Leo hung out with Adolf Htlr in the lobby of his Roblox game. When he told me this, I was uncharacteristically quiet for a minute.
“What?” was my eventual nuanced response.
“Yeah. I told him I was offended by his user name and he asked if I was a Jew. Then I said yes and also said that I thought other people would be offended. So then he said 'burn all Jews' and someone else joined in talking about the gas chambers.” He is telling me this in a matter-of-fact tone. Next to him Oliver is nodding his blond head in support.
“It was horrible,” Oliver adds.
Leo continued, “I asked him to go to another lobby and when he wouldn’t, I took a screen shot of our conversation and then I left.”
This sounded like a good start to me.
“Then I reported his user name to Roblox, but I didn’t get a screen shot of the part when they were talking about the gas chambers.”
So there it was. Threatening hate speech targeted at my kid and, possibly worse, a second voice chiming in support for Adolf Htlr.
We're looking at each other across the table. My boys are calm. I think that my ten-year-old has handled it well. He stood up for himself. When that didn’t work he documented the problem, went to an authority figure (the game moderator), and then left the area. The only thing I wish he'd done differently was talk to me in real time about what was going on. He agrees to do this in the future and turns back to his plate as if things are all tidied up.
I realize that Leo isn’t taking this any more personally than if someone told him his voice sounded like a baby's. This accusation occurs 20 times to every one time he is told he should die because of his religion. It seems time to review the difference between bigotry and trolling. Together we sit down and I watch him compose a second letter to the moderators of Roblox.
Dear Roblox, I am a ten-year-old boy who happens to be Jewish. I was playing Phantom Forces and I came across a player whose name was xXAdolf_Htlrxx. Now I said to him. “That name is sort of offensive do you think you could leave this lobby?” He told me no and asked if I was Jewish. I told him I thought a lot of people would be offended by that user name. Then Saintsrow3rdfan said “gas all j3ws” and then Adolf said “burn all J3ws!!!!!!!” And slayer32xx345 said “it’s only offensive to certain people.” I said it was offensive to me and they told me to leave. So I took a screen shot of part of it. I like to think Roblox would not allow this kind of hate.
Whether he feels it personally or generally, Leo seems to understand that talk of gas chambers is worse than insulting the pitch of his voice.
For decades I've worried about racism, anti-immigrantion stances, homophobia, and misogyny. I knew there was anti-semitism out there but I thought it was the fuzz on the end of the fringe, not even the fringe itself. Yet here it is coming through the computer right into our living room. My only solace is that my son is fighting back with his fingertips and doing it without fear.
Part of Leo’s bravery comes from the same anonymity that allows Adolf to attack him.
On the heels of the “Unite the Right” rally and its associated violence in Charlottesville, I worry even more about the chat rooms in multi-player games. Kids and those posing as kids have an anonymous space to spew hatred. They also have an arena for recruitment.
An August 13th New York Times article about the events in Charlottesville cites George Hawley, a University of Alabama political science professor who studies white supremacists. Hawley notes that many of the far-right members he had interviewed did not inherit their racism from their parents, but developed it online. Many of them had never heard of, say, David Duke, the former Louisiana politician and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
This is how it builds from one person to the next. This is how 12-year-olds find their voices, and sometimes the voices say horrible bigoted things. The New York Times article ended on this somber note: “
As this disgusting sentiment plays out from chat rooms to Charlottesville, I think the first thing to do is talk to our kids. I ask Oliver and Leo to tell me stories of when people expressed hate online and how they handled it. Their instincts are exactly what I would've suggested:
I want to wipe Skype (and Minecraft and Roblox) from their lives and shelter them from all kinds of ugliness and pain, but I know that turning off their computers is the modern day equivalent of shutting our doors, hiding, and hoping the hate fades away. It's up to each of us to stand up, speak out, and take screenshots.This post was originally posted here, on the author's blog.