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Being called the n* word during a ZOOM bomb

I remember the first time I was called a “nigger.”

It was a summer night, and I was downtown with two friends, Reggie and Devon. We were all college students, and we were taking a break from the study life to enjoy the city life of Nashville. 

We were talking and laughing as we typically did. Enjoying each other’s company when a school bus that been converted into a party bus drove down the street. 

We could see young White people having what appeared to be a good time. And out of the window, one of them yelled: “Niggers!”

We stopped in our tracks. Ready to fight. Ready to scream. Ready to weep. 

Although I have long forgotten their faces, their words linger in my ears. I grew up in rural Alabama where Confederate flags were as common as dandelions, but no one ever had ever called me a “nigger,” at least not to my face. 

Fast forward nearly a decade later, and I am leading a public lecture on African American poetry via ZOOM. I have shared my screen with participants, and I am about to play a video of Phylicia Rashad reading “Lift Every Voice” by James Weldon Johnson. 

I noticed a black swastika has been written her on forehead, and I almost don’t register it as real life. 

I hear the voice of my friend, Paul, commanding the behavior to stop. 

In a split second, I have lost control, and the white board feature of ZOOM is now displaying racial slurs. The one I remember clearly is: “nigger.”

Participants in the room began verbally condemning the behavior. Telling whomever it was that their behavior was not okay and they needed to stop. 

Then we heard voices – and it sounded like young voices, teenaged voices – who began to provoke, pester and mock the group. I use ZOOM for work. so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the platform. I calmly, but desperately tried, to find out how to take back control and kick out the participants who spewing racist and anti-Semantic speech.  

Unfortunately, the intruders had hacked into the space and taken over hosting control. They gave themselves fake names. One even used my name. I am not sure how long the ordeal lasted, but we eventually had to end the meeting and try again. 

The event’s organizer was able to create a new ZOOM link and send it to those who had registered. But nearly 25% of the program time had been lost due to the disruption. Thankfully, the legitimate participants returned, and we were able to continue with the program. 

As the events unfolded, I was not completely shocked and surprised about the racial slurs. But, I was shocked at how I was unable to stop or mitigate the situation. 

As a Black American, I know the reality of racism and prejudice. It is not something that is confined to history books and black and white films. It’s my lived, everyday experience, even today.

I want to take this space not to address cyber security of online programs. I don’t cast blame on the event organizers, and I have intentionally not mentioned their name. I’m writing this because I want to address two points. 

First, the power of the bystander. 

While I was trying to figure out how to stop the hackers from sharing their annotation board and making rude verbal comments, I could hear many of the participants vocally say that the behavior was not ok. They addressed the hackers and told them they needed to leave. 

To the participants, I want to say “thank you.” Thank you for using your voice to say hate speech is not tolerated. Thank you for not being silent and for not excusing racist behavior. Thank you for requesting that the organizer report the incident to the police and seek to find the perpetuators. 

It is encouraging to see people – of all shades – stand up and speak out against injustices. If we are going to be a better nation, it will take all of us participating. 

Yesterday, I witnessed a group of individuals who refused to be passive or silent bystanders. They used their voice to stop hate and foolishness.

To the event organizers, I want to say “thank you.” You, as well, condemned the behavior and took the steps within your means to report and address it. You also apologized profusely.

Yes, we all should speak up when injustice occurs in front us, but the truth we – as a society – don’t always do that, especially when we are not the target. When people use their voice for good, I think it’s important to acknowledge that. It’s also a reminder to me, as a Black woman, that there are people of all hues striving to end racial oppression in this country. 

The second point that I want to address relates to the hackers. From their voices and one even turned on her camera, it was clear that these were a group of teenagers and that this was a coordinated effort.

We – as a society – have often believed that false narrative that all racists are old people who lived in a different time. However, yesterday’s hackers clearly revealed that not all racists are AARP card carriers. Some of them have pimples and are planning for prom.

It’s time to deconstruct this false narrative that only old people are racists. The fact is no one wakes up a racist. You are groomed, trained and taught to be one. Unfortunately, these young people are being trained by their families and/or the company they keep to be racists. Although we don’t always like to use that term, I don’t know what else you call it, when people write racial slurs.

Secondly, these same young people sit or will sit in college classrooms.

I am a college professor. And, from the first class I taught until the current ones I teach now, race has always been a thorn in my side. It seeks to stifle and silence me. It rears its head when I return essays with grades less than an A. It appears in glances that question my age and my credentials. It’s reflected in low markings on student evaluations. It’s backed by decades of research. 

Yet, in higher education, we are unable to address the baby – yet huge – elephant in the room. We have racists sitting in our classrooms. We have students with prejudices. We enroll students with bias. And not all of these students are hiding behind white sheets and black screens. 

I think it’s time for us to have a conversation about young racists.

Although, I have seen it clearly when I have taught at private universities, even Christian ones, and I see it teaching at a community college. Not everyone can see it. 

And because it’s mostly invisible, it remains addressed. 

We know how to address outright racism, but we don’t know how to address covert racism masked in innuendos and grinning faces. We have no real accountability measures for students and certainly not safety measures for Black professors. 

I think it’s time to have a conversation about racists in the classroom seats. I think it’s time for us to take action to make classrooms a safe place for Black professors. 

Yesterday’s events showed me what I already knew: racism is alive and well. And it’s bold. Although it hides behind fake names and black screens, it’s still there. It has traded its neighborhood improvement associations and secret societies for political office and college applications. 

4 thoughts on “Being called the n* word during a ZOOM bomb”

  1. This was an amazing post. I love how you revealed that racist behavior is not limited to older people from times most notable for racism but that it exists among our young, school age children. Sadly, even elementary school children are jumping on the bandwagon due to the level of access they now have to the internet and social media platforms. I am sorry you had to experience those things but I admire how you used your experiences as an opportunity to create a discussion around an otherwise ignored or understated issue. Great read!

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  2. I am so sorry this happened to you and I am glad there were voices raised in support during and after the incident – too often bystanders remain passive and quiet when these things happen. We need an overhaul of the tenure and evaluation process for faculty so that institutions can stand together in support for Black faculty – there are too many horror stories about both covert and, sadly, explicit racism in the process. We need to hold everyone – students, faculty, staff, and administrators – accountable for racist behavior in the hallways, classrooms, and offices (live or virtual).

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  3. Well written–as a former teacher of high school, I too notice that this is usually the work of teens. The Frederick Douglass reading went fine (the one for which you provided a recording), but a Startled by Nature book launch poetry reading the night before was bombed by young people. My teacher mode clicked in as did others who called them out as inappropriate, and the host to the best of her ability eventually kicked them all out. We were shaken by the swearing and use of racial slurs. This is all done under the disguise of dark boxes with likely fake names or pseudonyms like the one who appropriated your name. Can’t wait for live readings again after hearing about these bombs on the internet. Donna Isaac

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