incident, which was not widely reported in the media, Jimmy Galligan and Mimi Groves have now acquired a reputation that is as important as it is lasting.

The New York Times article, whose URL for the online version contains the names of the two young ex-high school students, engraves their names in stone, forever associated with this affair mixing casual teenage racism and vendetta with disproportionate consequences. Since the beginning of last fall’s semester, Galligan has been a student at Vanguard University of Southern California, a Christian and private institution. Groves, meanwhile, takes online courses at a community college in her region. According to the American newspaper, “although they had a friendly relationship before in high school, they never spoke about the video or its consequences”.

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