An email tip line set up by the Virginia governor to track which schools are teaching students about systemic racism has instead been inundated with memes quoting everything from Bee Movie to the lyrics of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s “WAP.”
On Monday, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced an email tip line that encouraged parents to report if “divisive practices” such as critical race theory were being taught in schools. Critical race theory, an academic term describing the analysis of how racial power structures have been upheld in institutional forms of society such as the legal system, has become a flashpoint for Republicans in the last year.
The newly elected governor banned teaching it in schools in his first executive order after assuming office on Jan. 15 and asked parents to instead contact the government via the tip line if they “feel their fundamental rights are being violated, that their children are not being respected, where there are inherently divisive practices in our schools.”
That infuriated Qasim Rashid, 39, a human rights lawyer and Virginia parent. “It was very telling that a tip line was set up to report teachers who are teaching children about racism, and not a tip line for children who are suffering from racism — especially when neo-Nazis are marching through the streets,” he told BuzzFeed News.
So he tweeted about it, sarcastically. The thread, which he tells BuzzFeed News now has over 3 million impressions, spawned a huge call to action and received overwhelming support from both parents and educators in raising awareness of the issue.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that we need to fight bad ideas with better ideas,” Rashid said. “My call to action was simply that. Let’s show how ridiculous this tip line is. What this governor does not understand is that our education system was built with bipartisan support.”
When student and hacktivist Sofia Ongele, 21, saw Rashid’s tweet about the tip line, she immediately jumped to action, using her coding skills to create auto-generated email formats so people could flood the inbox.
“As a Black person, I know disinformation breeds hate and violence,” Ongele said. Her TikTok is full of information, news, and tools she has made to encourage mobilization online against inequity.
“This tip line is trying to vilify educators for literally doing their job,” Ongele said. “This isn’t critical race theory being taught in schools, it’s American history. What Youngkin is doing is using this term as a bogeyman to sow fear and divide people, particularly among ignorant and fearful members of the hegemonic class. So I don’t want this tip line to exist.”
She got to work messing it up. Ongele coded a site that creates an email to the governor’s email tip line with the name of an actual Virginia school mixed with song lyrics and pop culture memes:
“If I'm not mistaken Narrows High School in Narrows is teaching critical race theory. My kids’ homework said ‘Switch my wig, make him feel like he cheating’.”
“If I'm not mistaken Unity Reed High School in Manassas is teaching racism. My kids said ‘Take your medication, Roman’.”
The link to Ongele’s site has been shared across Twitter, and 27,000 unique users visited the site within the first nine hours of going public. The TikTok she made to promote it has reached over 300,000 views.
Ongele has done coding work to dismantle tools similar to the tip line, including a similar auto-generator for contacting officials in support of the Jan. 6 insurrection last year, and a bot to flood local council meetings after a California school shooting. She’s personally overjoyed to see the project has gone viral since it’s an issue that resonates with other young people.
“If I, at 5 years old, am old enough to experience racism, then someone at 10 years old is old enough to learn about it,” Ongele said. “Most of Gen Z agrees with this sentiment, I think, and that’s why it’s gone viral. Instances like this Virginia tip line are not a stand-alone incident.”
Ongele already has her eyes on another state. “There is a senator in Mississippi who has a phone number tip line to report ‘critical race theory’ in schools too, and I’m posting something that I hope will make that phone number unusable,” she said.
Rashid views the young people fighting this tip line with great admiration. “The kids are alright,” he said with a laugh. “That’s all I can say. I mean it’s phenomenal — when you look at some of the nation’s greatest historical icons, they were in their teens when they first got involved, and that’s what these kids are doing. They’re the next Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Malcolm X. And they’re utilizing the tools of today in a really effective manner to demand accountability and push back against hate.”