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Duke Twitter account’s meme criticized for racial insensitivity

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Duke’s social media team hopped on the “how it started/how it’s going” Twitter meme trend the morning of Oct. 16, intending to make a joke about the University's growth. But the @DukeU tweet was criticized for its racially insensitive content and sparked heated dialogue regarding the University’s history. 

The left-hand side of the now-deleted tweet featured a photograph of Brown’s Schoolhouse, founded in 1838 and the first in a series of institutions that eventually became Duke, captioned, “How it started.” On the right, a modern-day aerial photograph of the Duke Chapel and Abele Quad was labeled,“How it’s going.”

The team deleted the tweet after members of the Duke community and other Twitter users expressed concern for its lack of acknowledgement of racism in Duke’s history. Julian Abele, the Black architect for whom Abele Quad is named, designed numerous Duke buildings—most notably, Cameron Indoor Stadium—and is the mastermind behind Duke’s iconic Gothic style. However, he was denied access to Duke’s campus and its surrounding hotels due to the Jim Crow rules of the time.

“As can happen when serious topics are touched upon with two pictures and a few hundred characters, [the tweet] lacked full context,” wrote Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, in an email to The Chronicle. “As alumni and students responded to and amplified the tweet, sharing their deeply personal and sometimes painful experiences at Duke, our social media team realized it was causing distress, not awareness. The original post was then deleted and the apology posted.”

Comments flooded in after the tweet was posted, with users condemning the post for being tone-deaf and ignorant. Other users found it hypocritical that @DukeU had posted about the university’s anti-racism initiatives the day before.

The post was widely shared. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill had posted a similar tweet on the same day, which contributed to the widespread circulation of Duke’s post and was brought up in replies.

@DukeU posted the tweet on Friday at around 11:45 a.m., but after onslaught of criticism, it was eventually deleted. Almost 21 hours after the original tweet, Duke posted the following statement:

“A message from Duke’s social media team: Yesterday we posted a historical image of Brown’s Schoolhouse beside a current photo of Abele Quad with captions drawing on a meme intending to show Duke’s growth, progress and change since its origins as a one-room schoolhouse.”

The message continued, “It is clear our intended message of growth and progress instead evoked a painful history of oppression and racism. We sincerely apologize for this, and for our failure to recognize the unintended meaning the post would convey. The post has been deleted.”



However, some Twitter users were not satisfied with this response, with one deeming it “hollow.” Others wondered why Duke kept the post up for hours upon hours before deleting it, despite the frenzy of criticism. 

“It took y’all hours and hours and hours so... this falls just as flat as the first tweet,” one user commented on the social media team’s apology post. 

Several users suggested that Duke’s social media staff do a better job listening to their colleagues of color in order to prevent offensive content from being posted.

Some thought that the backlash was undeserved, arguing that Abele’s contributions are rightfully honored at Duke, as demonstrated by the naming of the quad and the celebration of Abele within teachings of Duke’s architectural design. And several users asserted that the tweet was harmless and well-intentioned. 

“Sorry you have to apologize for this... Keep moving forward and always look back with pride!” one person wrote. 

Schoenfeld wrote that the incident has been “an important learning moment” for Duke’s social media team. 

The team “will continue to work with colleagues across the campus to promote Duke’s commitment to eradicating systemic racism and addressing race-related issues in Duke’s history,” he continued. 

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