Imagine waking up one morning and finding out that your 3-year-old has been the subject of racist slavery jokes on the Internet for two weeks. That’s what happened to Sydney Shelton when a friend alerted her about a picture of her son, Cayden, making the rounds on Facebook.
The incident began on September 16 when a white man using the handle "Geris Hilton"—presumably a riff on the name of the gossip blogger Perez Hilton—posted a selfie with Cayden standing in the background. "Hilton," who Shelton later identified as Gerod Roth, her coworker at Atlanta’s Polaris Marketing Group, posted the photo without comment. At least 10 of his Facebook friends responded with jokes such as, “I didn’t know you were a slave owner,” “Help feed this poor child today,” “But Massuh, I dindu nuttin,” and “Kunta…kunta kinte.” One even posted an image of what appears to be the cover of a Little Black Sambo pop-up book. Late in the thread Roth called the child "feral."
Shelton says that she and Cayden have been in the office with Roth many times since his post. "I pick Cayden up from school every day, and [since our staff] is supposed to meet back at our office for the end of the day, Cayden comes with me,” she explains. “I just want people to understand that Cayden is the absolute opposite of what they said of that picture. …He’s the smartest kid. He’s got such a big personality.”*
Late last week concerned Facebook users began sharing the image in an attempt to find the child’s parents. Compounding the impact of post, a gossip site, Sugar Daily, criticized the post but described Cayden as "reportedly mute."
Ife Johari, a mother of two sons and a community activist for racial justice from Detroit, made contact with Shelton on Friday and created a social media hashtag #HisNameIsCayden. A story on NewsOne.com helped the hashtag and the story go viral.
“I just kept looking at this little brown face and it looked so innocent and so cute. He had no idea what was going on. …I wasn’t so much looking for Geris, I was looking for [his parents]. I thought, ‘The parents cannot know what is happening because if they did they would be on it for sure.’ I wanted to get to her before anybody else did that would maybe not help her and spread more misinformation. I wanted her voice to be heard because at that point all the posts were just about Geris,” Johari explained.”
According to a widely circulated Facebook post by Polaris Marketing Group President Michael Da Graca Pinto, the company has fired Roth for "hateful, ignorant and despicable behavior." "The atrocious lies, slander and and racism that [Cayden] and his mother have been forced to endure are wholly intolerable," Pinto added. (Polaris did not respond to Colorlines by press time. We could not locate Roth, who appears to have taken his Facebook page down.) At least one other commenter on his September 16 thread is alleged to have been fired from her job; the employer, Conch Republic Grill, refused to comment on the matter.
The exploitation of Cayden’s image illuminates the bizarre way that people use social media to transmit racial antagonism publicly despite the professional risks. But more and more victims of online abuse are taking matters into their own hands.
Recently, the blogger Kat Blaque wrote for the Huffington Post about getting an insurance agent fired for posting racist comments to her page and making rape threats against her. “I wanted to make this post as a warning to so many that the things you say online can impact you offline. As a child of the Internet age, what I heard over and over again growing up is that everything I post online lasts forever. I used to chuckle and laugh that off, but I realize as an adult just how true that is,” Blaque wrote.
At age 3 Cayden is not aware of how his mother’s coworker made him the butt of racist jokes on the Internet but Shelton says she hopes that when he gets older he’ll see how people such as Johari supported him. “I don’t want him to be in high school and people to be like, ‘You’re [that] kid…’ No, no you’re the kid who fought back."
Johari has netted thousands of likes and a few comments from "Hilton" supporters who claim that the thread was a joke and a matter of free speech. And according to several posts on Johari’s Facebook page, some of Roth’s friends who posted on the racist thread have apologized.
From Dylan Kleeman who on Roth’s September 16 thread posted "Dude where did you get a black kid?" "Send them back dude. Those fuckers are expensive," and "Like 25 cents a day" on Roth’s September 16 thread:
Tim Zheng who posted on Roth’s thread, "I’ll feed you but first let me take a selfie," and "kunta…kuta kinte," also apologized and referenced his "termination."
Johari has called the apologies insincere on Facebook and says the original thread just highlighted what people who "are very friendly in your face" do when they the believe they’re in "the comfort of their own world."
“I think that it is definitely shining a light on the fact that people will smile and laugh and talk and joke and be very friendly in your face, but when people are in what they think is the comfort of their own world… the truth of who they really are comes out,” she says. “I don’t know if you can combat it because racism is never going to go away. You just have to keep highlighting it. Social media just puts a highlight on what was already there. It’s like having a window seat into people’s thoughts.”
Shelton says she hopes #HisNameIsCayden sends a message to the public. “This is something that you are not going to get away with. And if it’s going to take me going forward with this to get it to stop then I’m all for it and that’s what I’m going to do.”
*Quote added since publication
**"Paris" changed to "Perez" since publication