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White schools superintendent candidate says she was called the n-word as a teen; deletes Twitter account after backlash


While Wisconsinites were still voting in the primary election yesterday, Department of Public Instruction candidate Deborah Kerr drew backlash after Tweeting that she had been called the n-word as a teenager.

Kerr is white.

Yesterday afternoon, while polls were still open, Kerr responded to the question, “When was the first time someone called you the n-word?” 

Kerr wrote, “I was 16 in high school and white – my lips were bigger than most and that was the reference given to me.”

Several Twitter users called out the insensitive nature of that answer, including Milwaukee activist Bria Smith, who replied, “This question wasn’t meant for you.”

Kerr then blocked Smith and several other Black Twitter users who criticized the tweet. Kerr deleted her entire Twitter account this morning. Several users had already screen-captured the tweet, however.

“I cannot believe a political candidate who, you know, is just won the primary yesterday and got the trust of the constituents would do that something so disrespectful and something so tone-deaf,” Smith said in an interview Wednesday. 

Smith said she had read through many responses to the original question — “When was the first time you were called the n-word?” — and was surprised to see Kerr’s response among them

“I’m reading through all this traumatizing stories of people being called a word with heavy weight on it, and then a white person with political power, who was just granted that power by constituents … giving her input on a situation where she’s called the N-word,” Smith said. “You don’t feel that same weight. You don’t feel that same trauma. So you answering is another erasure of people of color. You’re trying to equalize the traumatizing effects that the n-word plays on Black people’s lives.”

“In a time of reckoning about race and sensitivity, a comment such as this one is incredibly damaging to many,” said Nada Elmikashfi, a Madison activist and chief of staff to State Representative Francesca Hong. “A white candidate for state superintendent should understand the nuances of conversation around the n-word and where their voice adds or takes away. This was a moment where it took away and for the sake of the children of Wisconsin, I hope this isn’t a callout but rather a call in to do better.”

“I think it demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of racism in our society and especially in education,” Madison school board member Savion Castro said in an interview. “It was such a disappointment, her lack of understanding of racism in our education system.”

Castro and Smith both said her response — blocking Twitter users who criticized her, then deleting her account — was also problematic.

“Working in public education, you’ve got to be really receptive to criticism and feedback,” he said. “We’re talking about educating people’s children here. You gotta have a thick skin and you gotta be able to be self-aware and evaluate when you receive rightful criticism for your actions or words.”

“That’s another white flight response to avoid your problems when you have a community of people, Black people, who are holding you accountable,” Smith said.

Kerr’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment from Madison365, but the Wisconsin State Journal reports that the campaign issued a statement of apology. 

“Yesterday I posted a tweet in response to a post that dealt with the issue of racism,” Kerr said in the statement. “While not intending the post to be interpreted as racist, the post was itself insensitive and so I shut my account down and removed the comment.”

The statement also said, “I do not shy away from conversations about race,” even though there is no evidence that she engaged in any conversation publicly about the offensive tweet.

Before it was deleted, her Twitter account bio described her as a “Mission-driven Equity Champion of Education for ALL Learners.”

Kerr and Jill Underly each earned 27 percent of the vote in the primary, which featured seven candidates. They will face off in the April 6 primary.

While the race is nonpartisan, Kerr is the favored candidate of prominent Republicans. Former governor Scott Walker said yesterday he had voted for her.

Castro said he had not endorsed a candidate, but “this is definitely influencing who I’m going to vote for.”

Underly did not respond to a message seeking comment.

This story has been updated to include comments from Bria Smith.