Bursting the Bexley bubble: A series of racist online attacks spur conversation, reflection
One evening in mid-June, Michael was hanging out in his basement and talking with friends on Snapchat — a regular occurrence in this era of social distancing — when he was added to a group on the social media app that immediately raised suspicions: The George Floyd Brotherhood, its name taken from the Black man killed at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.
These initial concerns deepened once Michael (not his real name) realized the identities of the half-dozen other boys in the chat group, some of whom he said had regularly taunted him with racist slurs beginning in seventh grade at Bexley Middle School, where he said he was one of fewer than a dozen African American students.
“I knew some of these kids from past experiences … and just being mean to other races and genders, so it was like, ‘OK, here we go. Let’s see what this bullcrap is about,’” said Michael, who has lived in Bexley all but the first 18 months of his life and is now enrolled at Bexley High School. “So they go on and start asking these questions, like, ‘How have you been?’ and trying to catch up with me … which was kind of unusual, because I don’t see them as people who would engage me in actual conversation. And then right after that they started asking me, ‘Yo, is it cool if we use the N-word?’ … And I didn’t say anything, and I put my phone down and just went on watching a movie, not looking at my phone because I knew they were going to keep asking me and asking me. About an hour later, I picked up my phone and they were still talking, and this one kid goes, ‘Listen up here, you N-word, I need you to pick up the phone.’ And immediately there I left the group, because I didn’t know how to react. … I was just ignoring it, almost like it was a bad dream.”
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Prior to exiting the group, however, Michael captured a screenshot of the exchange, which he then posted on his personal Snapchat, and which was immediately shared and commented on by scores of friends and fellow classmates. He would also soon learn that he wasn’t the only student singled out for bullying by the group, composed of six friends from Bexley High School and Columbus Academy in Gahanna, who would invite individuals into the chat and then harrass them with racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, casually describing women as sluts and making cracks about hanging Black classmates, according to three people interviewed. (Columbus Academy declined comment on the incident, and administrators with Bexley schools did not reply to multiple interview requests;Alive has chosen not to name the students involved due to their status as minors, as well as the fact that no criminal charges have been filed.)
Andrea Boxill, a Black mother of two in the Bexley school system, one of whom was similarly targeted, first learned of the abuse a couple of weeks ago following a family screening of the 2019 film “Just Mercy,” a true story focused on inequalities within the criminal justice system. “Afterwards my youngest … says, ‘I have to tell you about something at school,’” Boxill said. “And she told me about the George Floyd Brotherhood, and at first I was baffled, because the name suggests that there’s something good with this, a collective thought and pact using this man’s name, and when [my child] told me what it really was, I’m telling you, my mouth was wide open, and I didn’t know how to respond. … And the more she told me, the more red her face got, and the more her voice cracked.”
When Boxill later learned the names of the students involved in the harassment, her anger boiled over. “I’m like, ‘So-and-so’s kid? No. They’ve got a Black Lives Matter sign in the yard. Who else? No, no, no. They’re part of the Bexley diversity group,’” she said. “So at 51 years old I realized, Jesus, Andrea, did you stop growing? Did you stop evolving? You need to acknowledge that sometimes what you see on the outside of a home isn’t necessarily what you see on the inside of a home. … But it pissed me off so bad, the hypocrisy.”
Boxill is not naive. Despite Bexley’s outwardly progressive leanings — walking the well-manicured streets in recent weeks, which this writer does regularly as a resident, every fourth or fifth house seems to have a Black Lives Matter sign prominently displayed — Boxill said she and her family have experienced racism in forms both obvious (a 2010 incident in which a niece was referred to by a Hebrew slur for Black people) and subtle while living in the suburban city.
Boxill recalled the time she visited a neighbor’s house and a woman remarked that she didn’t see race or color. “And I said, ‘Well, that’s a luxury. … A person in a position of power never has to see where another person is coming from,’” Boxill said. “When you say you don’t acknowledge my race, my color, it says you don’t acknowledge my history, my struggles, my successes. It says you simply don’t acknowledge me.”
Kaia Woodford, born and raised in Bexley, described a similar history of microaggressions, which levied a more gradual toll, making her feel at times as though she were somehow not a full part of the community that has in many ways shaped her (“Iam Bexley,” Woodford said at one point in our conversation). Most recently, Woodford said she was seated in her parked car near a friend’s house on North Merkle Road when two older white women approached her vehicle.
“I’m minding my own business. I’m in my car, inmy city, and they have the nerve to approach me and ask if I’m lost, because they live around here and they know everybody who lives here, implying that I didn’t,” said Woodford, 18, who recently founded the Bexley Anti-Racism Project in response to the death of George Floyd, but also due to a lifetime of lived experience in the tight-knit East Side community. “I should have told them that I know exactly where I am, and I live right down the street, thank you very much. … Those are the types of microaggressions that we still see, and even just talking about it infuriates me, because they’re perpetuating an issue and they don’t even know it.”
These collective interactions can have a numbing effect. When classmates at Bexley Middle School started to use racist slurs in seventh grade, Michael said he responded by retreating inside of himself. “It was almost like I had to have this poker face, where people used to know me as this super-energetic kid who had lots of fun,” he said. “And I started to get more down, and at home I’d just be super sad, and if I tried to talk to anyone they’d be like, ‘Oh, he’s just one of those feeling types.’ But I was super doubtful, in a way. I was doubting myself and worrying about what decisions I could have made to change the situation.”
“The bottom line is that I’ve been called a nigger, so I know how lonely you become,” Boxill said. “It’s a trauma. It’s like being beat up. And you don’t want to let your family know, because you think there’s some weakness in it, or I didn’t hold my own, or I didn’t represent. The other part of the African American community is to have this pride in who you are and your history, and that one word can break you and break your history.”
Josh Hara heard about the George Floyd Brotherhood posts from his son shortly after screen shots of the group started circulating on social media, which has led to an ongoing series of painful conversations. Hara’s son was among the six engaged in the bullying.
“We were devastated, of course, because this is not who we are as a family,” said Hara, seated next to his son for an early July interview. “But it’s not even really about our own devastation. I think more than anything it was hard to know the pain that he inflicted. ... We just never in a million years thought this would be a place where we would be, and I think that’s honestly part of the problem. Maybe we could have protected him and prevented this had we imagined it and thought about it and known that toxic language and toxic masculinity is [present] among young white boys everywhere. … It’s such a dangerous thing for all of these kids to play with and not take seriously. … And when you start to victimize other people and bully other people and make other people feel less than, that’s inexcusable. And that’s when that forgiveness isn’t asked for, it needs to be earned. You need to show growth.”
Hara’s son said the now-deleted group started about a month ago as a casual Xbox gamer chat between the friends, morphing into an abusive entity a week or two later that initially targeted students who posted in support of causes like Black Lives Matter on social media. He couldn’t pinpoint how or why the transformation happened, and he was still struggling to figure out why he participated in the bullying. When the family’s attorney, Sam Shamansky, who sat in on the interview, suggested that peer pressure might have played a role, Hara’s son replied that it hadn’t, saying, “If I’m being honest, it didn’t.” Hara’s son later added that part of what he hoped to explore in therapy, which his parents enrolled him in following recent events, was the thought process that led to his behavior. “I’m going to talk to my therapist to figure out what went through my head to make me think that was OK, because I don’t know. I honestly couldn’t tell you why I did it.” Regardless, he said that he accepts the consequences of his decisions and plans to educate himself on subjects like systemic racism.
Josh Hara said he and his wife have undergone a similar self-examination in recent weeks. “[My wife] and I have lived a life of being vocal about diversity. I illustrated a book about diversity and inclusion … and you think all of this stuff is just going to roll downhill and your kids will be fine and that you’ll never be in this situation,” he said. “But you can’t take into account what they hear, what they see, what behavior they’re exposed to that normalizes something painful and toxic. That’s our message: Keep your eyes open and don’t take anything for granted.”
News of the Snapchat group has been similarly eye-opening within Bexley, igniting multiple discussion threads on neighborhood social media forums, in which Josh Hara posted an early public apology. One mother, Sarah Okoon, who has lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, said a series of incidents, including this most recent one, were a major factor in the family’s decision to withdraw their children from the city’s school system. “Nobody wants to believe there’s inequality in Bexley because everyone is rich and white,” said Okoon, who is white. “But we’re not rich. … Not everyone is that stereotypical family, and I think that gets missed.”
Other families remain unbowed. “When things like this happen, it almost makes you want to dig your heels in more … and say, ‘Regardless of what you do, we deserve to be here and we’re going to be here,’” Michael’s mom said. “I think the climate of things has tilted, and I think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes who thought Bexley was so liberal and open-minded to the fact that maybe we’re not as open-minded and supportive as we think we are. … I’ve always told [Michael] what happens in the dark always comes to light. It will always come out. And once it’s out, there you have a responsibility to help with the change. And it’s out there now.”
Regardless, nearly everyone interviewed expressed a similar belief that the situation could potentially be a catalyst for positive change within a community they said needs to take a harder look at issues of race. This is particularly true in regards to policing — Bexley isnearly 88 percent white and 6 percent Black, yet Black people make up 58 percent of traffic citations issued in the city, according to police data compiled by the Bexley Anti-Racism Project — but also within the Bexley school system, where those interviewed said staff members are overwhelmingly white.
Josh Hara’s son couldn’t recall having a single Black teacher in the years he attended Bexley schools from kindergarten through sixth grade. Michael said he has only had a couple of Black teachers, including Heath Goolsby, whom the youngster described in fatherly terms. “If I ever felt uncomfortable, I could pop in and talk to him,” he said, “and it made me feel a lot better because I was talking to someone who probably went through some of the same things as me.”
“You don’t have teachers who look like you, and you’re not being taught your history, because you have to elect to take African American History,” said recent Bexley High School graduate Kaia Woodford, who said she was often the only Black student in her AP courses, in addition to being the only Black staffer on a masthead of 51 students writing forThe Torch, the Bexley High School student newspaper. “We have AP United States History, and they don’t say it’s white, but it is by default.”
Those interviewed said these difficult last few weeks could have a transformative effect. Michael, for one, said that in calling out his classmates’ behaviors he had reclaimed the power robbed of him by the years of bullying, and that he now felt as comfortable in his skin as he had since the sixth grade. There’s also a hope that change could extend to the Bexley community as a whole.
“There’s that elusive ‘Bexley bubble’ that everyone talks about, which is bullshit,” Boxill said, referencing the fairy tale idea that the problems of the outside world can’t penetrate the pristinely manicured suburban community. “Well, guess what? It got popped. And that is what needed to happen for people ... to finally say, ‘You know what? This is refreshing. I get to hear your story and you get to hear mine, and now we can truly connect. Now youhear me. Now yousee me.’”